Interview with MUCA founder Stephanie Utz

On the power of contemporary art

Together with her husband, Stephanie Utz founded the first museum in Germany for urban and contemporary art – the MUCA. But what exactly is behind it? A conversation about the terminology underpinning contemporary art, why it is sometimes subject to prejudice and what exciting projects the MUCA is implementing.

Once you have passed through the MUCA's exhibition space, a staircase leads to the upper area, where more works are on display. This is followed by the Art Lounge, where Stephanie Utz takes a seat on a sofa. I look around – everywhere in the MUCA you are surrounded by painted walls, framed pictures or free-standing works. From the adjoining restaurant, the Mural, the clattering of dishes and the rattling of the coffee machine rise up to us as we begin our conversation.

The terms street art and graffiti are widely known, but the MUCA is an abbreviation of “Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art”. Why did you choose this name?

MUCA deliberately stands for Urban and Contemporary Art, because we draw attention to the ongoing development of street art and graffiti. We have an educational mission to some extent and want to do away with existing prejudices. In fact, we often deal with artists known to have extremely renowned track records. They sometimes fall into disrepute when street art and graffiti are automatically associated with vandalism in public spaces. To draw a simple dividing line, you need to ask the question: Is this art done in legal or illegal spaces? If something is legal, people don’t speak of classic street art, but of urban art. There are related techniques from the movements, but that doesn't mean that everyone from the street art scene is rooted in graffiti.

On the one hand, you hear that street art belongs on the street and certainly should not be commercialised; on the other hand, it is often said that it still receives too little perception in art discourse. How does MUCA position itself in this regard?

Banksy's work is usually set in a very specific context, which means that he has chosen a precise location for it. For example, when making political references, he chooses specific neighbourhoods. So it is nothing more than absurd to remove such works from their context. For us, this is a clear no-go. We will never remove anything from public space and exhibit it at MUCA.

How is the decision made as to what belongs in the galleries and what doesn't?

It's not possible to answer this question in full, because the answer also lies with the artists. For example, we exhibit artists who work on a not-for-profit basis, as well as with those who want to make a living from their work. That's why I think that we have succeeded in managing a delicate balancing act with MUCA, because we are not a classical museum and our sense of orientation comes from art in public space. Does such an art form belong in a museum? In my opinion, yes, because it has developed beyond what it once was. A museum is a shelter and we have the opportunity to show things that are not feasible in public space due to certain time constraints, the weather and other factors.

"We will never remove anything from public space and exhibit it at MUCA."
Stephanie Utz

As can be seen, for example, in the current exhibition by Swoon which is running until October 4th, 2020.

Exactly. Swoon is a New York artist who works with silhouettes and paste-ups (a poster mounted with paste or glue). It took three weeks to set up on site, but the concept behind it took two years. This is the first retrospective that Swoon has been able to do.

How do you prepare an exhibition? Do the artists approach you or vice versa?

We scout the artists to an extent, because we can experience them live. But we are also very lucky that many of them come to us. When we told the scene that we were going to found Germany's first museum for urban art, there was such a great response that we were overwhelmed with ideas. Actually, I should stop searching (laughs).
But we always create new space. In 2019, together with Kunstlabor we were involved in a project in which we were allowed to use a former Tengelmann complex spanning 5,000 square metres in Munich-Laim (district). 50 artists got to work there.

In the summer of 2019, you were awarded the contract to use the former Gesundheitshaus on Dachauer Strasse for Kunstlabor 2. What can we expect to see there?

It is scheduled to open in the summer of 2020. The 9,000 square metres of space offer plenty of room for exhibition spaces that we can use for a period of five years. Stretching across two floors we will build artists' studios, there will also be an area for children with workshops and gastronomy, video art next to sculptural works and graffiti – all this is to become a centre for art and culture, both inside and outside.

A sign that art is characterised by seamless transitions?

In our minds it is. I can imagine that colleagues from the art-historical world see it somewhat differently. But my personal attitude is: We have to move away from pigeon-holing. In Germany, we tend to classify and categorise. That is somewhat outdated. Today, it's all about removing hurdles. And therein lies the chance to inspire the next generation for art, because we in the museum sector face an age-related challenge.

What does a visionary museum have to achieve today?

Our resolution for 2020 is to become more digital. But we have to be careful that art does not simply become a decal in the mania of digitalisation. What added value is there in going to a museum if you can view and download the pictures in high resolution on your laptop? It has to be a well thought-out mixture of a programme that takes place physically along with digital elements that take you closer to the language of the target group – without losing them.

From my spot on the sofa, I look through the window at a mural directly opposite the MUCA. Better said, a small section of it, because the work that adorns the façade of – what is today still – an active municipal energy supplier is huge: and it has fascinated me from the very first moment.

What is it about the work of art directly opposite?

It was created three years ago as part of the exhibition entitled “The Art Of Writing”. It concerns “calligraffiti”, a mixture of calligraphy and graffiti that very few artists have mastered. What we are looking at is one of the biggest murals in Munich and, at the same time, the only calligraffiti in the city on this scale. It was painted by the Mexican artist Said Dokins. He uses Aztec and Japanese influences in his writing style. The symbolism of his work goes back to the Nazar amulet. A desire held by the artist to bestow the place with power, energy and good wishes. It is a kind of gift to the MUCA itself.

How long did it take to finish?

Just under three weeks, but the biggest drainer on time was the wall itself, because it was so dry that it took tons of paint. The pure fascination of the whole thing for me is that most artists start with a preliminary sketch, which they then have to think about on the immense scale that follows. They stand in front of the wall themselves with half a metre’s distance between them and the wall and, at the same time, they always have to keep the big picture in mind.

Video: MUCA

With the MUCA, you are also consciously bringing the work of women into the spotlight. Is that a matter of the heart?

Especially in street art and urban art, women are clearly under-represented. Swoon is a female pioneer of the scene, which gives her a certain radiance in addition to her own exhibition. My husband Christian and I have a very balanced portfolio in our personal collection, but it's time to not only celebrate female art in private spaces, but also to create more public platforms.

Stephanie Utz points to a free-standing wall directly in front of us, on which a rabbit with a spray can is depicted next to a host of colourful elements.

This work is by Aiko, a Japanese street artist who has turned the male-dominated manga style around and rendered it more feminist. And in our art lounge there are portraits at present of the “Top Ten Women in Street Art”, photographed by Danish star photographer Søren Solkær. All this is necessary because women sometimes lack the courage to market themselves. In artist collectives, men often dominate the front row, but some of the success is due to highly talented women. It's time for them to step forward.

"In artist collectives, men often dominate the front row, but some of the success is due to highly talented women."
Stephanie Utz

How did you yourself come to urban and contemporary Art?

I worked in an advertising agency in my early days. There are plenty of similarities between graphic design and the street art scene, as you can see from the resume of Shepard Fairey, who also comes from the advertising industry. The persiflage of advertising and brands is often a topic embraced in street art. In addition, I was often on the move in the Anglo-Saxon world, where the movement began much earlier, both privately and professionally. But I was never aware that everything would end here (laughs). Being surrounded by this art form has always felt normal to me. Back in Germany, it never failed to astonish me that it wasn't normal and that nobody really knew what street art meant.

That's strange when you consider that Munich was a pioneer of the German graffiti scene, don’t you think?

Exactly. We've seen a big graffiti movement and key historical anchor points in Munich since the 1980s, for example with Loomit and the so-called “Geltendorfer train” as Germany's first whole train (a train whose carriages are completely painted). So why are we hiding? We thought that when the opportunity arises, we ought to change that.

The MUCA also offers a bicycle tour, where you pass different works in the city. Which area in the city’s public sphere is something special for you?

I have a favourite running track that starts at my home and then runs along the Isar. There, it takes me via the underpass of the Friedensengel, which houses a fantastic gallery, curated by Loomit by the way. The changing motifs and the diversity of the different artists motivate me every time anew. The MUCA Bike Tour reveals many facets of art in public space. We hope that vacant spaces will be opened up for cultural workers with even greater frequency. Munich is not only about the Oktoberfest or the Viktualienmarkt, although I appreciate both very much. But in a big city it should also be about the question: what's next?

What you can look forward to in autumn:

Exhibition: "Icons of the URBAN ART"

Street art is omnipresent. It is impossible to ignore it, but it is not always welcome. The MUCA transfers street and urban art into contemporary art thanks to great film and photo documentaries paired with impressive original works, for example by Banksy.
October 30, 2020 - 30 June 2021

Special exhibition: Richard Hambleton - the forgotten shadow man

Hambleton is considered one of the first graffiti artists on the American continent. His tendency towards the morbid showed early on in his works. His most famous works were created in backyards and dark alleys of New York in the 80s. There, he painted in black color distorted shadows of human bodies, which should scare the viewer. A name was soon found for these interventions: the "Shadowman".
October 30, 2020 - June 30, 2021



Text: Anika Landsteiner; Photos: Frank Stolle; Video: Redline Enterprises


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