Magazine article Artforum International

Musical Heirs

Magazine article Artforum International

Musical Heirs

Article excerpt

IT WILL COME AS REASSURANCE that Switzerland, the national cliche of clockwork orderliness, is awhir with all the messy passions that make the rest of us tick. So it turns out from the recent affair at the Kunsthaus Zurich, one of two prominent Swiss institutions facing a changeover in directors, where there was sufficient intrigue, spite, and stifled ambition to pack a tawdry novel--minus, unfortunately, the sex.

In the spring of '99, the announced retirement of Felix Baumann, the twenty-three-year director of the Kunsthaus, spurred an executive search committee into sputtering action. The president of the board, Thomas Bechtler, hunkered down with a small group of board members that included artist Peter Fischli, the city's mayor, a local collector, and Jacqueline Burckhardt, a publisher of the art journal Parkett, whose coequal Bice Curiger happens to be an adjunct curator at the Kunsthaus as well. An expert advisory panel was mustered, with Nicholas Serota of the Tate; Suzanne Page of the Musee d'Art Moderne de Ia Ville de Paris; Uwe Schneede of the Hamburger Kunsthalle; and Stanislaus von Moos, a professor of art history at the University of Zurich (though their counsel would prove to be little more than words in the wind). Six months of duly methodical Swissness brought the board committee to the point of assembling its list of qualifications for the new director--not an easy task, apparently, for an institution with some 5,000 works spanning art from the twelfth century to the present; a building in need of renovation and more display space; an exhibition program long considered sleepy at best; and a meager yearly acquisitions budget of about 1 million Swiss francs ($583,000), half of which must be raised from private sources.

Bechtler recalls placing ads for the job in seven Swiss, German, and Austrian papers--a German-speaking director was a must--and Burkhardt says, There were thirty names on our wish list. Then we asked quite a few more to talk with us. It took from May till Christmas to get to a final three."

And that is when cool method gave way to the familiar smack of tabloid malice. A Swiss Deep Throat was born, rumored to be the museum's deputy director, Guido Magnaguagno, himself spurned for the directorship. However, Magnaguagno publicly denied leaking two finalists' names to the press, where on January 7 the first low blast was fired in the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger. There Bernhard "Mendes" Burgi, the director of the city's contemporary-art Kunsthalle, and Christoph Heinrich, the curator of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, were revealed in print and promptly smeared as avant-garde insiders unfit to run a historical museum. For denizens of the contemporary scene, Burgi's pillorying in particular could not seem more an act of local envy. Lars Nittve, director of Tate Modern, calls Burgi "one of the best curators of contemporary art in my generation," and Burgi's work with a vast range of artists, from Ross Bleckner to Pipilotti Rist, over the last decade has brought him international renown among curators and ar tists alike. Yet spite is a piquant force, and an entirely public voice quickly joined Deep Throat's dark murmur. Franziska Muller, a member of the Kunsthaus's exhibition committee, wrote a poison-pen letter about the search, then sent it to local collectors, cultural types, and journalists. "Burgi or Heinrich?" Tages-Anzeiger asked. "Both are part of the Zurich art mafia through the magazine Parkett. The composition of the search committee ... took care that only Parkett-conforming candidates had a chance."

Bechtler and others denied the charge of nepotism but refused to name names under consideration, thus heightening the drama. Yet no soap opera is ripe without the low-hanging fruit of a little blackmail, and it arrived swiftly in the January 5 edition of Neue Zurcher Zeitung, a prominent national paper, in an article that began by accusing the search committee of insularity and the unmasked hopefuls of inexperience, while mourning various older candidates--including Magnaguagno--left out in the cold. …

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