I am always amazed how I happen to cross paths again with people I have not seen for some time. In the most recent case it actually was 13 years. During my stay at home in Austria, one of my high school friends told me to get back in touch with Julia Hartmann, who graduated from high school with us. My friend thought we might have a lot of things in common.
And she was right. Julia not only is a world traveler who has, like me, also lived in Hong Kong for some time but also is she active in the art scenes in Vienna and Berlin as an independent art curator and an evangelist for female empowerment. One of her most recent projects is “SALOON Vienna”, a platform for women in the arts, which she has just launched with her co-founder, Aline Lara Rezende. Let me take you to the beautiful café at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Art History Museum Vienna) where I got a glimpse into Julia’s work and daily life as an art curator.
After Julia and I graduated from high school, Julia pursued her studies in Art History at the University of Graz, Austria. In her Master’s thesis, she analyzed critical contemporary art from China. In the course of an internship at the Vienna Secession, she had the chance to work with Catherine David, the first female head curator of documenta. When she told me about that experience, her eyes lit up and she started smiling:
“You know, my studies were really theoretical and I had no clue about curating and contemporary art. And here I was, next to Catherine David at the Secession, two landmarks in art history. That was just surreal.” From then on, Julia knew she wanted to become an art curator.
The next step was a curatorial residency in Berlin for three months. Such a residency is a get-together of young curators with the common goal to work on one exhibition together. For Julia, this residency was key to building up her international network. “I can still rely on this network today.” It was also where she met her SALOON Vienna co-founder Aline. Furthermore, she realized that networking is as important as your performance.
She still considers Berlin as a great place to start out for young people in the art scene. “It was much easier than, for example, starting out here in Vienna. Berlin is just full of art everywhere you go – you meet artists, curators, gallerists, musicians, just simply by being in a bar or a café. It is a city that attracts people from everywhere.” Julia adds that there are great institutions and projects that also support artists and curators outside of the big cities as well. Nevertheless, a lot of people choose to go to cities like Berlin because of the ease to connect with likeminded people, with people who just get you.
“For a young artist or curator, it is important to be seen. And in Berlin, this is fairly easy. There are so many independent venues. You can rent a room and just start an exhibition. The atmosphere is very open.” Of course, Julia had to tap into her savings to be able to make it in Berlin. “But that’s what everybody does, we all see it as an investment into our future.”
“Berlin is like a stage for artists and curators. The aim is to be seen. It is not a big market of buyers like in Vienna. But as a young person in the art scene, you need that stage.”
Julia not only improved her networking skills but learned how to organize exhibitions, curate them, raise funds and market the event. “For your CV, it is actually better to do your own projects. Because the institutions you will apply for in the future appreciate this experience. You have to be bold and flexible and you know how to work with limited budgets.”
After her time in Berlin, Julia came back to Austria and took over a job as an assistant curator at the 21er Haus, which is part of the famous Belvedere Museum in Vienna. After more than two years in that position, her next logical career step was to become an independent curator.
Should young students aim to become curators in the future? “At first, I would suggest to carefully think about which type of work you prefer. Do you want a stable work environment or not?” Julia adds that there are a lot of different types of curators – not only when it comes to the type of art (contemporary or classic) requiring different types of exhibitions but also when it comes to the specific institution. In a small organization, the curator will need to do most of the tasks by themselves while in big museums, curators work with deparments such as “exhibition management”. This leaves the curator with the main task of conceptualizing and planning the exhibition. For most of the operational steps, the curator will need to manage various departments.
The long-term goal of most curators is to work for a bigger institution. However, at the moment, these positions become fewer and fewer. A lot of governments need to save and decrease budgetary spending on art. This leads to fewer curators taking over more tasks.
“The way we use the word “curating” has become a bit careless. It has become a fashionable term. I hear people curate their Instagram accounts or even flower arrangements! Because of this thoughtless use, the profession of a curator is often being looked down on.”
Julia describes the typical traits of independent curators as having to show their own initiative, pitch and sell your concepts to potential partners and be very flexible.
Julia’s main focus is on consciousness raising. Whether it is about being a woman in the art world or topics influencing our everyday life. In a digitalized world, there is no question about the importance of social media. Julia thinks that it has become much easier for artists to increase their visibility without being too dependent on galleries. Nevertheless, the importance of physical exhibitions is still there. Having your own exhibition or being represented by a gallery is like a quality seal and means prestige.
Julia and I happened to be in Kassel for documenta at the same time this year. However, we obviously missed each other. I asked her about her views on the event.
“As a curator, it is essential to understand the needs of the visitors. The curator decides how much information is shared in the booklets or texts. This years’ documenta has been criticized because of the lack of sharing information about the artists and their works. I think it is crucial to share at least some background of an artwork, especially when the artists themselves think it is necessary. ”
The reasons for her professional choice to become a curator were passion and idealism. Throughout the whole conversation, Julia’s passion for contemporary art was not only obvious but also captivating. If there was a plan B for her, I ask.
“I cannot think of doing anything else, my mission, it seems, is to be a curator.”
According to Julia the passion of people working in the art scene is very unique. Very rarely do you meet artists, for example, who do it to make big money. Most of her fellow curators and artists feel the same way as Julia herself. They want to have an impact.
Julia also runs an art blog where she writes about artists who are not represented by galleries as yet. She thinks this project has mutual benefits as the artists appreciate an external perspective on their works. In general, Julia aims to build bridges between art and everyday life.
In general, Julia is always looking for new collaborations with artists. When she starts conceptualizing an exhibition, it is because a certain topic captivates her. She often reads a lot about these topics. The most exciting part is to pick works that might not fit to the topic at first sight. Very often, the visitors of her exhibitions do not come from the art world. They often come because of the topic. Julia wants to create what she calls an “aha-effect” – she wants to make people reflect about the topic. One of her most recent exhibitions “Search for …Serendipity” was a reflection on how digital algorithms shape our everyday life and our future minds.
In her view, some people might be hesitant to occupy themselves with contemporary art because of the fear of not understanding it. Therefore, they might not even try. People are often afraid to look silly and react negatively to modern art if they do not understand it immediately. A root cause is the lack of education in the field of contemporary art – at universities and high schools alike. At many university institutes, there is still no department for contemporary art. In Berlin, people were much more open towards contemporary art. Maybe the difference in the educational system is a reason for it. Even though art is omnipresent in Vienna, its imperial heritage can sometimes be a bit discouraging for art newbies. Nevertheless, Julia thinks that a lot of people find it easier to relate to classic art: it is part of our history, we know about these topics, we learned about them in school. Contemporary art does not necessarily cover different topics than its classic counterpart but the ways of expression have changed drastically since the 1960s and the start of conceptual art.
When asked about current political right-wing movements across Europe and Donald Trump in the US, she puts on a cheeky smile and says: “I think they are actually doing the art world a favour, because art will get better. People who lack the drive might stop. But the sincere ones become stronger the more headwinds they have to face. I think that the current backward movement in feminist values will lead to more and better activist feminist art. The more they take away from us, the more will we fight. And art will be a tool for that.”
Julia’s contribution to this topic is the newly launched SALOON Vienna. The idea of SALOON was born in Berlin by Tina Sauerländer and its mission is to develop an independent network for women in the arts – artists, curators, gallery owners, journalists etc. Its aim is to facilitate collaboration and encourage its members to mutually support each other. With another branch in Paris, the Vienna hub will be the newest addition to the network.
Julia started the project together with her co-founder Aline Lara Rezende. The two decided to start SALOON Vienna because they felt the need for a strong and active female network in Vienna. Despite Vienna’s long tradition of arts and culture, the city still lags behind other European cities like Berlin when it comes to actively connecting with likeminded people. The network has now an open call for applications. The short profiles of the members will be published on the website to make them visible and enhance the potential for collaborations among the members and external parties.
It is planned to host monthly get-togethers such as studio visits, discussions or exhibition visits – like the very first one: the SALOON Vienna kick-off event takes place next week, on 5 September 2017 at 6pm at the MAK (Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna. It involves the visit of the exhibition “Hello Robot” with a guided tour by contributing catalogue author and SALOON Wien co-founder Aline Lara Rezende and will end at Café Englaender. More info on the SALOON Vienna Website.
Pictures courtesy of Julia Hartmann.