Felix Krämer, General Director of the Kunstpalast, stands in a storage room among packed crates of art.

Deep dive #1: The Kunstpalast – General Manager Felix Krämer on what makes the museum so welcoming

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“People prefer to spend time in places that are welcoming and engaging.”

The Kunstpalast reopened in November 2023, with the stated aim of attracting people who would usually shy away from art. Felix Krämer, the Kunstpalast’s general manager and artistic director, and his team have created a concept that presents art in a new way. A visit to the museum should be a pleasure, and everyone should feel welcome. The Kunstpalast app, augmented reality and the child-friendly spaces designed by children’s author Christoph Niemann all have a role in achieving this. In the first part of our deep dive into the Kunstpalast, Felix Krämer explains the concept and why the Rhino Palast for children is so important to him.

External view of the new Kunstpalast under a blue sky.

Redesigning, renovating and refurbishing a museum like the Kunstpalast is a mammoth project in itself. You used the opportunity to rethink the musuem’s role, with a particular focus on attempting to reach out to everyone through art. What was your inspiration for this? And how do you connect with people who otherwise might not visit a museum?
There is more to running a museum than entertaining regular museum-goers in the best possible way; it is also about appealing to people who maybe haven’t visited a museum since they were children. Few art lovers realise that museums can be intimidating places whose unwritten rules can be difficult for outsiders to understand. Only a minority of people in Germany visit art museums, despite the wide range on offer. This is due to a number of different reasons, and the institutions themselves are one of them. To many people, the idea that visiting a museum can educate and broaden your horizons while also being fun seems like a contradiction. But the fact is that a sense of wellbeing is key to the overall experience when visiting an exhibition. People prefer to spend time in places that are welcoming and engaging. Which is why we established the ‘Palast pilots’ as part of our revamp to give us a better insight into potential visitors and how they view the museum. The criteria for taking part were curiosity and the desire to contribute to the museum’s reinterpretation. Prior knowledge of art and the role of museums was definitely not required. Out of the more than 1,000 applicants, we selected ten local residents – from teenager to pensioner, and games developer to police officer – who over the last three years have joined us in casting a critical eye over all aspects of the museum experience.
As a result, we have expanded the traditional and deliberately restrained presentation of the collection by launching an app developed with our digital partner, Ergo. It’s free to use for visitors and has been designed to break down barriers to visiting the museum, increase accessibility and provide a fun factor.

A woman and a girl in stripy jumpers watch a video installation running on monitors fixed to the ceiling.

You and your team decided to use a chronological order, which means that works that would usually be displayed separately are now juxtaposed. This provides a new understanding of historical contexts, and some surprising insights into what was going on in an era at the same time. Can you explain the appeal of this approach? And how have visitors responded to it so far?
Our approach allows each object in the collection to enjoy the same exposure, distinct from its artistic and historical context. The basic chronological order, which avoids classification by genre or country of origin, provides a means of placing the content. The juxtaposition aims to highlight the similarities between works created during the same period, free of categorisations in terms of style or historic context, and not – as is so often the case – to emphasize what divides them. This results in surprising combinations, such as a 19th century Japanese boro kimono and the painting ‘Potato Harvest’ by Max Liebermann, in which the cloth of the potato picker’s dress shares similarities with the kimono. Elsewhere, sculptures of the Virgin Mary share equal billing with Buddha statues. The concept has been very well received by visitors and is intuitively understood. In an ideal scenario, this form of presentation triggers thought processes and leads to new ways of perceiving our world. Art historians generally like to present the history of art as a precise sequence of different styles, and they consider this to be the main task of art museums. Romanticism here, baroque there; every ‘ism’ has its place, possibly even divided by country. Essentially, these are pigeonholes aimed at navigating a somewhat perplexing landscape. But what is often forgotten is that the history of art is criss-crossed by paths, with plenty of dead-ends and trails leading across barely charted terrain. Museums whose collections have grown over a long period of time are particularly well placed to explore this in detail.

A painting opposite a work of art woven from foil lids.

In our ‘Alle Rhein!’ podcast, you were very vocal about getting children interested in exhibitions. That seems to be an ambition that is close to your heart. There’s even a monthly programme for parents with babies, so inspiring an interest in art in children is obviously very important to you. And you appear to be an exception, certainly among Germany’s museums. What motivates you?
Children are tomorrow’s visitors. If we can’t arouse an interest in the museum while they’re still young, we’ll be facing a problem in the future. We try to engage with all age groups. The youngest through our children’s audio tour developed in partnership with Tonies, and older children and young adults via the new Kunstpalast app, which provides background information and fun features, and uses augmented reality to add another dimension to the experience. The app was developed with our digital partner, Ergo, who assisted us with the launch of our children’s website, Rhino Palast, a few years ago. The Kunstpalast also runs the ‘Die Kleine’ art competition, which provides very young artists, i.e. Düsseldorf’s primary school children, with a platform for showcasing their work. I’m motivated by seeing the children’s genuine interest and the joy in their faces when they realise that the Kunstpalast is theirs too. A place that offers something for them and that takes them seriously.

Four children sitting on the museum floor.
(Photo: Anne Orthen)

Christoph Niemann has designed the collection rooms for children, the Rhino Palace at the Kunstpalast. How did the rooms come about?
The artist and illustrator Christoph Niemann has developed special rooms exclusively for the Kunstpalast that are spread throughout the entire collection and specially designed for young visitors. In the Rhino Palace, children can go on a discovery tour, test the limits of their perception and playfully conquer the museum for themselves. Behind small doors with low-positioned handles, children can expect their very own museum world: pens that take on a life of their own, a fountain pen that paints stairs or a tunnel of flowing points of light at the end of which something unexpected is hidden. Christoph Niemann has designed a wide variety of optical illusions in a fun, creative and surprising way for children of all ages and the adults accompanying them. Using graphic elements, projections and light, he creates a play with perspectives, proportions and movement. Niemann's works convey that seeing is always also interpretation and perception is a creative process - this changes the way we look at art.
It was important to me to integrate our children's rooms directly into the tour of the collection and not to assign children a separate area. The Rhino Palast sees itself as an invitation to families to visit the museum together.

Felix Krämer and illustrator Christoph Niemann in one of the children’s spaces.
Felix Krämer and Christoph Niemann (on the right) in one of the children’s spaces designed by the illustrator.

The Kunstpalast reopened two months ago.Would you like to share any surprising events, or encounters, that will always remember you of the opening day?
There are quite a few that come to mind. But one of the most memorable experiences was seeing the children’s joy as they discovered – with a helping hand from the Tonie speakers − that the Kunstpalast exists for them too. They feel right at home here, you can tell from their body language. Children relaxing on the floor of a museum – I can hardly imagine a greater compliment!

kunstpalast.de

Interview: Cynthia Blasberg
Photos: Kunstpalast

Deep Dive is the new series on our ‘Düsseldorf stories’ blog. It delves deeper into topics that are particularly interesting and relevant to Düsseldorf. The second part of the deep dive into the Kunstpalast features an interview with Joachim Sieber from Sieber Architekten, who was responsible for the Kunstpalast’s redesign.

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