Column: Vacation in my own city

How I came to enter a gallery for the first time, and understood modern art

Our author spent many years quenching her thirst for adventure as a travel blogger, and her adopted home town of Munich was somewhat relegated to a place of relaxation. This column gives her the chance to catch up on some of the things she missed. This time she explores the question as to why she likes to spend time at museums in Munich, but has not visited a gallery yet.

When I’m in a foreign city, not only am I more curious than when at home, I also feel more confident. I feel far more sure of myself to just stumble into some new place, like a gallery for example. True to the motto: I’m a tourist, and I’m allowed to be curious. But I also want to do the same at home.

However, I know nothing about art, least of all when it comes to the modern stuff. While at the museum, I subdivide paintings, sculptures and installations into likes and dislikes, or think in terms of I get it and I don’t get it. Given that it’s only logical that I also have minimal experience of galleries. I’ve been wondering for quite a while now as to how such visits work. Will I be offered a glass of champagne? Can I enter a gallery when wearing shorts? Will I be looked at oddly if I don’t buy anything?

During my research I come across Gudrun Spielvogel, who has run her own gallery for the last 28 years and who, until last year, headed up the "Initiative der Münchner Galerien". I tell her about my inhibitions when it comes to entering a gallery. And she invites me to do just that.

During a hot summer’s day, I take a walk on Maximilianstrasse and ring the bell expectantly at number 45, directly at the Maxmonument. Gudrun Spielvogel has a wonderfully warm charisma. I don’t feel as if I have to buy anything – a big misunderstanding that the gallery owner knows well. “The general belief that everything on the art market has to be commercial by nature triggers the fear in many that they somehow have to buy something. That tends to scare them off” she explains. A visit to the museum is quite different.

When I imagine the big city gallery scene, I see men in bow ties and linen suits next to women dressed in elegant attire, and wearing pricey spectacle frames. I see the flow of champagne and listen to the opening speech of a vernissage, in which I can barely make out a single word.

When I go to the museum, my mind is only focussed on the exhibition itself, or perhaps the building’s architecture – if it's something special. But never on the curator or museum director themselves, or whether they have any expectations of me as a visitor. Mrs. Spielvogel agrees with me on that point. While at the museum I remain anonymous, I make my way with many other people through the rooms and remain unnoticed by all around me. If I don't enjoy the exhibition, I'll just leave after a few minutes and nobody will notice. Of course, I could do the same at a gallery, but wouldn't dare to do so. I mean, someone opens the door, offers me a coffee and shares some more information with me about the artist in a face to face conversation.

When I imagine the big city gallery scene, I see men in bow ties and linen suits standing next to women dressed in elegant attire, and wearing pricey spectacle frames. I see the flow of champagne and listen to the opening speech of a vernissage, in which I can barely make out a single word. Was the art scene at least as chic then as I imagine it to be today? Gundrun Spielvogel laughs out loud. “You also have to factor in the high prices reached at well-known international auction houses, something that also skews the overall perception of the scene. It is believed that galleries simply slosh around in money. Such appearances of a sophisticated and glamorous world, where there is only the flow of champagne, are mistakenly associated with the day-to-day running of small and medium-sized galleries, something that forms the basis of the art business itself.”

I quickly realise that the gallery owner gradually breaks down my inhibitions, so I decide to share my additional concerns with her: When I stand before a modern work of art, I wonder whether I understand that single red line on a white background, or how I am supposed to interpret this intricate metal sculpture. I simply feel overwhelmed and believe everything that I'm told about exhibit 3b. “The famous fire extinguisher” says the gallery owner, referring to the prank that involves telling visitors that the fire extinguisher on the wall is part of the exhibition.

“As soon as we announce a term – perhaps a title – we create a connotation and thus individual experience. It is only now that the work comes to life. That's the interaction between image and viewer.”
Gudrun Spielvogel

I ask her for any tips she may have for newcomers like me who don’t want to ask silly questions, but at the same time do. “More courage. Sit down, take your time, ask yourself questions like: Does the colour appeal to me? What do I understand by this motif? I believe that the sensory network of every human being picks up on what is being conveyed. And perhaps where your receptors fail to find something could simply be because there's nothing there.”

I'll try that out. I turn to a work of art by the artist YeunHi Kim, which consists of four individual wooden boxes sporting different shades of blue. Therein, I see the sea. “The picture’s title is ‘Surf’”, I hear Mrs. Spielvogel say, and I'm glad I hit the bull's eye. The longer I look at this four-part image, the deeper it draws me inside. “As soon as we announce a term – perhaps a title – we create a connotation and thus individual experience. It is only now that the work comes to life. That's the interaction between image and viewer” she explains. That really appeals. I then leaf through the exhibition catalogue because I'm interested in the prices. “Surf” racks up a price of EUR 9,000.00. The cheapest work this exhibition has to offer stands at EUR 2,200.00.

Anyone with a CV like that of Gudrun Spielvogel has, of course, seen and done a lot. When setting out into the big wide world, the German Studies graduate used to write opening speeches and catalogues; she also worked as an assistant at various exhibitions and paid visits to many artists in the US and across Europe when working in publishing. Consequently, she’s all too familiar with ringing the bell and asking to be admitted. “Could you perhaps tell me an odd story from all those years ago” I ask Mrs. Spielvogel and she smiles. A brief silence.

“I’ve got a lovely story for you” she says, and then begins to tell me about a young woman who came to her former gallery located on Oettingerstrasse for a vernissage of John Carter, many years ago. “She was in her mid 20s, and brought her whole gang along with her. She went to a small item on display and said: “I want that.” Her friends couldn’t believe their eyes: what the hell was she doing? This work of art cost 3,000 marks.“ Spielvogel explains that she wanted to give the young woman the chance to back down, saying that she would reserve it for her. At which point the young lady asked why she didn’t want to sell it to her; so the gallery owner then labelled the picture as “sold”.

“The next day, she came back and asked me if she could pay for the work in instalments. The artist gave his consent. However, I could only hand it over after payment in full. So she rode off on her bike and actually came back the next day. Proudly announcing: ‘That should do it!’”

Mrs. Spielvogel laughs at the memory. The young woman had asked her grandmother and her father for help, and had plundered her savings account. This impressed the gallery owner so much that she handed her the work, although this was something usually done after the exhibition had ended. And so the young customer packed up the picture like an uncooked egg in her leather backpack, jumped on her bike and rode off in high spirits.

How nice, when I think about it. But one question still stuck with me. What was it that had fascinated the young woman so much? “I do not know” says the gallery owner. “The work in question was a wonderfully haptic, beautiful work. Turquoise colours with marble powder dust. It was simply a sense of magic between the two.”

"Many gallery owners are keen to introduce people to art, and don’t see those who enter a gallery as potential buyers."
Gudrun Spielvogel

When I say goodbye to Mrs. Spielvogel, I also feel a little enchanted. I never thought that I would enjoy such an accessible feeling to modern art so quickly, and in such playful style.

I make my way home and notice, for the first time, that just a few doors down from my apartment is a gallery. How many times have I passed this place without noticing it? That's when the words of Gudrun Spielvogel ring in my ear: “Munich is home to about fifty small museums that don’t charge admission. Many gallery owners are keen to introduce people to art, and don’t see those who enter a gallery as potential buyers.”

I stop and gaze into the window. I feel myself edging closer to the Munich art scene.

 

Did you know?

open ART München

Since 1989, the month of September has seen the city's galleries open their doors for just three days, in order to bridge the gap between contemporary and modern art and its wider audience. At the same time, the arrival of the art season is heralded after the summer break. Given that it is a concern shared by many gallery owners like Gudrun Spielvogel to reduce that sense of inhibition regarding gallery visits, there are also longer opening hours during the weekend, and visitors are invited to exchange ideas with both artists and organisers.

www.openart.biz

 

PLATEAU münchen

Anyone who missed the open ART, or who won’t be in Munich during September, can catch up on a gallery visit during the Kulturherbst, which lasts from October through to the Christmas season. It stands for inspiring art and cultural events – PLATEAU will be taking place over a two-day period in November. It follows on in seamless fashion from the open ART München and attracts interested visitors to those participating galleries, which are hosting special events and guided tours.

www.plateau-muenchen.de

 

 

Text: Anika Landsteiner; Photos: Frank Stolle

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