eipcp Policies
06 2009

Interview with Hans Rudolf Reust

Sønke Gau, Katharina Schlieben

Sønke Gau


Katharina Schlieben




The background of this interview with Hans Rudolf Reust, president of the Federal Arts Commission, is the ongoing difficult financial situation in which artists, initiatives, project and art locations find themselves who pursue a practice that is not primarily oriented on produced (saleable) works, but often favours non-material, research-based participatory and/or communicative approaches which generate knowledge. As we explained in our text Caught Between Two Stools – or on the necessity of considering new approaches to funding culture (an unasked-for final report), this situation is exacerbated by how many institutions funding art and culture continue to primarily support the transport of finished works and the travel and accommodation expenses incurred in connection with the vernissage, while other state offices and foundations are shifting the emphasis of their hitherto basis financing, which in part had enabled productions to be financed. One of these offices in the process of reorganising their financing structures is the Swiss Bundesamt für Kultur (BAK). Under the funding area of “annual subsidies for independent art locations and recurring events of transregional importance”, up until now sums were allotted annually which, while not exactly large, nevertheless promised a certain degree of planning security, not least because the funds were not directly tied to a specific purpose and could thus also be used for producing art. At the beginning of 2008 this form of annual subsidy was discontinued. To be replaced in future by “other funding measures”, the justification given for this grave step was “the continually growing number of regional art locations and, in many cases, their improved financial position means that any further involvement by the BAK is no longer needed”. To fill the gap, “together with Julius Bär Foundation the Swiss Exhibition Award will be awarded for the first time in 2009. Further funding measures for the area of art exhibitions are being discussed with the Federal Arts Commission and will be announced in due time”.

Following talks with colleagues, which only substantiated our initial impression, we by no means subscribe to the claim of an “improved financial situation”, and moreover because we find the concept of the Swiss Exhibition Award with its focus on a public appeal conducive to a mainstream media presence, we joined forces with Andrea Thal from the projectspace “les complices*” to initiate a debate about this shift in funding emphasis. In an open letter which we sent to other exhibiting institutions as well as the BAK, we formulated reservations, criticisms and arguments which many of our colleagues agreed with, but who also complemented them with other points, or partly queried them. The BAK responded to the open letter with an extremely cordial e-mail, explaining, among other things, that the “former budget ‘annual subsidies’ (220 000 CHF) remains discontinued and the amount is earmarked for specific projects; as for the ‘Swiss Exhibition Award’, it is a new parallel event added as an award rewarding successful positioning of art in the public domain, but it will neither replace the “successor” of the annual subsidies nor burden the allocated budget.” Nothing more could be announced at this point in time, because the concepts were to be first discussed at an Arts Commission meeting scheduled for the end of January. The friendly offer to continue the begun discussion and be available for any further inquiries is what we would like to take up in the following – and so we asked the president of the Arts Commission Hans Rudolf Reust how the plans are going.

Sønke Gau/Katharina Schlieben: Dear Mr Reust, as formulated in the open letter and reiterated in the introduction to this interview, the institutions organising art exhibitions who in 2008 received BAK funding from the annual subsidies were told in writing that this form of support would no longer exist in future. On the BAK website one could read until just a few weeks ago that “as a quid pro quo the Swiss Exhibition Award will be presented for the first time in 2009” – this formulation caused some irritation, because it gave the impression that the annual subsidies were to be replaced by a generous prize that however could only benefit one institution. Meanwhile things have been clarified and it is clear that the award is an addition, but the funds still have to be tied to a specific purpose. Could you describe for us what considerations have led to changes in the allocation practice, how the new model will function and where do you expect these changes to generate added value?

Hans Rudolf Reust: To begin with I’d like to apologise for the mistaken phrasing on the BAK website. It has caused a needless stir. Meanwhile the basics are clear: each year the BAK will continue to make available the sum named for funding institutional projects. The Swiss Exhibition Award is an additional initiative, a private-public partnership between the BKA and the Julius Bär Bank, and its aim is to deepen the discourse on the forms of curatorial practice. As far as funding support for the art locations, the Federal Arts Commission and the BAK have indeed decided to change the mode of fund allocation: new is that 9 prizes of CHF 20 000 are to be allocated yearly, and a maximum of 6 prizes up to CHF 5000 for newcomers, i.e. those in existence for less than 4 years. This means a clear reduction in the number of prizes awarded. We had noticed that the number of entries had almost doubled in recent years (2002: 26/ 2008: 59) – in itself a very positive development! But for the individual locations this meant that allotted contributions nominally sunk sharply, that is pure mathematics. Along with the amount though, above all the visibility of the support also diminished. The Swiss state simply does not have the means to promote the arts or architecture systematically or only for representative purposes. The far greater funding is provided as it is in the municipalities and cantons. It is the view of the Arts Commission that the money made available on a federal level, which is only ever enough for an exemplary patronage, has to be given the greatest possible visibility so as to have at least a double impact: as a contributing sum of course but also as a symbolic accolade which can be used in applying for other state and private sources.

Gau/Schlieben: At present new funding models are being discussed at various places. In most cases three approaches are up for discussion and we would like to call them in summary the “watering can-founding”, the “beacon-founding” and the “prize award-founding”. The first approach aims to spread small sums across as many institutions as possible, the second supports institutions with national and in the best case international “charisma” and makes available more funds, while the latter backs competition between the institutions, out of which the “best one” should emerge and for this receive a relatively high prize money. If we have correctly understood the changes, then the BAK and the Federal Arts Commission have decided for a combination of the last two funding instruments. For us this raises the question as to the criteria to be used for identifying the “beacons” and the “best Swiss exhibition”, because opinions can doubtlessly vary greatly. Could you name these criteria?

Reust: Your outline of the possibilities is helpful. I would like to combine the categories two and three differently when describing our hybrid: the prize model shall contribute to generating a nationwide charisma of art locations. It should really mean something to be worthy of receiving this prize, even more so to receive it several times in succession. Following discussions with those involved on the base level, we decided to award a prize where the money can be used as the winner sees fit: for a specific, special project, for artistic production or a publication, or even to cover those costs that sponsors aren’t too thrilled about, like telephone and electricity. Criterion for the comparative evaluation by the Arts Commission is therefore not only a general annual programme or a particularly inspiring project idea, but rather the curatorial attitude and how it is reflected on and developed further from one year to the next. The postulated mission statement can be grasped in terms of its inherent dynamic and compared to other positions and attitudes. Using this as a foil, it is possible to qualitatively compare smaller and larger locations.

Gau/Schlieben: Switzerland has a large variety of smaller and in part self-organised art and culture locations, most of which are not operated as “a profitable” enterprise but with enormous commitment by dedicated persons, who in part work unpaid. Even if the “annual subsidies” granted up until now were not particularly large, they did express an appreciation of the work performed at these locations and at least enabled a minimum of planning security. How do you want to avoid that the situation at these art locations worsens, particularly at a time when additional funding from private foundations is also on the decline?

: Art locations are most certainly not excessively endowed, nowhere in Switzerland. Without all the unpaid work, which is so nicely labelled “idealism”, then in fact everything would come to a standstill. And with the threat of private funding falling away and the knock-on effect this will have for the municipalities, it’s safe to say that the situation will deteriorate even further. To speak generally of an “improved financial environment” for the art locations would be cynical. A differentiated look at the finances shows, however, that there are significant differences between locations and regions. Some alternative locations are not supported at all, whereas others have meanwhile turned into institutions receiving considerable municipal or cantonal funding. There are art locations with budgets which almost match those of public art galleries. Others could at least move into their premises for free or utilize the municipal communications infrastructure. A comparison is therefore hardly possible due to the financing structures alone. With a growing number of small contributions, the modus in place up until now may have been predictable; but under the same label very different effects were achieved. The new modus shall permit us to compare the curatorial approaches with the respective resources and relate them to one another. On a federal level, only those activities are to be supported which have a “national” charisma, as is the wish of the parliament. It all comes down to interpreting this category productively: whoever tries out innovative approaches or whoever, well anchored and networked, brings to life a cultural scene at a specific location, has earned “nationwide” recognition. Rather than the metaphoric of the “beacon” and its connotation of solitary seafaring, I prefer to think in terms of attracting attention as in stage and spotlight, which is exactly what a prize should offer. Here the media has played a helpful role for a long time, but now the lights are being turned off in cultural journalism. We’re looking for possibilities to enhance the visibility of art locations and advance the discourse about their work during the Basel Platform. We are open to any ideas. Ultimately, we should be linking the prizes for individual achievement in exhibiting and presenting art to funding for art locations – which in practice is often difficult to separate in any case. The bottom line is clear: the distinctness and visibility created by prizes is in the end more beneficial for everyone than no money for everyone.

Gau/Schlieben: In our experience, one of the greatest problems is that many institutions and foundations still cling to a concept of art that presupposes finished material works which “only” need to be transported from A to B. Many of the interesting art practices have moved on from this and no longer produce works in the classical sense, but rather may be described as “knowledge generators” working with artistic means. Researched-based, communicative and participatory artistic projects that seek to create publics often require a longer lead-up time, and this in turn makes the presence of artists on site necessary and demands financial means for production and postproduction (communication to the public). Precisely because of their lack of compatibility with the art market, these practices are reliant on other forms of support. It is here that we see an urgent need for action. Do you share this assessment of the situation and how do you see the new direction taken by the BAK’s funding practice in this respect?

Reust: Object-based or research-oriented – is this distinction really so tenable artistically? I share your assessment in so far as amongst the more than 570 submissions to the Swiss Art Awards there are an increasing number of very exciting works which have the status of processes. Our new focus on the self-presentation and reflection of curatorial practice by no means excludes such approaches; should I speak with a sharp tongue, this focus could even be read as an invitation to initiate discussion-oriented modes of practice and “knowledge generators”. Ultimately though, the Arts Commission does not decide about artistic practice. We are not an agency concerned with controlling content and subject matter, but rather we see ourselves as a force for sharpening awareness and bolstering existing energies in the country – from time to time even complimentary to the successful structures in place in the art market. And in the end, the Commission has taken up its own promise and holds itself accountable by publishing a jury report. The Commission is thus obliged to justify its specific choice.