Kunstverein Bielefeld: Contemporary Art in Bielefeld since 1929

Founded in 1929 by the citizen’s initiative Friends of the Bielefeld Kunsthaus, the Kunstverein Bielefeld has played an essential role in the city’s cultural life for over ninety years. Since 1984 it has had its own building, a sixteenth century aristocratic residence, one of the oldest structures in the city. The Kunstverein Bielefeld is among the largest and most important art associations in Germany, with a membership of just under one thousand. It aims to be an autonomous public forum, inviting all to encounter contemporary art. Through its exhibitions, events and outreach programs, the Kunstverein probes the meaning of artistic works and important contemporary issues.

The German Kunstverein – a history

German civic art associations – Kunstvereine – were established in the early part of the nineteenth century, first founded by the aspirational bourgeoisie between 1815 and 1840. During the pre-1848 period, inspired by Enlightenment thought, these civic institutions emerged as a response to the aristocracy’s cultural monopoly. In many cities, before there were museums, public galleries, commercial galleries or other art spaces, Kunstvereine offered artists their first public platform to exhibit contemporary art. From the very beginning, these institutions supported the art of the present day, making exhibitions accessible to a wider public. The history of the German Kunstvereine thus goes back more than two hundred years. Today, they comprise a network of over three hundred institutions and have made a decisive contribution to the democratization of art, creating an internationally unique model to support new contemporary art. These days the Kunstvereine continue to regard themselves as civic institutions with a public cultural function. As non-profit organizations, they can define their own profile, free of many of the pressures felt by museums and commercial art institutions.

Early artistic life in Bielefeld

Perhaps surprisingly, given Bielefeld’s current size and significance, art-related civic activity was comparatively late to develop in the city. Its roots lie in the city’s first art exhibition, which prompted the foundation of a Kunstverein. In 1881, art-minded Bielefeld citizens founded the first Kunstverein for Bielefeld and Region [Kunstverein für Bielefeld und Umgegend] with the aim of bringing a travelling exhibition from the Westphalian Kunstverein to the Ressource club, a social hub for an exclusive circle of Bielefeld linen businessmen. Thereafter, annual exhibitions – later held every two years – featured artists from Düsseldorf and Munich art academies. Parallel to the Kunstverein’s activities, Otto Fischer, a book dealer from Kassel, opened an art salon in the city in 1902. For decades, Fischer’s salon had a decisive influence on art activity in Bielefeld, on the Kunstverein’s exhibition program, and indeed on the city’s private and public art collections.(1) Also in 1902, Fischer joined the board of the Kunstverein für Bielefeld und Umgegend. At first, he exhibited works in Bielefeld hotels, showing works by artists including Max Klinger, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Liebermann, Otto Modersohn and Edvard Munch. Motivated by an advanced conception of art, but also for commercial reasons, Fischer’s exhibitions represented serious competition for the more conservative program put forward by his own art association. As well as his exhibitions, between 1908 and 1911 Fischer published the Bielefelder Kunstblatt newsletter with the art historian Dr. Franz Bock. He also organized lectures and began cooperative ventures with Kunstvereine in Herford and Münster. After 1906, Fischer’s popular book and art dealership in Obernstrasse 47 had such influence that the Kunstverein gradually lost importance and was dissolved in 1909.

The First World War followed soon after the dissolution of the first Kunstverein Bielefeld. After the war, another supporter of Fischer, the teacher Dr. Heinrich Becker, became increasingly important to Bielefeld’s artistic life. Between 1920 and 1922, he was also active in the short-lived Ravensberger Kunstgemeinde. In 1921, the city of Bielefeld asked him to organize exhibitions at the City Museum in Koblenzer Strasse.(2) In 1927, the Städtische Kunsthaus (City Art Museum) was opened in Hindenburgstrasse, led by Dr. Becker on an honorary basis.

Ninety years of the Kunstverein Bielefeld

From the start, the “monies allocated”(3) for exhibitions at the Kunsthaus were insufficient. Thus, at the request of the city finance committee, a new Kunstverein was founded, supported by a citizens’ initiative, the Friends of the Bielefeld Kunsthaus. The first board of management included Gerhard von Möller (chair), Dr. Dr. Theodor Buddeberg (deputy chair), Dr. Heinrich Becker (secretary), Otto Lorentz, and Walther Delius (treasurer). The immediate reason for the Kunstverein’s foundation was mentioned at its first meeting, on March 19, 1929: the recent support given to an exhibition of the work of the 61-year-old Emil Nolde at the Städtisches Kunsthaus, as well as the associated lecture given by Professor Max Sauerlandt on March 8, 1929. A Hamburg-based art historian, Sauerlandt was also the director of that city’s Arts and Crafts Museum. The minutes of the founding meeting note: “The venture was such an outstanding success that a well-attended informal meeting at the Ressource club decided to formally found the Friends of the Bielefeld Kunsthaus...”.(4) As an association of art benefactors, the Kunstverein had four initial aims:

a) holding lectures on art and artistic events
b) arranging viewings of exhibitions and art institutions
c) acquiring artworks so as to establish the Kunstverein’s own collection, with a view to loaning items to the Städtisches Kunsthaus
d) purchasing other artworks, suitable for raffle or other distribution among the membership

With these goals in mind, the Exhibition of Bielefeld Private Holdings (1930, Städtisches Kunsthaus) sought to show how “the efforts of Bielefeld art enthusiasts have contributed to art production in the last thirty years”.(5) More exhibitions followed, with works acquired by Dr. Becker for both the Städtisches Kunsthaus and the new Kunstverein. With the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Becker’s “championing of modern art”(6) led to his dismissal as head of the Kunsthaus. In November 1933, the Friends of the Bielefeld Kunstverein was forced to reconstitute itself as an institution supportive of “German art.” New organizational aims led to substantial changes in the composition of the board of management. In 1935, the Kunstverein almost entirely withdrew from involvement with Kunsthaus exhibitions, shifting its focus to art excursions and art-historical lectures.(7) All activities required the approval of the new director, the Berlin sculptor Professor Georg Hengstenberg. But not all Kunstverein activities came to a complete halt.(8) Soon after the Second World War, the Kunstverein, under the leadership of Karl Hasenclever (1946–1952), resumed involvement with exhibitions. Heinrich Becker returned to lead the Städtisches Kunsthaus in 1944 , and served as Kunstverein secretary until 1971. At his suggestion, works from the Westphalian Secession were exhibited in the Rudolf Oetker Halle, in a show organized by the Kunstverein, beginning on June 9, 1946. Art of the Twentieth Century from the Holdings of the Kunstverein and its Members (1954, Städtisches Kunsthaus) celebrated the Kunstverein’s twenty-fifth anniversary, while also tracing the development and history of the Bielefeld Kunsthaus. The show presented an “overview of the sympathy with which these artistic presentations were received in Bielefeld”.(9) However, the appointment of Dr. Gustav Vriesens as full-time museum director in 1954 saw the loss of the Kunstverein’s direct influence on the Kunsthaus exhibition program. Under the leadership of Walther Delius (1952–1960), the Kunstverein’s focus returned to art-related travel – organized by Hans and Gertrud Hainer with great success – and art-historical lectures, planned by Dr. Hanna Böllhoff since 1948. In the 1990s, Bernd and Christa Kurzberg continued this dedicated work on a voluntary basis, later succeeded by Dr. Frank Duwe.

Under the leadership of Karl Otto Lorentz, chair from 1961 to 1981, the Kunstverein increasingly focused on the contemporary art world, adding to its traditional strength in classical modernism. For the first time, the organization also took an interest in public sculpture. Around this time, the Kunstverein was supportive of discussions and plans to build a new art museum in Bielefeld. In his 1985 memoirs, Joachim Wolfgang von Moltke, the Kunsthalle Bielefeld’s first director, looked back on the founding of the institution: “I was lucky enough to discover in Bielefeld an unusually favorable psychological situation. For one thing, there were a considerable number of people interested in art, working along similar lines at the Bielefeld Kunstverein and other organizations. We were given considerable help by Karl Otto Lorentz, then chair of the Kunstverein, and Dr. Hanna Böllhoff-Becker, who I had known as a student”.(10) Annual limited editions were offered for the first time as part of an advertising campaign for the Bielefeld Kunsthalle. For the opening of the new museum in 1968, the Kunstverein donated Conrad Felixmüller’s painting Children’s Asylum (1924). After its refoundation, the Kunstverein enjoyed an astonishing boom, with membership climbing from 450 to 1300. As a result, beginning in 1969, Kunstverein activities were coordinated by a new administrative department, based at the Kunsthalle. In 1979, a major exhibition at the museum marked the Kunstverein’s fiftieth anniversary: From Private Bielefeld Collections: Paintings and Drawings, 1900–1945 (1979, Kunsthalle Bielefeld). The exhibition sought to build bridges to the early days of the Kunstverein, through a “selection of paintings and drawings, focusing on art created around the time of the Kunstverein’s founding, and the artists preferred by its collectors [...], with emotions ranging from enthusiasm to infatuation”.(11) The Kunstverein lacked premises until the early 1980s, making it impossible to regularly organize its own exhibitions. The Kunstverein continued to offer art-related travel, lectures and events co-organized with other associations. Now, however, it also offered new annual limited editions, as well as establishing the Artothek in the city’s main library (still in existence and still supported by the Kunstverein), supplying color reproductions to school art classes, and developing an art library. The Kunstverein also acquired artworks, which were later donated to the Kunsthalle or granted on permanent loan.(12)

Contemporary art in a historic building

After the closure of Bielefeld’s Cultural History Museum in 1982, the Kunstverein was given trusteeship of the Waldhof, the Renaissance building which previously hosted the Museum. In 1983, the Kunstverein had staged an exhibition with Otto Pankok at the Waldhof; it moved into the building itself on January 1, 1984.(13) Dr. Florian Böllhoff (1981–1997) succeeded Karl Otto Lorentz after the latter retired on grounds of age: now, under Dr. Böllhoff, the Kunstverein could for the first time act autonomously, with its own building, independent of other city institutions. In 1984, the Düsseldorf artist Günther Uecker, a founding member of the ZERO group, was the subject of the first exhibition in the new space.(14) In 1991, the Kunstverein, now increasingly professional, concluded a cooperation agreement with the city government.(15) Dr. Andreas Beaugrand became honorary managing director in 1987, taking on the role full time in 1991. The Kunstverein’s artistic program was decided by an exhibition committee, with members from both the managing and supervisory boards. The fifteen years leading up to the millennium saw solo exhibitions by artists including Constant, Emil Schumacher, HAP Grieshaber, Jean Cocteau, Christa Näher, Max Uhlig, Gerhard Koberling and Asger Jorn, shows which were influential on a regional level and beyond. As well as its support of regional artists, the Kunstverein’s thematic concerns included engagement with Art Brut, exchanges between West and East Germany,(16) Bielefeld industrial architecture, the Bielefeld School in photography,(17) and historicism and Jugendstil. The period also saw cooperative ventures with the Bielefeld colloquium Neue Poesie.(18) During this time, the Kunstverein co-founded the Friends of the Bielefeld Kunsthalle in 1982. Under the leadership of Hansjörg Pfitzner (1997–2004) and architect Andreas Wannenmacher, and supported by numerous private sponsors, the Waldhof building was finally renovated and reconfigured in 1997.

The Kunstverein Bielefeld in the twenty-first century

In addition to its engagement with contemporary art, in the year 2000 the Kunstverein also began to support contemporary architecture. At the time, it was the first cultural institution in the North-Rhine Westphalia region to do so; it remains one of Germany’s few exhibiting institutions with this focus. Andreas Wannenmacher devised the Baukunst [Architecture] series,(19) realized in cooperation with the Association of German Architects (BDA). Exhibitions in the series have featured work by the architects Claudio Silvestrin, RCR Aranda Pigem Vilalta Arquitectes, Ofis Arhitekti/bevk perovic arhitekti, ZAO/standardarchitecture and, currently, Peter Haimerl. These architectural exhibitions have also served to highlight contemporary socially-relevant architectural themes.(20)

In 2002, after more than fifteen years, Dr. Andreas Beaugrand stepped down from his responsibilities at the Kunstverein. In 2004, Andreas Wannenmacher, already on the board of management, assumed chairmanship of the Kunstverein, simultaneous with the election of new management and advisory boards. A year previously, in 2003, the art historian Dr. Stefanie Heraeus had been recruited to take over as artistic director, a position which for the first time had autonomous control over exhibitions. Dr. Heraeus expanded the Kunstverein’s program to include contemporary international painting, sculpture, photography and drawing. At the beginning of her tenure, the exhibition “David, Matthes and I” (2005) enjoyed considerable attention: it showed the work of David Schnell, Matthias Weischer and Tilo Baumgärtel, all young painters of the New Leipzig School. Later, there were overviews of the art scene in Poland(21) and New York(22), contemporary drawing(23) and analog photography,(24) as well as pioneering exhibitions by the likes of Sunah Choi, Jörg Herold, Michael Kalmbach, Brandon Lattu and Elisabeth Masé. The traditions of contemporary art were presented to the public in exhibitions including Stella Lohaus and Anny De Decker, highlighting the work of two female collectors,(25) The Marzona Collection, and the group show New Constructivism.

When Dr. Heraeus left Bielefeld in 2008, her successor was chosen by a public recruitment process, resulting in the appointment of Thomas Thiel as artistic and managing director. Over the last ten years, Thiel’s programming has sought to present contemporary art, its history and social significance, and its thematic and medial range. A new focus for Kunstverein has been support for regional and international contemporary art, in the form of exhibitions, events, and many cooperative ventures with other Bielefeld cultural institutions. Exhibitions including The Bielefeld Feeling (2009), Carl Strüwe in the Context of Contemporary Photography (2012), Bielefeld Contemporary (2014) and Reinhart Koselleck and the Image (2018) examined the city from an artistic and cultural-historical perspective. Multidisciplinary thematic exhibitions like Schaubilder (2012), Museum Off Museum (2013), On Site: Art Project Sennestadt (2014), Eugen Gomringer & (2015), Transparencies: On the Ambivalence of a New Visibility (2015/2016), Asylum (2016) and FaceTunes (2017) addressed socially relevant questions, but also the conditions of exhibition practice in a globalized and highly mediatized epoch. In another new turn, exhibitions now increasingly offered perspectives on neighboring disciplines like literature, music, fashion and design.(26) For the first time, the series Subjective Projections (2009–2013) saw the Kunstverein use the Internet as an exhibition space for contemporary art. The Kunstverein hosted first institutional exhibitions in Germany for many renowned artists, including Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Cécile B. Evans, Latifa Echakch, Christian Falsnaes, Luke Fowler, Shilpa Gupta, Iman Issa, Gabriel Kuri, Maria Loboda, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Cally Spooner, Jessica Warboys and Katarina Zdjelar. Going beyond the traditional program of lectures, art-related travel and children’s workshops, new formats for artistic education and outreach were developed with the support of Cynthia Krell, and realized by volunteers and partner schools. In recognition of this program, Kunstverein won the 2009 JUMP Prize, an annual sponsorship award from the Art Foundation of the government of North-Rhine Westphalia. The Bielefeld Kunstverein has also been nominated several times for the ADKV-ART COLOGNE Kunstvereine Prize, winning the award in 2014.

In April 2019, Nadine Droste was appointed the Kunstverein’s new director, convincing the selection committee with her institutional vision, which focused on art’s critical power, took positions toward contemporary discourses, and imagined the Kunstverein as a site of aesthetic experiment. Droste’s program of events invites visitors to encounter new perspectives from young and international artists, to discuss contemporary images of society and to experience exciting trends in contemporary artistic production, including cooperation at a regional and international level.

The history of the Kunstverein Bielefeld is a success story, a civic initiative created by and for citizens. As ever, the Kunstverein fundamentally relies on support from its members. The decline in membership numbers has been halted – going against the general trend for Kunstvereine – and the average age of the audience has decreased. For decades, dedicated voluntary work by many people on the management team and the advisory board, not all of whom can be listed here, has contributed to the successful development of the organization. As well as regular membership dues and donations, over the years the Kunstverein has benefited from financial support from the city of Bielefeld and the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, from public and private foundations, as well as from many Bielefeld companies. Beginning in 2005, some firms signed up to be Corporate Partners, offering support for a period of several years.(27) At the same time, the new Round Table series(28) allowed the creation of an inner circle of particularly generous Kunstverein donors. The organization has also developed a strong tradition of cooperation with regional cultural partners, including Artists Unlimited, Bunker Ulmenwall, Fachhochschule Bielefeld, Filmhaus Bielefeld, Literarische Gesellschaft Ostwestfalen-Lippe, Marta Herford, Theaterwerkstatt Bethel, Theater Bielefeld, Künstlerinnenforum Bielefeld-OWL, Künstlerhaus Lydda, Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Bielefeld University and the ZiF – Center for Interdisciplinary Research. The Kunstverein’s Artothek was relaunched in 2012, and now is firmly integrated into the new city library. Since the 1980s, the Kunstverein has co-organized the series Jazz in the Sculpture Garden with the Bielefeld Office of Culture, with concerts held in the courtyard of the Kunstverein.

Dr. Wulf Herzogenrath, former director of Bremen Kunsthalle and a native Bielefelder, once summarized the aims of the nineteenth century Kunstverein: civic self-representation, cultural mediation between citizens and artists, and publishing information about the art of the present day.(29) The promotion of culture and cultural education remains the central plank of civic engagement. However, further tasks have emerged since the early days. The Bielefeld Kunstverein “since its foundation, has had the task of caring for and promoting the visual arts, while stimulating a sensibility for art among our fellow citizens...”(30). As a driver of cultural development, the Kunstverein, not least through cooperation with other local initiatives, makes an essential contribution to the cultural life of city and region. The Kunstverein, for example, played a key role in saving the Ravensberg Spinning Mill in the 1970s. The organization has enjoyed double success, winning recognition on a national and international level,(31) while anchored ever more firmly in its local world. The twenty-first century Bielefeld Kunstverein is a public forum for artistic production and innovation, making new artworks and aesthetic modes of communication available for public discussion. Its program aims to connect “the art of today” to “the world of today,” in a way accessible to a broad public. As a 1968 Kunstverein poster once put it. to maintain Bielefeld as a progressive location for contemporary art, we encourage you to “Get Involved Too!”

Thomas Thiel, published in Bielefelder Kunstverein (ed.), 90 Jahre Bielefelder Kunstverein 1929–2019, Bielefeld 2019.

(1) Later, this influence was documented in a number of Kunstverein exhibitions: Ausstellung aus Bielefelder Privatbesitz (1930, Städtisches Kunsthaus), Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts aus dem Besitz des Kunstvereins und seiner Mitglieder (1954, Städtisches Kunsthaus), Aus Bielefelder Privatbesitz: Malerei und Graphik 1900–1945 (1979, Kunsthalle Bielefeld).
(2) At the museum, he organized exhibitions featuring among others, Lovis Corinth, Lyonel Feininger, Käthe Kollwitz and the Bielefeld artist Peter August Böckstiegel.
(3) Karl Otto Lorentz, 50 Jahre Bielefelder Kunstverein, in exh. cat. Bielefelder Kunstverein (ed.), Aus Bielefelder Privatbesitz: Malerei und Graphik 1900–1945 (Bielefeld, 1979), 4.
(4) See minutes of the founding meeting, March 19, 1929.
(5) Heinrich Becker, Ausstellung aus Bielefelder Privatbesitz – vom 21. September bis 19. Oktober 1930 im Städtischen Kunsthause Hindenburgstraße, exh cat. (Bielefeld, 1930), 12.
(6) Erich Franz, “Zum Wirken Dr. Heinrich Beckers in Bielefeld,” in exh. cat. Bielefelder Kunstverein, Kunsthalle Bielefeld (eds.), Dr. Heinrich Becker zum 100. Geburtstag (Bielefeld, 1981), 7.
(7) The role of the Bielefeld Kunstverein between 1933 and 1945 has been extensively researched and described. See Andreas Beaugrand and Christian Stiesch, “Die Kunst ist lange bildend, ehe sie schön ist,” in Andreas Beaugrand (ed.), Stadtbuch Bielefeld: Tradition und Fortschritt in der ostwestfälischen Metropole (Bielefeld, 1996), 195–196.
(8) See Karl Otto Lorentz, “50 Jahre Bielefelder Kunstverein” in Bielefelder Kunstverein (ed.), Aus Bielefelder Privatbesitz: Malerei und Graphik 1900–1945, exh cat. (Bielefeld, 1979), 5.
(9)Heinrich Becker, Bielefelder Kunstverein (ed.), Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts: Städtisches Kunsthaus Bielefeld, 21 March – 25 April 1954, exh. cat. (Bielefeld 1954), 5.
(10) Joachim Wolfgang von Moltke, “Die Entstehung der Kunsthalle Bielefeld,” in Florian Böllhoff, Die Entstehung der Kunsthalle Bielefeld: Persönliche Erinnerungen von Joachim Wolfgang von Moltke (Bielefeld, 1993).
(11) Lorentz, “50 Jahre Bielefelder Kunstverein,” 3.
(12) Lorentz, “50 Jahre Bielefelder Kunstverein,” 4.
(13) Even today, many Bielefelders refer to the Kunstverein and its location as the “Museum Waldhof.”
(14) Supported by managing director Renate Kohlrausch, with guidance from Gisela Burkamp (head of the Kunstverein Oerlinghausen), Hans Hainer and Hermann Diestelhorst. Further solo and synoptic exhibitions would follow.
(15) As well as members of the management committee, other members of the exhibition committee included Gisela Burkamp, art publisher Karl Kerber, Hilde Klimpke and Dr. Ulrich Weisner, head of the Kunsthalle.
(16) With exhibitions by A.R. Penck, Max Uhlig and Walter Libuda.
(17) With exhibitions by Gottfried Jäger, Karl Martin Holzhäuser and Jörg Boström.
(18) With exhibitions including Carlfriedrich Claus, Josef Bauer, Ilse Garnier and Heinz Gappmayer.
(19) Along with Thomas Thiel from 2009 on.
(20) Ungewohnt Gewohnt – Außergewöhnliche Beispiele privater Wohnhäuser (2003), Orte der Transzendenz (2004), Weinbaukunst (2006), Dem Alltag entfliehen – Außergewöhnliche Beispiele zeitgenössischer Hotelbauarchitektur (2007), Lernräume (2008), Micro House (2009), Neue Bescheidenheit: Architektur in Zeiten der Verknappung (2013), Künstler als Auftraggeber von zeitgenössischer Architektur (2015).
(21) Skulptur, Installation und Malerei aus Polen, 2007, with Michal Budny, Slawomir Elsner and Jakub Julian Ziólkowski.
(22) Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo!, 2005.
(23) Gegen den Strich: Experimentierfeld Zeichnung, 2008.
(24) Out of the Camera: Analoge Fotografie im digitalen Zeitalter, 2006
(25) Die Geschichte wiederholt sich nicht! Anny de Decker und Stella Lohaus: Zwei Galeristinnen – zwei Generationen
(26) We might here mention Mehr als ein T-Shirt (2009), Beyond Gestaltung (2011), Eugen Gomringer & (2015) and WYHIWYG (2017).
(27) In the last decade, the management and advisory boards have put the Bielefeld Kunstverein on a firmer financial footing. Since 2005, these Bielefeld companies have signed on as Corporate Partners: BVA Bielefelder Verlag, Dr. Wolff Arzneimittel, JAB Josef Anstoetz KG, Loewe Logistics & Care, Mercedes-Benz Ostwestfalen Lippe, Schüco International KG, Sparkasse Bielefeld and Union Knopf.
(28) An initiative of the former director Dr. Stefanie Heraeus, which has been significantly developed further by Laura von Schubert over the past 10 years.
(29) See Stephan Berg, “Where do we go from here? Kunstvereine im Spannungsfeld zwischen Damals und Heute,” in 201 Positionen zur Kunst: Kunstvereine in Deutschland (ADKV, 2001), 2–12.
(30) See Articles of the Bielefeld Kunstverein, November 7, 2000.
(31) As well as the 2009 JUMP Prize and the nominations and honorable mention at the ADKV-ART COLOGNE Prize, Kunst to go, a Bielefeld Kunstverein project for children and young people, was also honored in 2012 as a Cultural Star of the Year.

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Poster of the I. art exhibition in Bielefeld, 1881. City archive Bielefeld, stock 400,1 / Westermann collection, vol. 21: Vereine.