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


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

With the appointment of the Belgian curator Ann Demeester as artistic director of the Kunsthaus, the Museum of Fine Arts in Zurich, one of the oldest cultural institutions in the city, has received a good breath of fresh air. SWI swissinfo.ch wanted to meet her to discuss her vision for the future of the historic art museum.

This content was published on 07 October 2022 – 15:00

Aoife Rosenmeyer

The more than twenty years spent by Christoph Becker in the direction of the Museum of Fine Arts in Zurich should have ended with great fanfare, with the opening of the new wing designed by the famous architect David Chipperfield who, in October 2021, made him the Switzerland’s largest art museum. The last exhibition under his direction, a solo show focused on the works of the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, was to counterbalance a program that had mainly male artists at the center.

However, headlines about the Zurich museum, a private institution run by an association of 25,000 members, have overshadowed its fame since last year. The new wing, in fact, was built to house, among many valuable collections, also 200 mostly impressionist canvases from the collection of Emil Georg Bührle. Enriched by selling weapons to the Germans during the Second World War, the latter then bought several works that had been looted by the Nazis or sold by the Jews under duress.

Since that time, the most prestigious and expensive Museum of Fine Arts in Zurich has been accused of failing to meet the standards of transparency required by historians, historians, specialists and specialists. Despite the scandal, the collection is still on display.

It is in this situation of strong tension that the new director takes office. Ann Demeester came to Zurich from the Netherlands, where in recent years she has held the role of director of the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, after a career in art journalism. In her work as a curator she is known for the audacity with which she allows works belonging to very different eras and disciplines to interact and confront each other.

After a gradual handover, Demeester officially became director of the Zurich Museum of Fine Arts on October 1, 2022, with high hopes that, under her leadership, the historic institution will give a new luster to its reputation.

SWI swissinfo.ch: In recent months she has been involved in the daily work of the museum. What vision did you have of it before moving to Zurich?

Ann Demeester: It is a huge museum, with an exceptional collection, which however fails to have the visibility of other flagships such as the Musée d’Orsay in Paris or the Tate Britain. It gave me the impression of a world yet to be discovered.

What are the main challenges that await you?

One challenge is to revive the huge collection, which spans several centuries and with which the public is less familiar.

The other is to understand how to be is one Bilderpalast – a palace of images, where one can marvel at art to the point of idolizing it – and at the same time the modern answer to an increasingly fluid and complex world, where it is not possible to escape the main social and political questions and the way in which one mix with art, both historical and contemporary.

Personally, I don’t believe in the division between history and art history. History is in effect integrated into the history of art, in which the social context is always present, even in the most ancient masterpieces.

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

Before the creation of museums as we know them today there were wunderkammer, or “chambers of wonders”, variegated and heterogeneous collections of objects and ideas, specimens of flora and fauna, works of art, etchings and books. Environments focused on wonder.

Then came the museums, with a more didactic approach, in which categories derived from the history of art were used [per organizzare i contenuti]. This approach, however, did not include the artists ‘and female artists’ perspective on art history, which is not always linear and chronological. Curating a museum, for me, has to do with imaginative associations or affinities between objects that don’t necessarily belong to the same category.

Ours is a society based on ties, therefore, to present ourselves in a relevant and contemporary way, we should be able to create links between works of art from different historical periods.

The past few years have been quite turbulent for the museum, particularly with regard to criticism of the Bührle collection display and the terms of the loan. What approach do you intend to take with respect to the question of the provenance of works of art, from now on?

The discussion on Bührle can be interpreted from different points of view. The provenance of the works is one of these, but it is also one pars pro toto, part of a broader discussion of how Switzerland is coping with its role in World War II. Without forgetting the problem of financing.

A question that is profoundly relevant to all museums in Europe: where does our money come from? Who do we depend on? Receiving funding from Sackler (the family linked to a major opioid scandal in the United States) and BP (the British oil and gas multinational) is no longer acceptable. How do you deal with all this in an ethical way, keeping up with the times?


The outgoing director of the Kunsthaus, Christoph Becker, speaks at a press conference about the research on the provenance of the Bührle Collection (December 15, 2021). Keystone / Michael Buholzer

Will loans and bequests be handled more transparently from now on?

Negotiations cannot be public, not even for loans or bequests. However, it is undeniable that we need to recalibrate our principles. What can we accept, why and for what reason? Questions that any museum should ask itself at least every twenty years, for reasons of institutional hygiene. We must do this with greater vulnerability and transparency.

Feminist collective Hulda Zwingli criticized the museum for the excessive predominance of male artists in the collections on display. Are there any changes in this regard?

Yes and no. The museum has a certain reputation and the reality is not all that black and white. We can highlight the gaps in history, not fill them. I don’t think I would be able to find the necessary funding to buy more works by Mary Cassatt or Sonja Sekulas, two artists of the last century. But we can certainly make changes for the future.

Together with the people I have worked with, I have always drawn up programs characterized by the right balance between male and female artists. It is true that we are not always completely “global”, but that we tend to focus particularly on Europe and America. That is indeed a legitimate criticism to be made of the museum. Can we introduce a change in this sense? Is it right to do it? Why should we, here in the West, represent and possess the whole world? It is a dangerous mentality, almost another form of cultural neo-colonialism.

What role should a fine arts museum play today?

It must be a source of curiosity. Fine arts are anachronistic, too slow to respond to the fluidity of today’s world. What we can do, as a museum, is to stimulate curiosity at all levels through art.

In the late 1960s, American conceptual artist James Lee Byars put on a performance, The World Question Center, in which he asked all those he considered important in the world, on an intellectual, political, scientific and economic level, to ask him what they considered “the most relevant question of the moment”. He wasn’t looking for answers, but for questions. A museum should do the same thing.

Yes, we should be a place where art is still revered, but also an institution capable of feeding it with new ideas and inspirations. We should ask questions from the point of view of artists and artists, present ourselves as a forum in which to question the most diverse ideas.

The big question is how to be a hybrid of all these things together, not just one at a time. The realization of this project depends to a large extent on the culture that is the subject of debate in the country. In Zurich, we need to understand how we can support these discussions by combining them. These are inevitable discussions, this is clear, but the format has yet to be defined.

The main contemporary art exhibitions of last summer, documents 15External Link in Kassel and the Berlin BiennaleExternal Link, have tried to present themselves as socially relevant spaces and have succeeded, but not without some problems. For example, some Iraqi artists withdrew from the Berlin exhibition because it included public domain torture images. In Kassel, on the other hand, the sharing of curatorship with a series of collectives resulted in a discreet lack of centralization of management.

We must learn to accept that, when you create spaces like that, you will always run into some failures. My biggest regret about documenta 15 was that the discussion of anti-Semitism is all that has been read about it in the media. Of course it is an important, fundamental discussion, I do not doubt it.

That exhibition, however, was also able to propose something radically different about the concept of collective work: art is not about the objects themselves, but the process, the way in which we work together. It is a paradigm shift that seeks to make art more inclusive and democratic. The classic visitors, however, seem mostly disoriented. What should be totally democratic actually becomes exclusive, because people still have a very traditional conception of art.

We are used to doing things right, but the big change in mindset is like allowing ourselves to fail! The common conception of museums in Europe is not that of democratic and polyphonic spaces, open to ambiguity, paradox and discussion, but that of places where one goes to look at objects identified as art.

How are you going to introduce this innovation?

Tradition must be presented in conjunction with critical questions. One cannot continue to sanitize art, to present it in isolation, as if it had nothing to do with the problems of our day. It is the opposite of choosing the less common path: it is walking two paths at the same time.

Curated by Virginie Mangin

Translation from English: Camilla Pieretti

In accordance with the standards of JTI

In accordance with the standards of JTI

Other developments: SWI swissinfo.ch certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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About David Martin

David Martin is the lead editor for Spark Chronicles. David has been working as a freelance journalist.

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