In Conversation with Janice Mitchell

German Museums Need to Catch Up

A museum’s collection mirrors power: it shows the taste and assessment of directors and curatorial staff in determining what art belongs and what does not. A collection praises certain artists in order to restrain others from entering the exhibition space. It also materially canonizes specific art-historical moments that will function as signposts for generations to come. Museum Ludwig in Cologne is currently questioning conventional collecting cultures, starting with a critical examination of its own reputable collection of artworks from the US. The exhibition Mapping the Collection, curated by Janice Mitchell, presents us with art and artists that had been systematically excluded and sheds a different light on the responsibilities of art collections. Magnus Elias Rosengarten spoke to Janice Mitchell about her approach to the exhibition and how it can possibly affect Germany’s art and museum culture.

C&: The show predominantly focuses on the 1960s and 1970s, decades which stand for political turmoil on a global scale. In how far is Mapping the Collection characterized by that political dimension?

JM: Political events and societal changes are its focus. I believe that if you want to understand the artists of those two decades, you need to understand the historical background and political context. This applies to Pop Art just as much as it does to Conceptual Art – you can’t fully understand Andy Warhol or Senga Nengudi if you don’t know what happened in US politics and society in that period. The various parts of the Civil Rights Movement (such as the Chicano Movement and the Red Power Movement), feminism and the gay rights movement, but also events like the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and of John and Robert Kennedy and Watergate are important moments in US history. They’ve shaped how the US sees itself as a nation, how others see it and what kind of country it has become.

And these conflicts have still not been resolved. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism are all still huge problems in US society (and all over the world). The Equal Rights Act still hasn’t been passed, African Americans continue to face racism on a systemic and institutional level, Native Americans are still fighting for their rights and access to land, healthcare, and education. This has really come out full force again recent years, such as through Black Lives Matter, the activism surrounding the threat to abortion rights, and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and on Mauna Kea in Hawaiʻi against the construction of the TMT Telescope. Looking back at the 1960s and 1970s in the US can be a learning experience in terms of what to do and what not to do.

C&: In Germany, Museum Ludwig is a pioneer when it comes to critical and honest examinations of its collection. Yet relative to other countries, there is still much work to be done. What are the biggest challenges you are currently facing?

JM: I think the challenge lies in having and continuing to have these discussions. They demand not only a critical examination of the museum and its history, but also a lot from you personally: you have to be willing to question yourself, what you know or think you know, and be open to criticism and learning from others. It also goes beyond curatorial work or research – it’s also about how we work together as a team in the museum. That can be hard, but it’s something that everyone at the museum is committed to. It can be challenging but it’s also very rewarding. You watch yourself and others grow.

C&: What audience do you envision while curating a show?

JM: I don’t think of a particular audience. I try to think of what different people could find interesting or what they would want to know about the artists and the art. Different people find different things interesting about art, and I try to make sure that there is a little for everyone. For some, it’s about the aesthetics or how an artwork was made, the material used, the entire process from idea to production and installation. For others it’s more about the person who made the art – they want to find a personal connection to the artist. And then there are those who like facts, they want to see how a work of art relates to history or the society the artists lived in. I try to find a way to bring that all together. With this exhibition the emphasis is clearly on the historical and political background, which is what generally interests me the most as well. I’m really interested in art as activism or as a form of praxis. So that might be something I place a bigger emphasis on when I curate a show.

C&: What programming have you devised in order to help a more local audience identify with the rather US-centric art history canon presented?

JM: The current health crisis makes it unclear what is possible, and we’ll probably have to think of new ways to present the programming. I hope that guided tours will still be possible. We offer tours in multiple languages, including Turkish and Kurdish, and had planned a tour specifically for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). There is also a “Long Thursday” (Langer Donnerstag) planned for which we’re partnering with Dublab Cologne. They will do a live radio broadcast from the museum that will include music and literature as well as talks and film screenings.