Until the year 1986 there were only two museums in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) that were dedicated to contemporary art: the Krefeld art museums and the Museum Morsbroich, Leverkusen. With their special focus, the cities of Krefeld and Leverkusen attracted visitors from all over the country.
When Udo Kultermann was director (1959-1964) and subsequently under Rolf Wedewer (1965-1995), Museum Morsbroich already organised several legendary exhibitions, which consolidated the excellent international reputation of Leverkusen as a museum city. In 1960, Udo Kultermann presented the world’s first museum exhibition on “Monochrome Painting”. From 5-7 May 1961, he organised the “Morsbroich Culture Days” with the participation of Theodor W. Adorno, Max Bense, Helmut Heissenbüttel and many others. In 1962, Kultermann organised the first retrospective of Lucio Fontana’s work and brought the young architect Oswald M. Ungers to Leverkusen as a curator in 1963. Ungers would lead the remodelling and renovation of the museum in the early 1980s. Rolf Wedewer also made the year 1969 an unforgettable exhibition year when, with “Konzeption – Conception”, he presented the world’s first museum exhibition on conceptual art, which dominates artistic production to this day, and with the exhibition “Räume – environments” he transformed the baroque castle into a parcours of rooms designed by different artists.
In 1986, there was a fundamental shift in the museum landscape of NRW when the art collection North Rhine-Westphalia opened its new building on the edge of the highly-frequented old town of Düsseldorf, and the city of Cologne constructed a representative new building for the collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig in the immediate vicinity of the Dome and Central Station. Both houses – just like Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, which opened in 1982 – are dedicated to classical modernism and contemporary art.
The Museum Morsbroich Programme
1. Curt Schweicher (1951-1958)
From day one, the museum’s programme was naturally very much dependent on the respective heads of the institute. As the museum’s first director, Curt Schweicher (1951-1956) vigorously implemented the board’s and the art commission’s specifications, basing his programme on three pillars:
1. Rhineland artists and artist associations such as the “Rheinische Sezession Düsseldorf” (1951), “Xaver Fuhr – watercolours” (1952), “Bergische Kunstgenossenschaft Wuppertal” (1952), “Anton Raederscheidt oil paintings, watercolours, drawings 1922 – 1952” (1952), “Werkkunstschule Krefeld” (1955) or “F.M. Jansen” (1955)
2. Art from abroad such as “Swiss contemporary graphic art” (1951), “English lithography and monotypes” (1953), “Industry and crafts create new household appliances in the USA” (1953), “New construction in Holland” (1953), “Fantastical Basel painting” (1955), “Brazil builds” (1956), or “Italian painting today” (1956)
3. Classical modernism such as “From impressionism to contemporary painting. A touring exhibition of reproductions. Hosted by the UNESCO” (1951), “German art of the 20th century from the Haubrich collection” (1953), “Oskar Moll” (1954), “Fernand Léger” (1955) or “Robert Delaunay” (1956).
The most important exhibition under the aegis of Curt Schweicher would be the one in which all three aspects of his approach are united: Emigrated Painters (1955).
Curt Schweicher himself describes his motivations for organising this exhibition:
“Many people to whom art is an important matter wanted to see artists side by side who had left Germany, whether it was when their art had the ground taken out from under it in Germany and their life was endangered, or at an earlier time when the artist’s intrinsic drive towards expansion made them seek out other countries and metropolises. (…).
Among them are also artists of non-German heritage. They were either passing through Germany or it was their adopted home, which they later voluntary or involuntarily renounced. The exhibition thus recalls a period of flourishing German artistic life, a very receptive and perceptive German artistic life, where an enthusiasm for art ranked higher than the question of national heritage, for which the internationalism of Bauhaus was perhaps a symptom and a symbol.“
With this exhibition, Schweicher further deepened the founding idea of the citizens of Leverkusen to take a stand against the barbarity of the National Socialists and their repression of modern art. The sale of artworks from public museums and the propagandistic and ultimately also physical pressure on artists, collectors and museum employees, which led to the loss of exceptional cultural assets and the emigration and assassination of artists – Museum Morsbroich was to take a stand against the dictatorship and its minions, who vilified both people and art equally.
2. Udo Kultermann (1959-1964)
From the start of his time in office, Udo Kultermann stood for a decidedly progressive understanding of art and was interested particularly in exhibitions that broke boundaries. In 1962 he summarised his beliefs as follows:
“Museum Morsbroich aims to return to art its long lost place at the centre of the community, which means tearing down the walls of the museum. It would be absurd to think that a museum exists for its own sake; rather, it has very clearly defined functions within the community. Art, too, exists not just for art’s sake. From the perspective of contemporary art, which must be pried from the chaos of meaninglessness likewise masquerading as art, Morsbroich wants to attempt to make effective a new responsibility for order and harmony, new legitimacies and standards, a new dynamic and a new rhythm through the work of young artists to all those who are also interested in a harmonisation of man and the environment, people amongst each other, and man and the cosmos. The issue at hand here, as well as in the social and politic realm, is the transcendence of rigid borders, the transcendence, too, of the borders between these diverse areas, and the reintegration of art into the reality of our daily experiences.”
In his five years as director (1959-1964), Kultermann presented, amongst others, the Swiss architect, artist and designer Max Bill, who in his role as professor at the Zurich Art College and as one of the founding members of the Ulm School of Design represented a borderless, politically and socially active definition of the artist. – The legendary exhibition “Monochrome Malerei”(Monochrome painting), with which in 1960 Udo Kultermann first presented the concept of a “new artless art” that was to be an “expression of a vision of our society that goes beyond art” – And the crossover artist Lucio Fontana, whom Udo Kultermann exhibited at Museum Morsbroich from 12 January to 4 March 1962 with the largest retrospective of his work at the time.
In addition, he showed “Roberto Crippa” (1960), the exhibition “Ad Reinhard, New York, – Francesco Lo Savio, Rom, – Jef Verheyen, Antwerpen”; in 1961 he presented an exhibition curated by Yona Friedman on “Mobile Architecture”, in the same year he hosted the interdisciplinary “Morsbroich Art Days” with participants ranging from Theodor W. Adorno, Max Bense, Otto Mauer, Umbro Appollonio, Heinz-Klaus Metzger, the dancer Kaluza, Frei Otto, Norbert Kricke, Gerhard v. Graevenitz to Helmut Heissenbüttel, Franz Mon and Hans G. Helms. In 1962 he presented the Kasimir Malewitsch retrospective initiated by Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, which made the wider public aware of the Russian suprematist’s work again for the first time since the Second World War. In 1962 Kultermann organised a big exhibition on constructivism and in 1963 he presented “The Crystal Chain: Visionary Architects from Bruno Taut and his circle 1919-1920” for which he was able to get the young Oswald Mathias Ungers on board. In his final year in 1964, amongst others he exhibited drawings by the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and also used the occasion to show his films.
This strictly interdisciplinary approach aiming toward a fundamental shift in society was often met with a lack of understanding by the public. The exceptional merit of this director was not recognised in its full scope until much later.
3. Rolf Wedewer (1965 – 1995)
In 1965 Rolf Wedewer took up his post in a far more offensive manner than his predecessor, with the aim of causing a most controversial discussion in the public sphere.
Wedewer put on thematically acute exhibitions such as “Realism of Symptoms” (1966), “Tradition and Present” (1966), “Fetish Forms” (1967) or “Fetish Youth. Death as Taboo” (1972). Some highlights of his exhibition activity included “Konzeption – Conception” and “Räume – environments”, both in 1969.
During Rolf Wedewer’s time as director, the castle was elaborately renovated by the renowned Cologne architect Oswald Mathias Ungers (1981-1985). Wedewer utilised the reopening for a splendid juxtaposition of Egyptian and contemporary sculpture (1986).
4. Susanne Anna and Gerhard Finckh (1995 – 2006)
While Curt Schweicher, Udo Kultermann and the early Wedewer pursued highly programmatic approaches, Susanne Anna (1995-1999) and Gerhard Finckh (2000-2006) remained more open in their programming. Anna selectively took up Wedewer’s focus on Informel art as well as his early interest in controversial thematic exhibitions. Gerhard Finckh tried to integrate early post-war modernism too, with exceptional artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Motherwell and purposefully sought out cooperation with private collections (“Darlings: pictures and sculptures from private collections”, 2001; “Franz von Lenbach and art today”, 2005). A collaboration with the publisher Alfred Neven DuMont in particular, which was very lucrative in terms of publicity and whose collection of paintings by Franz von Lenbach Finckh exhibited in 2004 as part of the exhibition “Franz von Lenbach and art today”, as well as the liaison with the State Garden Show in Leverkusen in 2005, were met with great approval.
5. Markus Heinzelmann (as of 2006)
As of 2006, Markus Heinzelmann has been the director of the museum. As a classically trained art historian, he has experience both in public institutions (Sprengel Museum Hanover 1996-1999) and the private sector (CO Siemens AG 1996-2006). For the Sprengel Museum, he organised exhibitions in the areas of classical modernism and contemporary art. For Siemens AG, in cooperation with public museums and art spaces, he put on thematic exhibitions on contemporary art, which were specifically aligned with the history and location of the partner institutions.
On the basis of these experiences and qualifications, he has developed a clearly distinctive programme that is tailored specially to the Museum Morsbroich Leverkusen location.
Consolidation of the Morsbroich Institutions
The organisation of the Morsbroich institutions, particularly the cooperation of the museum and the art association, were unsatisfactory in 2006 because the autonomy and profiles of the individual institutions were mingled in a confusing manner. For example, the studio gallery in the southern annex was used by both the art association and Museum Morsbroich. Due to this shared usage, the art association had trouble conveying a clear picture of its programme and activities. Similarly, the public often wrongly attributed exhibitions by the museum in the studio gallery to the art association instead of the museum.
Furthermore, the attic floor in the main building of the castle could hardly be used for exhibition activity at all because it was being used as a depot and was largely in a neglected state. Just two annex rooms were used for the presentation of a cross-section from the Ludwig Gies estate, which had been on display there unaltered since 1997.
In order to strengthen both institutions substantially and make their programmes more recognisable, an agreement was reached in 2007 with the art association stating that it would put on a year-round full programme in the rooms of the southern annex building. At the same time, the attic floor of the castle was cleared out and renovated. In the course of this consolidation, the museum gained 40% in exhibition space, which has since been used as the graphic art floor.
In this way, Heinzelmann was able to realise a central goal of his museum policy: a more intensive engagement with the Museum Morsbroich collection and its presentation to the Leverkusen public. Since its renovation, for one half of the year the graphic art floor is now dedicated to the presentation of young, experimental positions in the field of graphic art, while collection exhibitions are on display there for the other half of the year.
This became immediately apparent on the opening of the graphic art floor in January 2008, when the “Masterpieces of the Museum Morsbroich graphic art collection” were presented on all three floors of the exhibition space with the title “Blattgold”(Gold leaf). Accompanying this exhibition, the museum published an extensive catalogue, scientifically documenting and reproducing the museum’s graphic art collection.
At the same time, Heinzelmann carefully added site-specific sculptures to the castle gardens to allow for an “entrance free” art experience for people visiting Leverkusen and the Morsbroich grounds. Since 2010, the fountain by the Danish artist Jeppe Hein (“Water Island Morsbroich”) has been offering children, young people, bridal couples, art tourists and passers-by an unforgettable water feature.
From the very start, Heinzelmann thus pursued a concept that adds value to the Morsbroich location in its entirety. The institutions housed there, such as the art association, the museum, the museum shop, the garden hall, the restaurant, the civil registry office, but also the park as a local recreation spot, were to emerge as strong as possible from the consolidation so that Morsbroich would function as an attractive destination for the citizens of Leverkusen as well as visitors. A conservative estimate puts the number of visitors to the Morsbroich premises at 40,000 annually.
The three pillars of the Museum Morsbroich programme:
the museum collection – the history of the museum – the site as a starting point for exhibitions
Compared to Morsbroich Museum, museums in cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf or Essen are at a great advantage due to their location and continually high funding. In the past, their sponsors have invested incomparably greater sums in building and expanding their collections, equipment, new buildings, etc. The municipalities erected transport infrastructure that is aligned with the respective cultural offerings. They have city marketing resources developed over decades at their disposal, advertising additional tourist offers, which in turn support the museums. In addition, the residents of these cities have a stronger sense of themselves as citizens of their city and are more actively engaged with the concepts of urban self-confidence, pride in and identification with their city.
In light of the fact that investment limitations as compared to municipalities similar to or larger than Leverkusen will hardly be resolved in the near future, Heinzelmann therefore emphasised the unique nature of Morsbroich from the start of his time as director. Historically (evidenced since 1220), architecturally (with buildings from the 17th-19th century) and in terms of art history, Morsbroich is an exceptional place in the young city of Leverkusen. Civil society meets here to award honours or attend important local festivities and to reaffirm the city’s history and its unique character through the special offerings of the museum. The Leverkusen citizens do not identify Morsbroich as belonging to a specific part of the city; therefore it isn’t part of the various deep-seated rivalries between the different urban areas.
Morsbroich doesn't allow for the realisation of typical “white cube exhibitions” (exhibitions in a neutral, purpose-built exhibition space). The baroque rooms with their many windows, stuccoed ceilings and countless connecting doors are far too idiosyncratic for this. Therefore, Museum Morsbroich offers a concept that builds on exhibitions which specifically emphasise the location of the exhibition in terms of its unique features. The aim is to put on as many exhibitions as possible that can be realised exclusively or at least particularly well in Leverkusen.
Around half of the exhibitions put on in Morsbroich since 2006 have therefore explicitly referenced the location as an architectural or social space, the history of the museum and its connection to specific artists or the museum’s collection directly.
1. The location as a starting point for exhibitions
The castle building regularly serves the museum as a starting point and topic for its exhibitions. By highlighting the history of the building and its inhabitants as well as its architecture, the organisers make the uniqueness of the Leverkusen situation a central point of focus: what we encounter here is a building replete with character, experience and special features that is capable of providing an encounter of art and history for its visitors.
• Personal Affairs. New Forms of Intimacy (2006)
• Ann Veronica Janssens. To the Spring (2007)
• PROJECTS: DONE. An exhibition by Candida Höfer with Kuehn Malvezzi (2009)
• Women’s Rooms (2011)
• Rosemarie Trockel / Paloma Varga Weisz. Maison de Plaisance (2012)
• Ghosts of Time. Apparitions of the Supernatural in Contemporary Art (2012/2013)
• Thomas Grünfeld – homey. Works from 1981 to 2013 (2013)
• Zilla Leutenegger. 13 Rooms – A Biography in Dresses (2013/2014)
• Hunters & Gatherers in Contemporary Art (2014)
• Jana Gunstheimer (2015/2016)
3. The collection as a starting point for exhibitions / collection exhibitions
Although the city of Leverkusen suspended the Museum Morsbroich acquisition fund in 2004, the museum’s own collection is often at the centre of exhibition activity. With around 600 works in the fields of painting and sculpture and around 4,000 works in the field of graphic art, it is relatively small. Alongside classic solo exhibitions as well as more comprehensive exhibitions, the museum also focuses on particular thematic subjects such as magic as a connecting element between individual collection pieces, or artists such as Jan Albers or Jens Ullrich working on the collection.
• VIP III. Arena of Abstraction (2006)
• Gold Leaf. Masterpieces of the Museum’s graphic collection Morsbroich (2008) and Georg Baselitz (2008)
• Jan Albers & Jens Ullrich: Kollekte (2009)
• Alfred Hrdlicka. Like a danse macabre (2010)
• Fred Sandback. Drawings that can be inhabited (2011)
• Hans Salentin. Collages with paper and metal (2013)
• A handful of soil from paradise. Magical objects from the Museum Morsbroich (2013/2014)
• Blinky Palermo. Graphic Work (2014/2015)
• Furthermore, Museum Morsbroich maintains an exemplary cooperation with Wiesdorf Christus church, where in the years 2011 and 2014 exhibitions with works by Rudolf Schoofs and Franz Hitzler from the museum’s collection were made accessible to the Leverkusen public.
4. The history of the museum as a starting point for exhibitions
The founding mission for Museum Morsbroich in the year 1951 was stated as “organising permanent exhibitions by living artists”. After more than 60 years of uninterrupted exhibition activity, it has become apparent that the museum has carried out a number of historically important exhibitions in its history. Today, the museum reminds visitors of this history, not only in order to highlight the city’s importance as a cultural pioneer for innovation and progress, but also to discern impulses for Leverkusen in the present.
• Theatre is in the streets. The Happenings by Wolf Vostell (2010)
• Ceramic Spaces. Lucio Fontana, Norbert Prangenberg, Thomas Schütte, Rosemarie Trockel, Markus Karstieß (2014)
• More Konzeption Conception Now (2015)
The Morsbroich programme as mirrored by others
With its three-pillar model, Museum Morsbroich deals intensively with its own collection, the location as an architectural and social point of reference and its history. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper (NZZ) honoured this approach in 2009 with a multi-page article on the question of contemporary handling of collections (12.12.2009). With the headline “Between cabinet of curiosities and mausoleum” the author outlined the problem: “The performance benchmark and the argument for state funding was and is the number of visitors. If this declines, if collections stagnate and existing items can neither be viewed nor restored, the museum becomes a mausoleum. (…) Instead of spectacular new constructions and rather forgettable events, shouldn’t investments be made in partially dilapidated old museums and their collections and libraries? What would possible solutions look like?”
The author names three institutions and a network in Germany that handle these problems ideally: the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, the State Museums in Berlin, the Ruhr Art Museums as a merger of 20 museums in total, and Museum Morsbroich in Leverkusen. “A few experimental museum directors show us how it could be done. Markus Heinzelmann, for example, forges meaningful links in temporary exhibitions between contemporary works of art and works from the museum's own collection, and convinced the jury of the Association of Art Critics, which awarded his Museum Morsbroich (near Leverkusen) the title of Museum of the Year 2009.”
Awards and Prizes
The quality of exhibitions and the special handling of the collection, the location and the history of Morsbroich have attracted a lot of attention in the region and beyond. For the very first time in its more than 60-year history, the Leverkusen museum and the work done there have received multiple awards in recent years.
1. Exhibition of the Year in NRW 2008 The Exhibition of the Year award, (WamS) which is awarded annually by a high-profile expert jury, is the most important award for museums in NRW. In 2008, the exhibition curated by Markus Heinzelmann entitled “Gerhard Richter. Overpainted Photographs” was voted Exhibition of the Year. It was created in close cooperation with the artist, who lives in Cologne, and with a total of 500 exhibited works it presented a hitherto almost unknown genre of the work of Gerhard Richter. What was also groundbreaking in this context was the cooperation with Museum Ludwig in Cologne. Museum Morsbroich and Museum Ludwig had agreed on a synchronisation of their two exhibitions long before the actual events – in Cologne, Richter was showing a retrospective of his work – so that the two houses were able to benefit greatly from each other in terms of publicity and regarding their marketing.
2. Germany’s Museum of the Year 2009
In 2009, Museum Morsbroich was voted Museum of the Year in Germany by the International Association of Art Critics (aica). This is the highest honour a German museum can receive. In the jury statement it was said, “The examples of two recent exhibitions, the ‘Overpainted Photographs’ by Gerhard Richter and ‘Projects: Done’, a comprehensive show with photographs by Candida Höfer, the outstandingly high level of exhibition activity in Leverkusen becomes apparent.
Despite the heterogeneity of its offerings, links were forged between the museum’s own collection and the exhibition programme so that the audience is carefully acquainted with the latest artistic movements such as Informel art, Happening, décollage, modern plastic art or new photography.
Both the systematically executed, very distinct collection policy as well as the high-quality exhibition series of Museum Morsbroich accompanied by scientifically developed catalogues won over the jury.”
3. Justus Bier Prize for Curators awarded to Doreen Mende and Markus Heinzelmann for the exhibition “PROJECTS: DONE. An exhibition by Candida Höfer with Kuehn Malvezzi” 2010
The only German prize for curators was awarded to Leverkusen in just the second year of its existence, in 2010.
“The prize is awarded for the work of young curators in the German-speaking world who have demonstrated an extraordinary understanding of art in the 20th and 21st century. This honour is awarded for the outstanding linguistic and professional quality of catalogue text or for particularly successful editorial work in the production of a catalogue. (…) Justus Bier (1899-1990) was director of the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover from 1930-1936. Because Justus Bier was Jewish, the Nazis repeatedly demanded his dismissal and the prohibition of his programme, which was very much dedicated to modern art.
However, Justus Bier neither changed his programme, nor was he decommissioned from the board of the Kestner Gesellschaft. In the course of his Franz Marc exhibition in 1936, the institute was shut down by the Gestapo.”
4. Best Exhibition Programme in NRW 2015 (WamS)
The Museum as Ambassador of Leverkusen
The work being done at Morsbroich is attentively followed and evaluated by the regional and especially the national press. Thanks to the numerous awards, the positive resonance of the high-profile Leverkusen programme and the dense press coverage of the exhibitions, an exceptionally positive image of Leverkusen as the site of contemporary art has developed. This way, Morsbroich has become a greatly appreciated part of the Leverkusen city marketing. While press coverage of Leverkusen as a chemical site or Leverkusen as a sports city is occasionally tinged by criticism, resulting in an ambivalent image, the reporting on Museum Morsbroich is positive without exception in the region and beyond.
A qualified internet search for published pages on the best-known cultural activities in Leverkusen confirms the wide reach of Museum Morsbroich with a view to city marketing:
“Leverkusener Jazztage” 178,000 results
“Museum Morsbroich” 127,000 results
“Sensenhammer” 36,000 results
“Forum Leverkusen” 32,700 results
“Bayer Kultur” 15,000 results
“Japanischer Garten Leverkusen” 6,500 results
“Erholungshaus Leverkusen” 4,800 results
Conclusion and outlook
Museum Morsbroich indisputably numbers among the outstanding points of crystallisation of a Leverkusen identity. As an institute that is part of the so-called KulturStadtLev forum, which is responsible for tasks such as catering at the Gartensaal, representative events for the democratic organs of the city of Leverkusen and its citizens, as well as the daily operation of the museum, it takes on a central role that brings together the various interests of the Leverkusen citizens. Of crucial, meaningful importance here is the fact that in 1951 the young population of the city dedicated the building to contemporary art with the mission of healing the wounds of National Socialism. This is how a unique centre for experimental, international and certainly challenging art was created, by means of which the city of Leverkusen succeeded in writing both social and art history.
Despite its comparatively modest means as compared to other municipalities, the museum has successfully asserted its unique position to the present day, thus awarding Leverkusen great attention in the cultural realm. In the past years, the museum has received numerous awards and prizes. Thanks to the museum, the image of a one-dimensional municipality focused on the chemical industry has been decidedly transcended. Among the population, the museum is a place where civil efforts are highly visible, through both highly developed volunteer work efforts as well as a multitude of clubs and associations. The Museumsverein Morsbroich e. V. association also acquires substantial sums for the city from private donors, nationwide foundations or, for example, the State of North Rhine-Westphalia. Furthermore, the museum has established itself as an important educational institution in the city, playing an exemplary role in strengthening its youngest as well as adult citizens beyond the academic school setting.
The museum has developed into an attractive destination for Leverkusen residents and visitors. Around 40,000 visitors per year experience truly multifaceted offerings here, catering to everyone from kindergarten children to wheelchair users, exhibition and restaurant guests, to people from the fields of politics, economics and culture.
The way Morsbroich’s heritage is handled constitutes the blueprint for the future sustainability of the city of Leverkusen. Can a credible home be provided for the “creative classes” (Richard Florida) and all residents of this city? The Museum Morsbroich is the place where generations, genders, classes and groups of people with shared interests can meet. It is important to continue making this place stronger.