The new director of the Museum of Fine Arts Zurich is not afraid to fail

Ann Demeester officially takes up her new position at the Museum of Fine Arts Zurich on October 1. Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian

A breath of fresh air blew through one of Zurich’s oldest cultural institutions this year when Belgian curator Ann Demeester took over the artistic direction of the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. SWI caught up with her to discuss her vision for the historic arts institution.

This content was published on September 29, 2022 – 14:26

Aifé Rosenmeyer

Christoph Becker’s more than 20-year tenure as director of the Museum of Fine Arts Zürich should have ended in triumph, with the opening of a huge extension by star architect David Chipperfield in October 2021, which makes it the largest Swiss art museum. Her latest exhibition, a solo presentation of the work of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, currently on view, was a counterbalance to a program in which male artists were attracting the most attention.

Yet since last year, the headlines of the Zurich institution have clouded its legacy. The new extension was built to house, among other important collections, some 200 predominantly Impressionist works of art on loan from the Bührle Collection. This had been put together by Emil Georg Bührle, who became wealthy selling weapons to Germany during World War II and bought works of art that were either looted by the Nazis or sold by Jewish owners under the constraint.

Since then, Zurich’s most prestigious and expensive art museum has come under fire for failing to meet the standards of transparency demanded by historians and scholars. Despite the scandal, the collection is still on display.

This is the tense situation from which the new director inherits. Ann Demeester arrives in Zürich from the Netherlands, where she was most recently director of the Frans Hals museums in Haarlem, after beginning her career in arts journalism before becoming a curator. His work is known for its bold curation that allows art across eras and disciplines to meet and confront.

After a gradual transfer of power, Demeester officially becomes the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Zürich on October 1, 2022. Hopes are high that the new head of the institution will revive his reputation.

SU: You have been involved in the daily work of the museum over the past few months. What was your perception of the institution before moving to Zurich?

AD: It’s a gigantic museum with a remarkable collection, but which doesn’t have the visibility of other jewels like the Musée d’Orsay (Paris) or the Tate Britain. He retained a sense of adventure and discovery.

SWI: What are the challenges of the role?

AD: One challenge is to activate the huge collection that spans centuries and that people know less about.

The other challenge is how we can be both one picturepalast – a palace of images where one marvels and perhaps worships art – and at the same time a contemporary response to an increasingly fluid and complex world where one cannot escape social questions, politics and how they intertwine with art, whether historical or contemporary.

I don’t believe in the split between history and art history. History is integrated into the history of art; the social context is always present, even in old masterpieces.

Ann Demeester: “I don’t believe in the divide between history and art history.” Kunsthaus Zürich, Franca Candrian

Before the creation of the museum as we know it, we had cabinets of curiosities. It was a wild assemblage of heterogeneous objects and ideas, flora and fauna, art, etchings and books; where everything revolved around wonder.

Then came the museum, more didactic and taking up the categories of art history [to organize content]. It did not include the artists’ perspective on art history, which is not necessarily linear and chronological. For me, curating a museum is about imaginative associations or affinities between things that don’t necessarily belong to the same category.

We live in a networked society and if we want to be relevant and contemporary, we also need to make connections between art across different periods of history.

SWI: The past few years have been turbulent for the museum. Most important were the reviews of the exhibition and the loan conditions of the Bührle collection. How does the museum now approach questions of provenance?

AD: The discussion around Bührle has many different angles. Provenance is one and essential. But the subject is also a leave pro toto, part of a larger discussion, about how Switzerland handles its role in World War II. It is also about finding funds.

This is a very big problem for any museum in Europe: where does our money come from; who are we dependent on? Money from Sackler (the family behind the US opioid scandal) and BP (the British multinational oil and gas company) is no longer acceptable. How do you manage this ethically and keep up with the times?

The outgoing director of the Kunsthaus, Christoph Becker, speaking at a press conference on the provenance research carried out on the Bührle collection (December 15, 2021). Keystone / Michael Buholzer

SWI: Will loans or legacies be handled transparently in the future?

AD: Negotiations cannot take place in the open, this is also true when it comes to loans or legacies. But we need to recalibrate our principles. What do we accept, when, why and for what reason? These are the questions that a museum should ask itself every 20 years anyway.

This is part of institutional hygiene. We need to do this with more vulnerability and transparency.

SWI: The feminist collective Hulda Zwingli criticizes the fact that the art exhibited here is predominantly male. Will that change?

AD: Yes and no. The museum has a certain notoriety while the reality is not so raw. We can make historical gaps visible, but we cannot fill them. I don’t think I will find the funds to buy other works by Mary Cassatt or Sonja Sekulas, two women artists of the last century. But we can change the future.

I have always, with a team, put together a program that strikes the right balance between masculine and feminine. Perhaps we are not always entirely “global”: we are very Euro-American. It’s a more valid charge against the museum. Can we change this, and should we? Why should we in the West represent and own the whole world? It is a dangerous thought. It is perhaps another form of cultural neo-colonialism.

SWI: What is the role of a fine arts museum today?

AD: A center of curiosity. The fine arts are anachronistic, they are too slow to respond to the fluidity of today’s world. What we can do as a museum is stimulate curiosity on all possible levels through art.

In the late 1960s, American conceptual artist James Lee Byars created a performance (The Global Question Center) in which he asked everyone he deemed important in the world – intellectually, politically, scientifically, economically – to ask him what they perceived to be “the most relevant question right now”. Not to give answers, but questions. The museum should be that.

We should also remain that palace where art is revered, but also a palace where we can recharge art with new ideas and inspirations. We should ask questions through the perspectives of artists. We must also be a parliament where ideas are discussed.

The big dilemma is how to be hybrid – not just “either or well”. How this is done depends on the culture of debate in the country. We need to identify how we can have these discussions in combination with each other in Zurich. That we should do this is indisputable, but the format is still unclear.

SWI: Last summer’s major contemporary art exhibitions, documenta 15 in Kassel and the Berlin Biennale, both tried to be socially relevant spaces – and were – but both were equally problematic. For example, some Iraqi artists withdrew from the Berlin exhibition because it included public domain images of torture. In Kassel, the sharing of curation with a multitude of collectives has indeed led to a loss of central control.

AD: You have to accept that if you try to create these spaces, there will be failure. What I regret about documenta is that the discussion of anti-Semitism is all we read in the media. It is a vital, essential discussion, there is no doubt about it.

But documenta also offered something radically different about the collective way of working: art is not about an art object, it’s a process, a way of working together. It’s a paradigm shift that tries to make art inclusive and democratic. But the regulars often seem distraught. What is supposed to be truly democratic is actually exclusive, because people’s understanding of art is more traditional.

We’re used to doing things the right way, but the biggest mindset shift is how to allow ourselves to fail! The common understanding of what a museum is in Europe is not this democratic polyphonic space of ambiguity, paradox and discussion – it is a place where you enter and look at objects that you can identify as ‘art.

SWI: So how do you present this new program?

AD: You have to offer the tradition and bring critical questioning at the same time. We cannot continue to sanitize art and toss it aside as if it has nothing to do with the problems of our time. It’s the opposite of choosing the road less travelled, it’s traveling two paths simultaneously.

Edited by Virginie Mangin

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