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At the southern edge of the English Garden in Munich, not far from the decade-old Pinakothek der Moderne museum and the colourful Museum Brandhorst, a colossal neoclassical edifice stands like a blocky grey temple. An imposing colonnade of pillars frames a high portico that, if you look up, reveals swastikas high in the ceiling mosaics. Haus der Kunst (then called Haus der Deutschen Kunst) opened in 1937 as Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine for German art. But it has steadily evolved in the decades since – despite or perhaps because of its monumental appearance and chequered past – into one of the country’s most daring contemporary art venues. No other German museum carries the weight of the country’s darker side yet looks so boldly into an interconnected global future.

“Haus der Kunst is a building that has outlasted the years of its infamy,” says Okwui Enwezor, who has been museum director since October 2011. “This makes it very special – that contemporary art has transformed it and will continue to raise critical questions.” The 49-year-old Nigerian-born curator and scholar (Enwezor’s long CV is peppered with influential exhibitions such as Documenta XI and the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, and posts at renowned institutions such as the San Francisco Art Institute) is carrying on what has become a twofold task: mounting world-class button-pushing exhibitions of some of today’s most provocative artists and, increasingly, providing new access to and reflection on the building’s history.

Last year, the exhibition Histories in Conflict offered a look at the many narratives intertwined in this space. The show marked the 75th year of Haus der Kunst’s existence and the 20th year of its status as a public-private foundation – and was the first to look at the Haus’s early years head on. “There’s an inherent contradiction in how this building presents itself to the public,” says Enwezor. “The way the edifice was constructed for a 1,000-year Reich makes it a kind of postmodern dinosaur. But think about it: it’s only fascist in its representation, not in terms of the quality of the spaces.”

Walking through the soaring central atrium (the Middle Hall), viewing installations in the spacious ground-floor exhibition hall or watching video art in the small rooms housed in the basement air-raid shelter, it’s clear that these spaces are near ideal for viewing art. The choreography of the picture galleries is impeccable: endless sight lines underscore the museum’s vast scale (something that curator Ulrich Wilmes says contemporary artists love to work with). But a heavy legacy is also palpable, and has been since the end of the Second World War. Haus der Kunst, after all, was Hitler’s first monumental construction, built for the Great German Art Exhibitions: annual showcases of approved Germanic art depicting images of industry, farming, military scenes and figurative female nudes, considered by the Nazis to be the apex of Germanness and artistic accomplishment (modernist “degenerate art” by the likes of Kandinsky was denounced, exhibited nearby and then confiscated or sold).

On view for months at a time, the Great German Art Exhibitions were required viewing for Germans – the Art Basels of their day but loaded with an agenda. “Eight hundred and fifty thousand people visited in 1942 and you could buy everything,” says Wilmes. “Normal visitors could buy things from 5 to 60,000 Reichsmark. The Haus was part of the function of art in Nazi ideology.”

Current exhibitions here, on the other hand, have become must-sees on the greater art-institution circuit, showing stars from around the globe (whose work often has political undertones) such as Ai Weiwei, Paul McCarthy and South African enfant terrible Kendell Geers. Yet while the history of most German museums is essentially based on the history of their permanent collections, the perennial issue for Haus der Kunst, a non-collecting museum, is how best to present its own home.

The path from propaganda premises to public favourite was long but began almost immediately after the Second World War came to a close. Camouflaged with foliage to avert aerial attacks, the building was spared the ravages of war. By May 1945 the United States army had already claimed parts of the building as a mess hall and officers’ club. The west wing became an exhibition hall for art from the damaged Pinakothek. The building was renamed Haus der Kunst and the east wing mounted exhibitions specifically intended to “bring the moderns back to Germany”, according to Haus archivist Sabine Brantl. Those moderns included big names such as Henry Moore, Georges Braque, Der Blaue Reiter group, a Picasso retrospective in 1955, a “degenerate art” exhibition in 1962, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and a long list of other superstars, establishing Haus der Kunst as an avant-garde institution at the same time as Germany was busy rebuilding its cities, powering its postwar economic miracle and rehabilitating its reputation.

Things went well for a long while but, by the late 1980s, the building was in desperate need of renovation and talks of demolition resurfaced (again, a mirror of the country: this was about the same time as dissent in East Germany was reaching fever pitch, with the Berlin Wall breached in November 1989). The Haus stood firm. In 1992, with the support of art collector Josef Schörghuber and the state of Bavaria, Haus der Kunst became a public-private foundation, heralding an increasingly daring new era with, as Enwezor observes, “non-German directors”. Christoph Vitali from Switzerland showed modern classics from 1994 to 2003. But it was Belgian curator Chris Dercon (now at London’s Tate Modern), who truly brought the focus on to-the-minute contemporary art and took the first steps to addressing the Haus legacy.

“Dercon started a phase we call the ‘critical reconstruction’,” says Wilmes. Working in consultation with architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Jacques de Meuron, Dercon shifted architectural elements, such as removing the white cladding that had originally been added to “de-Nazify” the Haus’s original walls and floors. In 2005, the archive was opened to the public with tours and, later, an online database featuring all the works sold here during the Nazi era. At the same time the art got increasingly edgy: in 2009, Ai Weiwei’s “Remembering” covered the front of the building with 9,000 colourful children’s backpacks in remembrance of the earthquakes in Sichuan.

Enwezor is intensifying Dercon’s work, in his own way. Recent (and very visible) revamps are a new corporate identity by Basedesign, including new outdoor signage, communications materials and a beefed-up website. Enwezor has also revealed more long-concealed elements of the architecture. “I walked around the building and found a staircase which had been behind a wall since the late 1950s,” he says; it’s now open and leads to upstairs galleries. The bookstore was relocated. Draperies once narrowed the Middle Hall’s vastness, but Enwezor removed them and rededicated the space to the public with an annual commission called “Der Öffentlichkeit” (“To the public”), which assigns one artist each year to decorate the space. A suspended collage of Venetian blinds by Korean artist Haegue Yang is currently on view, making some locals feel so welcome they come in with their lunch, says Enwezor (he asks them to use the lively Golden Bar).

There’s more. This November, Haus der Kunst launches a permanent, publicly accessible gallery display of important archival materials. “I’m interested in how we can use the past as a curatorial and historical tool,” says Enwezor. “We have over 16,000 historical documents in our archive and every two years we’ll invite an artist to do a project with it.” In the form of its unique archive, Haus der Kunst has a collection after all.

It’s a lovely irony that a globally minded African-born curator is directing a museum born of racially founded fascism. But it makes sense: the new German generation is willing to look at its past with more curiosity and less shame. These days, people are no longer shy about researching whether their relatives bought art here in the Third Reich, for example, and, in finding out more, they better understand the museum’s current curatorial programming. “When I do workshops, I see that young people are curious about our history,” says Brantl. “Some even take an archive tour. And then they say, ‘Now I know why this house is so modern’.”

Additional long-overdue renovations are planned. Last year the state of Bavaria approved €58m to renovate the west wing, long used by not only the Pinakothek but also the legendary nightclub P1 and a theatre. Upcoming exhibitions feature American provocateur Matthew Barney and, this summer, a monographic show called Freedom is a Rare Bird featuring the nearly unknown 91-year-old Croatian artist Ivan Kozaric.

A thoughtful man who often lets out a deep, highly contagious belly laugh, Enwezor is also about the interdisciplinary. “What I want is a closer relationship between exhibition, research and education,” he says. “When worlds and histories touch in this way, you can open up conversation.” It’s content for not only the greater art world to chew on but also audiences from Munich, one of the most affluent, culturally sophisticated cities in Germany. “Being in this place, I see how deeply privileged we are to have a platform on which we can have those conversations and let those histories touch. There might be friction but it’s like sand in an oyster. Munich has an intelligent public and resources. Let’s use them.”

Best of Kunst

1949 Der Blauer Reiter
1950 Bauhaus Painters
1952 Frank Lloyd Wright
1954 Wassily Kandinsky
1955 Picasso retrospective
1957 Le Corbusier
1960 Henry Moore
1962 Degenerate Art
1969 Joan Miró
1972 Surrealism
1977 Tibet
1978 Marc Chagall
1982 American Art
1982 From Greco to Goya
1986 The Automobile in Art
1989 African Art
1993 Jenny Holzer
1995 Mike Kelley: Catholic Preferences
1996 The Russian Avant-Garde
1997 Francis Bacon
1998 Christian Boltanski
2000 Sophie Calle
2001 Neo Rauch
2004 Bernd and Hilla Becher
2005 Paul McCarthy
2008 Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla
2009 Gerhard Richter
2009 Ai Weiwei
2011 Carlo Mollino
2012 Histories in Conflict
2012 Rise and Fall of Apartheid
2012 Ends of the Earth: Land Art until 1974







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