“Art Is Never a Good Sedative”

Interview with Hortensia Völckers

Stan Hema

About Hortensia

Hortensia Völckers (Halle) has been Artistic Director of the German Federal Cultural Foundation since 2002. She previously worked in an executive role for the documenta X in Kassel and the Wiener Festwochen in Vienna.

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On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, the Federal Cultural Foundation is promoting a multi-faceted overall program about the historical heritage, the international impact and the contemporary relevance of the Bauhaus. It aims to introduce the Bauhaus to a broader public by narrating Bauhaus history, communicating Bauhaus ideas and setting new impulses. To what extent does the Bauhaus still prove to be a role model or icon of avant-garde modernism in Germany, for interdisciplinary, collective shaping and as an impulse for practical changes? Who are today's avant-garde, the designers of today for tomorrow?

What stirs your curiosity?


Artists make me curious. The way they perceive things, the spaces, horizons and systems in which they work or which they produce for their work. But, here, something has changed. The more strongly we open ourselves up to a global world, a globally interconnected world, the more we lose our sense of certainty in our ability to gain a reliable overview of what we might once have called the state of the art. Everything has become much more complex, more fluid. This means the responsibility of our decisions about providing funding weighs all the more heavily on me; on the other hand, though, the foundation’s opportunities to shape things have also increased. It is important to me that, with our help, cultural institutions can try out how they might structure things very differently in the future and thus make themselves even more attractive for a changing audience. I’m interested in unconventional approaches to problem-solving. And with each one of our programs, I’m curious about whether our funding really does function as a multiplier, whether we can make something happen with it on a national level, stimulate new topics.

What current developments in the cultural sector have you observed that you would associate – independently of 100 years of bauhaus – with the Bauhaus?

I think of digitization, first of all. It is fundamentally changing the conditions in our society. And also culture. Looking back, the Bauhaus was a milestone in art and architecture. The emergence and development of design, for example, are inconceivable without the Bauhaus. Even a decade ago, we might still have called the Bauhaus revolutionary. Today, confronted with the dimensions of digitization, we are forced to use this term more cautiously. The possibilities of virtual reality and the massive use of social media have changed the structure of the public sphere so radically that we can now barely imagine how we lived and were productive when they didn’t exist yet. What is happening in art and culture is also much more present in the digital public sphere. One of the consequences is a new realm of tension between culture and politics. Culture has recently undergone an enormous politicization, has become loaded with a metapolitical aspect. Culture is becoming the scene and sometimes even the battleground of political debates. That’s unsettling.

Are art and culture one possible way to counter the new division in society?

Art is never a good sedative. Indeed, at the moment, we can actually see that different understandings of art and culture even contribute to dividing our society. I find this makes it that much more important to support programs that very deliberately attempt to contribute to the cohesiveness of our society. For example, our program for town and city public libraries seeks to turn them into so-called third places – cultural meeting places for the entire civic society, which has become very diverse. Much the same applies to our program dealing with cultural change in rural regions. Or there’s the program 360°, the Fund for New City Cultures, in which we seek to allow the experiences and skills of people with immigrant backgrounds to benefit institutions. It is difficult to counter the loud, populist, polarizing style through cultural policy without making the divide even larger.

Stan Hema

What led to projects being provided with funding in the context of 100 years of bauhaus?

From the very beginning, we said: there will not be more money for the exhibition than for education. This principle is genuinely important to me. Many peoples’ thinking is still dominated by the idea that the one faction is intellectual and anchored in the arts scene, while the other somehow tries to do its best to deal with kids. Things can’t go on that way in the long term. It is indispensable for the future of our culture that experimenting with our concept of museum education be embraced as a given. In a creative way, this needs to be granted a certain priority in our support for culture.

How can your discrete efforts in this realm lead to structural changes?

Changing schools is one of the greatest challenges of all. Here, there are simply too many conflicting interests: from those of politicians to teachers to parents and students, who are always looking to contribute more. This is accompanied by the fact that familiar standards will shift or have already shifted, for example, regarding the use of digital media in teaching. Or also the question of how much and which intercultural competency is needed by each young person (regardless of his or her ethnic origins) in a society defined by cultural diversity. Perhaps this is more important today than the correct placement of commas.

This issue of our magazine is, of course, particularly focused on the topics of teaching and performance. Which projects from the Bauhaus Today Fund do you nd particularly exciting in this regard?

The Floating University Berlin deals in a quite unacademic manner with transdisciplinary learning and teaching as well as performative interventions. Or Richard Siegal’s contribution, which will also be part of the Bauhaus opening festival. Like a piece by Nico and the Navigators for the Masters’ Houses in Dessau, his work is occupied with the theme of Bauhaus and virtual reality. And, of course, we also consider the topic of digital media, for example, at the exhibition “The Amateur: From the Bauhaus to Instagram” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg.

You were born in Buenos Aires, which was profoundly shaped by modernist architecture. What is the Bauhaus for you?

Not primarily the undoubtedly beautiful buildings or the perfectly formed chairs. What is fascinating – and still continues to be so today – is the phenomenon of the exceptional constellation that arises when artists put their own independent work and career on the back burner for a certain period of time in order to create something new together. Ideally, decisions of this kind lead to genuine experiments and laboratories for the future. This radical break, this completely free approach to art, also later appeared once more among the successors of the Bauhaus, at Black Mountain College, which I consider no less exciting, by the way.

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Hortensia, thank you for the interview!

This article was originally published in the third issue of the “bauhaus now” magazine.

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