WHAT IS A KUNSTVEREIN?
An essay by Rebecca O’Dwyer
The building is three storeys tall and painted in a light salmon pink. Situated at the end of a row of similar houses, its front door is painted in a contrasting shade of light grey; a pretty bay window sticks out from the second floor. If I had to guess, I’d say that it was built at the beginning of the twentieth century, maybe even the very end of the nineteenth. Out front, there is a bench fashioned from what looks like granite; over the ground-floor window, a wide lintel, painted in the same shade of steely grey and emblazoned with the word ‘Kunstverein’ in a no-nonsense sans serif font.
This, self-described ‘Kunstverein’ is situated at the intersection of Main Street and Glen Road in Aughrim, Co. Wicklow, a village home to just under 1,500 people. Best known for the superior granite once quarried in nearby Tinakilly, the village lies in a scenic valley in the Wicklow Mountains where the Ow and Derry rivers meet to form the Aughrim River. While only situated 80 km south of Dublin, Arklow is, like the majority of rural Irish towns, fairly inaccessible by public transport. The nearest train station is almost 10 km away in Arklow, and, if you want to reach the village by bus, you will also need to be channelled through Arklow. All I mean to say here is that this Kunstverein – whatever this is – is pretty hard to reach. Perhaps understandably, there has never been an art centre in Aughrim, though there is one, the Courthouse Art Centre, in the neighbouring village of Tinahely.
Now, what exactly is a ‘Kunstverein’? In its broadest terms, a Kunstverein (plural: Kunstvereine) is a member-led exhibition model for the presentation of contemporary art. Coming from the German words for art (Kunst) and club or association (Verein), it is a hallmark of the German, rather than Irish, cultural landscape. According to the website of their central lobbying body, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine (ADKV), there are approximately 280 of them, with more than 150,000 members, located throughout Germany, with a handful in Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Sweden and Norway. On a map on the ADVK’s homepage, these Kunstvereine are represented by luminous-green circles dotted all over the country, with particularly tight clusters in the west of the country within the wider basin of the Rhine.
While none are in places quite so small as Aughrim, Kunstvereine are commonly located in towns of 20,000 or less: by German standards, villages. Scrolling through the list of Kunstvereine on the ADKV website, I am struck by just how few of the towns’ names I recognise. Neither do the Kunstvereine appear more concentrated in places more commonly associated with art production. In the southwest of the country, Baden-Württemberg, for example – home of the Black Forest, Porsche and Mercedes Benz – has sixty-three Kunstvereine, whereas Berlin only has nine. Kunstvereine also vary hugely in size. With 8.5 square metres of exhibition space, an annual budget of €10,000, and about 200 members, the Neue Kunstverein Gießen, about an hour north of Frankfurt, claims to be the smallest Kunstverein in Germany. Founded in 1829, Düsseldorf's Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen is one of the largest, with over 3,000 members. So, more than twice the population of Aughrim.
At first glance, the Kunstverein might look like a typical art gallery, but it is not. What sets it apart is the membership component, which can be seen as its central distinguishing characteristic. In contrast to institutions like contemporary art museums, anyone can join a Kunstverein and assume a role in its running. The level of participation varies massively: being a member of a small Kunstverein might entail quite an active role; in a larger one, mainly a nominal, supportive one. Typically, individual membership is eminently affordable, in the double digits, while corporate memberships can stretch into the hundreds and even thousands. And while membership probably presupposes a firm interest in contemporary art, it is not a prerequisite. It is enough to have a Kunstverein in your town and want it to keep on existing, much in the same way as you would any social club.
While the Kunstverein can be translated as an art ‘association’ or ‘club’ there are a number of other features that need to be in place for it to be described as one. For one, all Kunstvereine are dedicated to supporting and exhibiting contemporary art. Like all Vereine, by law they are not permitted to be motivated by profit but for the benefit of their members. When it comes to their funding structure, they are funded through a mixture of memberships, public funding and sponsorship. Typically, Kunstvereine are also ruled by a board, which is responsible for appointing a Director and Curator. One exception here is the NGBK on Oranienstraße in Berlin, which is organised through a direct-democracy system in which all members can form workgroups and make suggestions with regard to programming.
Before returning to the three-storey building in Aughrim, though, it's worthwhile to make a brief detour back to the historical origins of the Kunstverein. Where did it come from? Maybe predictably, the Kunstverein has its roots in the movement known as the Enlightenment, described by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, writing in a Berlin periodical in November 1784, as the ability to use one’s own reason without direction from another —Aude sapere (dare to know) — or what he called ‘mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity.’ This questioning, independent spirit coincided with the birth of mercantilism and with it, the birth of the bourgeois public sphere. In Germany and other European countries like France and England, the middle classes were coming to meet and discuss ideas, art and politics in salons and coffee houses. Orthodoxy of all kinds was coming under scrutiny.
While emerging at the tail-end of the Age of Enlightenment, mostly during the first part of the nineteenth century, it is unthinkable to consider the origins of the Kunstverein without this socio-political context. Guided by democratic principles, they were established by middle-class citizens and artists who felt that everyone – or at least, everyone within a still fairly circumscribed part of the population, by and large, middle-class men – should be able to access art, and not only the wealthy nobility. The Kunstvereine were to give the art-interested public an insight into the production of art and also to allow artists to sell work. Indeed, one of the central characteristics of the earliest Kunstvereine were annual lotteries or Losverfahren in which members could win works of art. Many artists were not exactly happy with this situation, feeling that such democratisation cheapened their art and prevented it from being bought by serious collectors.
It is also worth examining the word Verein a little more closely. Created from the common German prefix ver, which often refers to a change of state or direction, and ein, meaning ‘one,’ we can see that the Verein, even on this linguistic level, signifies a space in which something singular and monolithic takes another direction. It is rendered multiple, and this multiplicity is reiterated in praxis, in the Verein, where groups from various backgrounds are able to self-organise horizontally, at a distance from the State. The Kunstverein, then, as with all Vereine, can be seen as an expression of liberation movements and, in its multiplicity, existed critically vis-a-vis the top-down power of the State. Because of this, they were initially viewed with suspicion, controlled or even banned. Indeed, the right to association or Vereinsrechtwas only guaranteed by the State in 1848.
Now one of the country’s largest, the Hamburger Kunstverein, for example, was founded in 1817 by middle-class citizens who simply wanted a space in which to meet and discuss works of art. After a while, these small, private discussions were complemented by exhibitions, with early showings by the young guns of the day – among them Caspar David Friedrich, Phillip Otto Runge and Arnold Böcklin. Crucially, this social component plays a key role in the Kunstvereine of today, with membership often bolstered by social events like dinners, trips and private viewings. And, even as contemporary Kunstvereine are funded primarily through public funds, this intrinsically social character is another feature setting it apart from other, more traditional models of exhibiting contemporary art.
This history notwithstanding, it is probably still valid to ask why Germany has so many Kunstvereine. Though it is a huge country with a population of just over 83 million, nearly 300 Kunstvereine, along with museums of contemporary art, still sounds like a lot. One reason for their ubiquity is simply the federal system of Germany, through which the sixteen individual counties or Bundesländer are free to make their own decisions in key areas including culture. Dr Friedrich Meschede, former-Director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, explains it in the following terms:
‘The decentralization of German art in the federal republic is due to our
constitution. In 1949, they wanted to avoid, as it was during the Nazi regime, centralized cultural politics. That meant the responsibility for culture was given to each county. Today France has one minister of culture. Germany has one for each county.’This federalised system – lately cited as one reason for the country's by-turns efficient and disastrous handling of the pandemic – means that Bundesländer enjoy huge amounts of freedom when it comes to cultural funding. The only condition – and it’s a rather obvious one – is that the money has to be spent within the Bundesland itself. Consequently, rather than being stuck in metropolitan bottlenecks, art traverses another minor but intricate set of tributaries.
Another reason for the ubiquity of Kunstvereine, however, is less definable: German people, for whatever reason, seem to really like getting involved. Approximately 44 per cent of Germans are members of at least one Verein. Their names chased by the letters ‘e.V.’ (eingetragener Verein meaning ‘registered association’), in total there are approximately 600,000 of them, with roughly one-fifth of these dedicated to sports. They span hobbies, charitable associations, and self-help groups; really, anyone can establish a Verein, dedicated to just about anything, granted that they can convince another six people to sign up. All this is simply to emphasise that Kunstvereine should not be considered in isolation, but rather as part of a larger system of grassroots, non-profit-oriented organisations in Germany.
But what are the advantages of the Kunstverein model? One advantage lies – perhaps paradoxically, because it is also seen as a drawback – in its transience. In contrast to contemporary art museums, the Kunstverein is an extremely mobile and flexible space. It does not build collections of its own but instead focuses on exhibiting new and upcoming art. One reason for this is purely pragmatic: Even with State funding, most Kunstvereine simply do not have adequate resources to collect art. The upshot of this lack, however, means that the Kunstverein is always being remade, always starting from scratch. In this, it is firmly dedicated to present-day art, providing a rare opportunity for young artists to show new work, or for curators to play around with more novel modes of curating and displaying art.
This lack of fixity often leads to an experimental spirit across Germany’s Kunstvereine, and a willingness to exhibit new and untested art. Many young international artists have their first institutional showing in a Kunstverein; to take but one example, the Irish artist Andy Fitz’s first institutional show in Germany recently ran at the Kunstverein Göttingen, a small city in Niedersachsen in the middle of the country. In the post-war period, it was also not uncommon for international artists – who, having more or less “made it” at home – to have their first European showing in a German Kunstverein. At this time, the Kunstvereine were known for their adventurous spirit, most notably through their entanglement with the Fluxus movement which flourished across West Germany after the Second World War. This spirit endures into the present day.
Taking all of this into consideration, Kunstverein Aughrim (KVA) is not, strictly speaking, a Kunstverein. For one thing, while it has a board, a curating Founding Director, Kate Strain, and is dedicated to contemporary art, it is not really dedicated to exhibiting it. Neither does it yet have members, a fairly essential characteristic when we’re thinking about Vereine in general. As I see it, it is better to understand KVA as a Kunstverein in spirit, or perhaps an aspirational one. Additive, it constitutes a critical, supplementary node in the production of contemporary art, somewhere between the artist’s studio and the museum or gallery space. Crucially, at KVA artists have the possibility of support. It offers a space for them to try out new things, in a public setting, with intensive curatorial feedback.
Though small exhibitions, performances or works in progress are often exhibited in and around the KVA, the actual exhibitions mainly happen elsewhere; for example, Áine Mac Giolla Bhríde’s solo exhibitions at the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny and Derry’s Void Gallery, or Sonia Shiel’s at VISUAL Carlow. One reason for this is practical: There is simply not enough space to hold large-scale exhibitions of art. Another reason is more interesting: By dedicating itself to work that appears elsewhere, KVA can concentrate on supporting the production of contemporary art. In an Irish context that offers little support of this kind – art, once funded, just kind of gets made – it is this trait that sets it apart. Great art, after all, typically emerges from a set of favourable conditions: to say otherwise, I think, is to negate the politics underscoring what gets made and what does not.
Kunstverein Aughrim positions itself, then, as an agency-like entity part of a network of other similar, kind-of Kunstvereine; namely, the franchise established by Kunstverein in Amsterdam, with outposts in Milan, New York and Toronto. Common across this franchise – rather than a membership model, because Aughrim does not yet have one – is an interest in expanded ways of running a contemporary art institution: in the words of Kunstverein Amsterdam, by ‘working against the drive to produce calendar-based programming and … refuting the exhibition as the format that sits at the top of the food chain.’ For KVA and her sister Kunstvereine, the exhibition is just one possible output. Taking precedence, instead, are the various points along that process, or the moments in art-making that move alongside or even in opposition to it.
Kunstverein Aughrim is, then, not exactly a Kunstverein. But what if it was? How would this model play out in Ireland? The Republic of Ireland has twenty-six counties, with the same number of local councils, each of which works alongside the Arts Council to allocate arts funding. Ireland, like Germany, has a similarly decentralised network of art exhibition venues. These are not called Kunstvereine though, by and large, but art centres. According to the Arts Council website, it currently provides programming and revenue support to almost fifty arts centres throughout the country. These are situated in large cultural hubs like Wexford, Drogheda and Cork, as well as much smaller towns like Tinahely or my hometown of Thurles. These, according to the website, ‘will typically support the creation, presentation and mediation of the arts across a range of art forms, enabling practices that can be professional, collaborative, participatory or amateur.’
When compared to Germany, Ireland has in fact more art centres per capita. As the above quote makes clear, however, these art centres are tasked with presenting all kinds of art forms, and not only professional contemporary art. In reality, this means that art often takes a fairly secondary role, especially when art centre funding is hinged on visitor numbers and community engagement. When we consider the number of publicly-funded spaces in Ireland that are dedicated solely to the presentation and/or support of contemporary art, the number is much, much smaller; I'd hazard they could be counted on two hands. Looking at the situation this way, we can see that Ireland has a noticeable dearth in the number of venues that are dedicated to contemporary art. Across the broad network of art centres, contemporary art by necessity has to compete with other art forms. Kunstvereine, by contrast, would be a community-led platform for the exhibition of contemporary art and nothing else. It would not have to compete. Ireland, like Germany, already has a long history of community organising – to take two notable examples, the GAA, which has roots in almost corner of the island, and Tidy Towns, in which Aughrim has been an active participant for decades. So, while the outputs are different from Germany, it is worth emphasising the presence of the same spirit. Given the right approach, it is entirely thinkable that this could be re-routed into the support, if not the exhibition, of contemporary art.
Let’s return to Aughrim, then. While it does not have members – or at least, not yet – since its foundation in 2022 Kunstverein Aughrim taps into this community spirit, acutely aware of the fact that – if a Kunstverein is ever going to work in a village like Aughrim – it can only ever work by getting the community on board. Rather than simply setting up shop in order to cater to an audience located elsewhere, Kunstverein Aughrim has piggybacked on pre-existing communities – in Aughrim, as well as all over the world. Of course, only time will tell whether this will be a successful model. But by very consciously taking the name of a form it has not quite reached, Kunstverein Aughrim commits to an intrinsically rooted model of supporting and exhibiting contemporary art. As well as tapping into pre-existing communities, such a model could help forge new ones along a network that includes Dublin, and the urban, rather than being determined by it. And that sounds long overdue.
 Extremely mistakenly, as it turns out: It was built in 1998.
 The most pertinent Austrian Kunstverein being of course the Grazer Kunstverein in Graz. Kate Strain, Founding Director of Kunstverein Aughrim, was its Artistic Director from 2016-2021.
 ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ (1784) in J. Schmidt, ed., 1996, What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-Century Answers and Twentieth Century Questions (Berkeley, LA & London: University of California Press, p. 58)
 The oldest Kunstvereine in Germany include the Albrecht-Dürer-Gesellschaft in Nürnberg (1792), the Hamburger Kunstverein (1817, with a formal foundation in 1822) and Karlsruhe’s Badischer Kunstverein (1818).
 Christoph Behnke (2001) ‘Zur Gründungseschichte Deutscher Kunstereine’ in Tatort Kunstverein: Eine kritische Überprüfung eines Vermittlungsmodells (Nürnberg, Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2001) pp. 11-21.
 Quoted in Francesca Gavin, ‘What the World Can Learn from Germany’s Small-Scale Institutions,’ Artsy, 8 April 2015: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-what-the-world-can-learn-from-germany-s
 From a legal point of view, with over 600,000 full-time employees, the German Caritas Association is a Verein. With 16 million members, the Allgemeine Deutscher Automobilclub – basically the German equivalent of AA – is the largest one in Germany.
 It is hard not to consider the huge explosion in the number of these associations without also thinking about the waning role of other institutions in post-war period.
 For example, the first exhibitions of Jackson Pollock (1958) and Francis Bacon (1965) at the Hamburger Kunstverein.
 For more information: https://kunstverein.nl/about-us/
 Admittedly, an unfair comparison: Germany’s exhibition of contemporary art is not reserved to Kunstvereine, but also spans Kunsthalle, which collect art, as well as more traditional museums and galleries.