Conversation with Christiane Zieseke on November 12, 2021, at Café Sibylle
Anna-Lena Wenzel: In the nGbK archive, I saw that the first exhibition you were involved in was about the Italian realists, in 1974. Is that when you joined the nGbK?
Christiane Zieseke: No. The nGbK was founded as a political art society, against the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein—or rather, it was a schism. But within the new society, too, disputes soon broke out between different factions—Stamocap, Maoists, Communist League of West Germany (KBW), and all the rest. I knew about the nGbK, but I didn’t properly understand what was at stake, added to which I was new in Berlin. At the Technical University someone spoke to me after a lecture and recruited me to help with voting problems. That was around 1972 or 1973. So I joined the nGbK. You could become a member and vote immediately. Which was problematic, because majorities would often shift without a discussion of the matter in hand. But we learned many political mechanisms that came in very useful later, like the specific difficulties inherent in different legal forms of organization. The nGbK took some getting used to with its internal debates, some of which dragged on over years. I found that hard to deal with, and I think others increasingly felt the same way.
The great thing, however, was that the nGbK offered a way into the art world that was otherwise not so easy to access. The nGbK opened up a whole new universe to me. Beginning with very simple things: I studied art history, but at no time during the course did I touch a painting, I had no idea how that worked. At the nGbK, I was able to learn this because we prepared the exhibitions ourselves. It was possible to try things out. Thanks to the resulting contacts, it was possible to gain access to the art world and there are several people who later occupied important positions in the sector. In any case, there were lots of interesting project on themes that were just not being addressed at the time, dealing with entirely new fields and information. In many cases, what is now mainstream began at the nGbK. The openness to new content was remarkable. The nGbK was respected in certain circles because it picked up on issues that could not be worked on by the major institutions, either for political reasons or due to lack of knowledge. The exhibitions on the 1920s, for example, were not on the radar of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).
ALW: That reminds me of the exhibition Fighting for Visibility at the Alte Nationalgalerie a few years ago. In 1986 the nGbK hosted an exhibition on the same theme under the title Das Verborgene Museum, conducting extensive research into women artists in the collections.
CZ: Yes, and the theme of colonialism was also addressed early on. That should be more widely known. Many people believe this issue has not been dealt with before, but that’s not true. However, it is true that certain people didn’t deal with it or didn’t it to be dealt with. The same applies to the presence of former Nazis in postwar structures. I recently visited the exhibition on documenta at the German Historical Museum, which “reveals” that Werner Haftmann had been a Nazi. I knew that within six months of arriving in Berlin. But I was warned not to speak about it in public.
I really must say: I owe the nGbK a huge debt of gratitude! Beginning with the fact that it issued a kind of certificate of employment that could be used to persuade landlords one had a regular income. In the 1970s, the housing shortage in West-Berlin was extreme. Rents were capped and cheap, but without proof of income there was no chance. The letter from the nGbK helped me get several apartments.
ALW: You mentioned that you learned things at the nGbK that were useful in the cultural sector. What were these things exactly?
CZ: When you work in the cultural sector, you’re often very close to politics, so you have to understand what to communicate, how to communicate, how people think. The nGbK was a good place to learn such things because the discussions were conducted so directly. The individual groups were interested only in themselves. That’s a structural problem: people join with a specific project and they want to realize it—by all means necessary. And the office team was always working to keep things running, which is also why there were directly elected members on the Coordination Committee. The Steering Committee only came into play at moments of serious existential conflict or dire financial difficulty. The Steering Committee has a protective function. Most members were well-known figures whose main function was to defend the nGbK in political terms.
ALW: Even today, the principle role of the Steering Committee is to represent the nGbK in the political arena.
CZ: Yes, it’s always been like that. There was a need for people who had a slightly higher public profile and who were better able to occasionally push something through.
ALW: When you talk about discussions, do you mean the general assemblies?
CZ: Yes, they could be terrible. These discussions, which sadly were not about the content of the projects, blocked the running of the nGbK as a whole. General assemblies always went on and on forever.
ALW: You became managing director in 1987, meaning you worked on the last exhibition you were involved in, on Renate Herter in 1990, in this function?
CZ: Yes, I continued working on exhibition projects when I was managing director. But I was never mentioned. That would have been impossible. On the GDR projects like Zwischenspiele in 1989, it was the only way. They would never have accepted it! There had to be someone whose signature was legally binding. These were official state contacts. Otherwise, the projects could not have been realized, they didn’t want to speak to some arbitrary member of a project group. But these East German and Eastern European projects were very interesting. At the time, there was a constant dispute between East and West about whether or not West Berlin was part of the Federal Republic, and about how this entity should be referred to. As a result, state institutions had serious problems and were unable to do a great deal. We were a bit more flexible, able to make certain things happen.
ALW: It’s news to me that managing directors have also realized projects.
CZ: It was already the case before my time for projects with Socialist countries like East Germany, Lithuania, or the Soviet Union. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. I mean, one shouldn’t get involved, although it’s sometimes hard. Which is also why I couldn’t have done the job for an extended period. At some point you feel the need to tell project groups what they’re doing wrong. Which is stupid. They have to experience things for themselves and try out their ideas. They don’t need someone to tell them how it works. But if one is totally unable to work on project content, it becomes unbearable.
ALW: You were managing director until 1991? What came next?
CZ: Ulrich Roloff-Momin, who was president of the University of the Arts and a member of the nGbK Steering Committee, was made Berlin’s Senator for Culture. When a planning job came free in his department, he asked me if I wanted to do it. It was interesting because you could make so much happen.
ALW: I can’t really imagine what that means ...
CZ: No one else could either, which is what made the job so interesting.
ALW: Are you still a member of the nGbK?
CZ: Yes, it’s the only one. When I joined the Senate Office for Culture, I withdrew my membership of all other art societies, otherwise conflicts of interest can quickly arise.
ALW: Beatrice E. Stammer spoke about the problems faced by feminist projects. How did you experience the relationship between women and men at the nGbK?
CZ: Oh, there were all kinds of different groups. The feminists, who were one of the groups with political interests, really had problems with the others because people said it was just a secondary social conflict and what were they talking about. But it was possible to assert oneself as a woman. Put it like this: it wasn’t as bad as in other areas of society. For a while, I was in charge of public art at the Professional Association of Visual Artists (bbk) where I often had to deal with the building authorities. That was hardcore. I never experienced anything like that again later. Of course there were also machos in the nGbK who thought they were in charge and that women should do the work. Such expectations did exist. But feminism wasn’t my main focus, I was interested in many different things and I worked a lot on fascism. The project groups were always mixed. And I think it wasn’t the most attractive option for men—if you can become curator at the Nationalgalerie, you’re not going to join a project group at the nGbK. So the proportion of women was quite high.
ALW: The proportion of women in the low-pay cultural sector is still very high!
CZ: I think this has been going wrong for a long time. Promoting diversity should start at the top of cultural institutions, for example by hiring women or members of other marginalized groups for all senior posts. Starting with the opera houses! As an initiative from below, it has no chance. It’s wrong to link calls for diversity solely to funding for artists, because that’s always the sector where the most progress has already been made.
ALW: With its ever-changing project groups, the nGbK is a very dynamic institution. How did you find that?
CZ: The nGbK had both: there were constants, people who worked there over periods of many years—in some cases because they couldn’t get a permanent job elsewhere. And then there were the new arrivals. I actually think this is quite a good mixture. If there are a few people who can be relied on or who one can go to with questions, then that’s good. Other people in the office team would sometimes get annoyed with certain very demanding project groups who always wanted full service, but then two days before the opening they’d be standing around helplessly, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, saying they couldn’t take it any more (laughs). I found all this perfectly human and offered words of encouragement.
ALW: Well, you were far more experienced.
CZ: Yes, which is why I was relatively relaxed. In management you can see early on when a project starts to lose its grip, then you can try to add a safety net or something.
ALW: Earlier on you mentioned heated discussions—were they mostly about content?
CZ: To be honest, these heated discussions were mostly proxy conflicts, in reality it was about money or competition, and not about project content—that was discussed mainly in the Coordination Committee. There was constant criticism of this lack of discussion, but nothing changed, just as the principle of the five-person project group was repeatedly called into question, but never modified. No one had a different idea that was capable of functioning. In the recurring discussions about structures, we ultimately kept everything as the initiators devised it. Looking back, I think it was right to stick with the project group model. It’s a strange model, it functions poorly, but it’s innovative. For so many years it has offered an ever-changing open channel. People can realize projects they have thought up and that could not be realized anywhere else. That’s a great treasure, it should be preserved.
ALW: With its structure based on grassroots democracy, the nGbK stands alone in Berlin. Has it also been perceived that way?
CZ: No, not really. Those at the Senate Office for Culture knew little about the nGbK as it was Lottery funded. Their only contact with it was through writing assessments. This will change when the nGbK starts receiving Senate funds. Previously, no one was interested in the structure of cultural institutions. From outside, the nGbK looked very messy (laughs). Those in charge at the Lottery were mainly interested in the question of whether the nGbK is financially competent and reliable. Once, during celebrations for Berlin’s 750th anniversary, there was a serious deficit, but the nGbK was not the only one. No idea who paid in the end.
It’s important to explain the way the nGbK operates. People often don’t understand it and it isn’t really visible from outside. I always had to explain its structures to the people I came into contact with. Many of them were appalled by so much grassroots democracy (laughs). People often don’t realize how much work it involves. From outside it looks chaotic but people underestimate the level of professionalism. It’s important to be very confident and stand up for this.
At the moment there is a broad-based discussion within cultural institutions about how we might move away from the model of directorship. On this issue, the nGbK has one of the longest periods of experience. It’s good to know where the pitfalls are and where it works well. If the institution were much larger, it wouldn’t be possible.
ALW: Can you say something about the Staatliche Kunsthalle Berlin, with which there were many cooperations and members of staff in common?
CZ: That had to do with Dieter Ruckhaberle. He was one of the founding members of the nGbK and then he became director of the Staatliche Kunsthalle. Because the Kunsthalle was quite large, he had quite a lot of space, but the budget was small, he wasn’t able to put on major exhibitions several times a year, but the nGbK and the nbk each had the right to organize one exhibition there per year. When setting up the Kunsthalle this had been established to prevent a dominance of the Kunsthalle over other art institutions. The advantage of the state institution was that it could secure valuable works on loan that would not have been granted to art societies lacking suitable exhibition spaces. These factors led to frequent cooperations. I did an internship there myself, it much have been 1978/79.
ALW: Where was the Kunsthalle located?
CZ: In the Bikinihaus, close to Bahnhof Zoo.
ALW: Why was it closed?
CZ: Because after the fall of the Wall, cultural institutions in Berlin had to be closed. At the time, the situation was more than bleak, mainly because 50 percent of West Berlin’s budget was supplied by the West German state. After the Wall fell, the federal authorities said: Berlin is now a normal city again. So funding shortfalls were inevitable. It was devastating, because at the same time there were these huge cultural institutions in East Berlin, some of them in very bad repair architecturally. Overnight, the senate decided to close cultural institutions. At the time, I was on the staff of the Senate Office for Culture and we had a discussion about it not being permissible to close institutions in East Berlin. If any were to be closed, they would have to be West Berlin institutions that were not really working. The options were the Schiller Theater and the Kunsthalle, because we didn’t want the cuts to affect only the theatre. There were big discussions.
ALW: All of this was under Roloff-Momin as senator?
CZ: Yes, he had to take responsibility. It tore him apart, it was a terrible situation.
ALW: Why the reluctance to close East German institutions?
CZ: Because the achievements of the citizens of the former East Germany had been ignored and dismissed in all areas of society. Many institutions were closed without serious checks. We experienced this firsthand, because we had long-standing contacts in East Germany, and we said: We’re not going to go along with this!
ALW: That’s interesting because the nGbK exhibition … oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende focusses on precisely this phenomenon.
CZ: With very few exceptions, those in senior positions and university professors were removed. What happened was a disaster and I think it’s also the reason why these tensions still exist today and why few people from the East occupy senior positions.
ALW: For the exhibition Zwischenspiele, was it very unusual that you were able to cross the border and gain an inside view?
CZ: In terms of the depth of contact, yes. It was relatively easy to establish links to the East German Association of Fine Artists (VBK), but one didn’t come into contact with anything beyond the official cultural sector. That only changed when an invitation through the Protestant Church brought us together with Christoph Tannert. This was very interesting for us—and also for the East German artists. That’s also how I met Thomas Flierl. As liaison officer for West Berlin, he looked after us and helped us a great deal. I remember when we were trying to bring over a photo exhibition from East Berlin, Schicksal einer Sammlung, about works of contemporary art lost in the Nazi period. Politically, things were at a standstill for months. I knew that the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation [West] and the State Museums [East] had no contact and were not allowed to communicate. But in my view there was no reason why the nGbK, as a non-state organization, should not talk to the East German museums. So Thomas Flierl went with me to the Director General of the State Museums and said that he expected this to work out now, and it did. He was absolutely fearless, unlike many others. We invited the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to the exhibition opening—and they actually came, which they would usually never have done! And we introduced the two sides to each other. It was good, and at the same time it was ridiculous, but politics is like that sometimes.
ALW: Beatrice E. Stammer has mentioned the poor fees paid for realizing exhibitions. What was your view on that?
CZ: When I started at the nGbK, I earned nothing at first, then a little more, but never enough to live off. At the time that wasn’t so bad because West Berlin was relatively cheap. I received the usual salary for the managing director of a small institution. But for those who, like Beatrice E. Stammer, were mainly freelancing, it was difficult. The level of pay was a ongoing issue.
ALW: Are you still active in the cultural field?
CZ: In terms of politics, I now do practically nothing. The trappings get on my nerves too much. In other contexts, like Alte Münze or Haus der Statistik, I’m still involved.
I have a question, too: does debate still take place at the nGbK? I find it worrying that there is so little discussion about social issues, but so many banned topics. Taboos instead of debate—I find that shocking. Please raise this subject at the nGbK, it would the right place!
 Werner Haftmann worked on the documenta in 1955, 1959 and 1964. From 1967 through 1974, he was the first director of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, which is part of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).