January 2012, ARTnews

When ‘No’ Means ‘Maybe’

Max Hollein is bringing a distinctly American approach to German art museums

As right hand man to Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens in the 1990s, Max Hollein witnessed an explosive period of global museum expansion at close range. But Hollein left the Guggenheim in 2001 to take over as head of the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, and by 2006 he had assumed the directorship of two more of the city’s museums, the Städel and the Liebieghaus Sculpture Museum.

While the Guggenheim has been forced to retrench over the last decade, Hollein has used the same period to energize the triumvirate of institutions he leads. The 42-year-old son of Viennese architect Hans Hollein has helped usher in a new era of private support for German culture.

Max Hollein has overseen the reinstallation of the Liebieghaus’s collection and the $65 million expansion and refurbishment of the Städel. The latter project, scheduled for completion next month, includes construction of subterranean exhibition galleries under a courtyard of the museum’s late 19th century premises. Designed by Frankfurt architects schneider+schumacher, the addition has a slightly curved ceiling perforated by round skylights. What the visitor sees is an undulating lawn with a slight bubble rising at its center.

The new space will house a burgeoning collection of contemporary art, swelled by innovative agreements that Hollein hammered out with Deutsche Bank to display in perpetuity 600 of its artworks and another 200 photographs owned by DZ Bank.

With the Städel and the Liebieghaus located on the southern bank of the River Main and the Schirn on its northern bank, Hollein often bicycles the short distance from one to the other. Holding degrees in both art history and business administration, he also veers easily from the city’s galleries to its corporate boardrooms.

Deutsche Bank’s corporate art collection comprises 55,000 works, bought for the workplace but now largely in storage. “We thought there was a possibility for us there,” Hollein says. “We found a way to legally ensure that these works are always with the museum but formally on permanent loan.”

Under Hollein, the Städel has maintained its focus on Old Masters, even as it has expanded its contemporary holdings. A 2009 Botticelli exhibition drew a record 370,000 visitors. Other exhibits have been devoted to Rogier van der Weyden and Lucas Cranach; a major Claude Lorrain exhibition is forthcoming. Meanwhile, German sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand has just completed a new site-specific work, involving ersatz curtains fashioned out of paper rather than fabric and hung throughout a gallery.

Hollein describes the Städel as “the odd man out in the German museum scene where all the museums are basically run by the public sector.” The Städel, by contrast, was started in 1815 by merchant Johann Friedrich Städel as a private foundation. Although it now receives 20 per cent of its operational budget from the city of Frankfurt, with a nominal amount from the state of Hesse, the bulk of its funding still derives from private sources.

Hollein’s nearly six years at the Guggenheim were both formative and a lucky break; he concedes he got his first job there through his father’s connection to Krens when the architect was working on the never realized Salzburg branch of the museum. “Coming from a European framework,” he said, “I was very attracted by the self-confidence of the whole situation.” He was there when the Guggenheim added the Bilbao Museum, branches in Berlin, Las Vegas and the SoHo area of lower Manhattan. “It was an education in sponsorship and how you can drum up support,” he says.

But Krens’s protégé left New York not a moment too soon, since his departure was followed by the collapse of much of the Guggenheim’s financial support, leading to the closure of the Las Vegas and SoHo outposts. Asked if the abrupt end to the boom years proved sobering, Hollein says he learned “to maintain focus on what you’re really in for in the museum world, which is close touch with artists. I got a bit detached from that.”

How has he managed to change the German fund-raising model? “A certain business background helps you a bit in speaking the same language,” Hollein says. “But what was most helpful for me was adopting the New York attitude. A German person would take no as an answer and say, ‘Okay, that’s a decline.’ From my experience at the Guggenheim, I learned that a ‘No’ means I haven’t phrased my question correctly. So you come back again with a different angle. You try to be persuasive but also persistent in finding a solution.” At the same time, Hollein insists, “Programming is not geared towards maximizing attendance, nor towards being an ideal platform for sponsors.”

His success at the three diverse Frankfurt institutions, which keep separate curatorial staffs, led him to be considered recently for the top posts at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the National Museums of Berlin. But Hollein denies reports that he was ever a finalist to succeed Philippe de Montebello at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008 before that job went to Thomas Campbell.

“He is clearly in demand,” says Felix Semmelroth, Frankfurt’s municipal cultural commissioner. “He has considerably raised the cultural profile of Frankfurt and has very adroitly brought over techniques from America, without attempting to replicate them exactly since we have very different political and economic preconditions.”

For the moment, Hollein says he’s content to stay in Frankfurt where he has extended his contracts at all three museums until 2015. “We are showing a certain path,” he says. “Museums in Europe are all scrambling to keep up the level of public sector support. It’s a success if you can maintain it. But you can gain momentum only through private support, and we’re a prime example of how that can be done. I’m using certain methods and professionalism to make the institutions flourish.”