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Gabriele Knapstein on saving the Rieckhallen

The Hamburger Bahnhof director on saving art spaces and her last exhibition as the Berlin institution’s boss.

Image for Gabriele Knapstein on saving the Rieckhallen

To mark its 25th anniversary, Hamburger Bahnhof is showing important works from the Nationalgalerie Collection and the Haubrok Collection. Photo: Siah Armajani, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie

Hamburger Bahnhof director Gabriele Knapstein on saving the Rieckhallen, curating her last exhibition as the Berlin institution’s boss and challenging the fragile position of state-funded museums.

It’s just been announced that Hamburger Bahnhof’s Rieckhallen exhibition space has been acquired by the state of Berlin and will not be torn down. You’ve worked hard on achieving this, right?

Yes, I’m very glad. My task all along has been to make clear that if the State of Berlin didn’t come forward and save this part of the building, it would jeopardise the Hamburger Bahnhof’s position as a major art museum for the 21st century. It was critical, as where would we show new acquisitions and donations if we lost the Rieckhallen?

How did Berlin get into this position?

Berlin made the historic mistake of selling off this big patch of ground, the Europa City, in the early 2000s which just so happened to have this renovated museum on it! Last year it was basically decided that we would lose the Rieckhallen which caused the Christian Flick Collection – which had been housed there – to cancel their loan agreement with us. It’s taken us four months to have all his loans shipped back to Zurich. Whether we’ll ever get these works back is unclear.

You are the curator of the new exhibition Church for Sale, has this recent bout of instability inspired it?

The Hamburger Bahnhof is turning 25 and it made sense to highlight the precariousness of a museum like ours. We also wanted to address this crisis situation in terms of environmental problems, migration and the fragility of our financial constructions. So I’ve focused on artists that protest against what threatens human existence – during the time of Corona this is an experience we can all relate to. The name of the show is a reference to a work by Edgar Arceneaux who did a series of drawings of real estate signs he came across in Detroit, when the city became bankrupt after the financial crisis.

All the artists we feature in the exhibition understand art as a political activity

Will the all the works be overtly political?

All the artists we feature in the exhibition understand art as a political activity and their works address the vulnerabilities of human existence in its urban, societal and cultural surroundings. But we have compiled artists who are political without making overtly activist statements. Our reference point is the artist Bruce Nauman, who said: ‘I see any relevant artistic activity as a political act because it changes our understanding of certain parameters.’

At the same time, he’s said his work comes out of the frustration of how humans treat each other. That’s a driving force for him and we will be showing his site-specific architectural work, Room with My Soul Left Out, Room That Does Not Care. Nauman actually oversaw the installation of this work which has been housed in the Rieckhallen and I think Berlin needs to keep this hugely important work for as long as possible.

Image for Gabriele Knapstein on saving the Rieckhallen

Exhibition view of ‘Church for Sale’. Works from the Haubrok Collection and the collection of the Nationalgalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, 2021 © Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Thomas Bruns

This exhibition is also a collaboration with the Haubrok Foundation, right?

During the process of discussing the project I spoke with the collector Axel Haubrok about borrowing some works from his collection. He lent us 13 large-scale installations, including ‘Howl’ by Tom Burr and ‘F16’ the giant jet fuselage by Christoph Büchel. Both of these works see art as a political commentary on the violence in our society. But the whole idea of working with significant private collections is linked to our dismal acquisition budget. That’s the reason why my predecessors also sought to bring to the museum loans from the likes of the Erich Marx or the Egidio Marzona’s collections (the latter we partially bought), and of course Christian Flick’s collection.

There has been a massive bias in favour of Western male artists in museum collections. Is this an issue for you, as one of the few women to head a major State museum?

This is an issue for all museum directors today, and a great challenge for everyone to change our perspectives and ask why female artists have been overlooked. I think we need a budget to acquire works by female artists and buy 20 major works. Meanwhile it is urgent and necessary that we continue our acquisition strategy of opening up to different continents and cultural backgrounds.

You have been the director at the Hamburger Bahnhof since 2019, but it has recently been announced that Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath will take over from you in 2022. With the appointment of yet another man, Klaus Biesenbach, as director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, do you find the lack of female representation disappointing?

Of course, I would have wished for at least one woman to be appointed. The Berlin museums are managed by the Prussian Cultural Heritage and right now they are going through a process of reform.

What do you plan to do next?

I don’t know yet. Right now, I am focusing on finalising the contracts for the Rieckhallen and I’ll fight to make sure we find the money to do the basic technical renovations, which is so essential for the future of our collections.

Gabriele Knapstein has been with the Hamburger Bahnhof since 1999, first joining as a research assistant, then coming up through the ranks, from exhibition manager to museum manager to finally museum director in 2019. Knapstein has also been a member of the University Council of the Berlin-Weißensee School of Art since its establishment in 2004.