Larissa Harris, Christian Rattemeyer, Nicolaus Schafhausen
The following text summarizes a series of Zoom conversations conducted between Larissa Harris, Christian Rattemeyer, and Nicolaus Schafhausen during August and September 2020.
THE ORIGIN STORY
Ludlow 38 has a very particular origin story and evolution. It comes out of a traditional German Foreign Office, Cold War era approach to cultural diplomacy, and the Goethe-Institut was the vehicle.
Starting in 2008, Ludlow 38 was programmed each year by a different German Kunstverein (Kunstverein München, European Kunsthalle Cologne, Künstlerhaus Stuttgart). This added institutional marketing and city marketing to the mission of cultural diplomacy. Kunstvereine are some of the oldest contemporary arts organizations in Germany, and they are very proudly regional; culture in Germany is a matter for the federal states to administer—to a large extent, it is not a national concern. Ludlow 38 combined the national aim for cultural diplomacy abroad with this decentralized tradition of cultural production in Germany. When exported to New York City—arguably the international center of the contemporary art world—the task was then to establish a presence and set up a program that could compete with everything else going on. For the Goethe-Institut, this particular approach to cultural diplomacy was new. To some extent, it was about Berlin versus New York, about being hip, being in the center; Berlin was and remains an alternative to the capital-driven New York.
The neighborhood was a factor in the selection of the program’s location. The Goethe-Institut chose a boundary area between the Lower East Side and Chinatown, on a block where, at the time, small Chinese businesses were in the majority amongst other immigrant-run lingerie, menswear, and luggage outlets. There were only a handful of art-related endeavors nearby, and they were all engaged in a closely related strain of post-conceptual, institutional-critical art-making / thinking / circulation, with meaningful connections to Europe. Orchard operated at 47 Orchard Street between 2005-2008; Miguel Abreu Gallery started in 2006 at 36 Orchard (in 2014 Abreu opened an additional, much larger space a few blocks away). In the basement of the building that housed Ludlow 38 was the design and publishing partnership Dexter Sinister. Within this context, Ludlow 38 presented numerous European artists for the first time in New York. The importance of these presentations should not be underestimated.
Three years into Ludlow 38, the model changed and Tobi Maier, who had been the coordinator since 2008, became the first curator in residence. The Goethe-Institut initiated one-year fellowships for young curators from Germany, who were selected by a jury comprised of New York- and Germany-based people. Tobi then invited us to act as jurors, with Christian Rattemeyer and Larissa Harris brought in as local jurors, and Nicolaus Schafhausen representing the European perspective. Together this team helped bridge the transition between Tobi as first curator in residence and the others who would follow, invited through a juried selection process.
With this transition, Ludlow 38 switched from being a platform that was predominantly driven by an idea of institutional representation to functioning as an arm of the Goethe-Institut that was training the next generation of curators. Each curatorial participant could bring something of Germany with them to New York, learn about art in the city and the US, and then take that back with them to Germany. The juried format for inviting curators meant that the aim of the program was never prescribed, allowing the jury to set an agenda every year based on the pool of applicants.
Because Ludlow 38 understood itself as a residency program, it is important to ask what role it played in the context of the New York art world, especially downtown. Was it only for a specific local or expert audience, or for a general audience? Who visited the gallery physically, and did it have a following? How did Ludlow 38 position itself in contrast to, or in tension with, its neighborhood? Though the participants and the program changed from year to year, Ludlow 38 definitely contributed to the ecology of the New York arts scene.
LIFE SPAN & GLOBAL SHIFTS
Ludlow 38 began working from a very elite, established position due to its Goethe-Institut affiliation, and initially had a clear mandate. The residents were typically junior curators who had previously worked independently or with smaller, more regional German or German-speaking institutions. This was at a core moment when Ludlow 38 was a kind of finishing school for curators, who could then return to Germany and take over an arts organization. That model changed when the jury started selecting non-German nationals. After that, the whole model blew wide open, and Ludlow 38 became almost a conceptual artwork.
By 2019, the organization was just one option among many, and New York was no longer the one and only place to be. New York became like everywhere else. Ludlow 38’s Chinatown location also changed—a range of galleries of varying sizes and qualities had appeared in the neighborhood by approximately 2015, and Ludlow became less and less visible amongst them.
During the years of the organization’s existence, from 2008 to 2019, there was a tremendous global shift—economically, socially, culturally, and in relation to what one might call an internationalist project. Consider the original mission statement for Ludlow 38: “…to introduce new international perspectives to the downtown arts community and to foster dialogue within the aesthetic and sociopolitical context of New York and the United States.” Today it reads like a straightforward, globalist, and internationalist embrace of a Western world order. It almost could have been formulated in the 1950s.
For a very long time, this model worked. It helped formulate postwar culture in Germany, which was based on forging connections to the centers of Western art production. Post-Ferguson, in the summer of 2014, the cultural conversation shifted—from a kind of broad aesthetic or artistic international discourse to one that had to do with placemaking, art and social justice, diversity, and Black Lives Matter. These were social changes that were fermenting in society and were emerging in a more visible and urgent way. The period between 2008 and 2019 is when that shift accelerated and this conversation came to the forefront.
Ludlow 38’s practice of promoting exchange and promoting Germany as an “open country” must be considered in the context of its impact on the curators and artists who participated in its programs. What was it about the New York experience that changed their DNA? What did they take back to Germany? The answer remains open-ended and cannot be separated from broader changes in the culture.
As jurors, we also changed dramatically. In art today we use completely different forms of language which are much more direct, much more political. It’s now expected that everybody will have a position. Ten years ago, the position had to be oblique for it to function as art and not propaganda. Now that has evaporated.
We know this especially because we were invited to come back year after year, giving us an experience with the institution that was quite unique. By fostering this long-term relationship, we could actually see the results of our work and its longevity. In retrospect, it is possible to observe how each of us were filtering the work we did at Ludlow 38 in response to global change.
Collectively, we know that institutions require constant reform. This demands fresh thinking about new structures and formats. At Ludlow 38, we put this idea into practice each year by changing the selection criteria as a jury. We did this by remaining focused on the idea of what was the “just right” curatorial proposal. Questions that were relevant to our thinking included: Did a curatorial proposal touch upon a certain Zeitgeist? Was it the right kind of scale for a place like Ludlow? Did it simply reflect what happened in recent European biennials, or did it take that information and transform or metabolize it in a certain way? It was an approach that remained relevant for one generation of young curators.
Also, the importance of the stipend should not be underestimated. It was sufficient to cover the cost of living in New York. As much as we talk about whether the residency program was successful or not, whether or not it was good for the “community,” in the end its success can be partly attributed to how it supported its participants. There are few stipends that pay enough to allow curators to only focus on their residency.
In retrospect, it is clear that the criteria for selecting curators were too narrow. True cultural diplomacy would mean choosing between someone living in New York or in Bangladesh, with no professional relation to Germany, and it would still be a German program. In the future, how can residency programs like Ludlow 38 contribute to making things better? There will be a huge shift in the next few years. This is not hypothetical: in post-COVID times there will be a new era of exchange, of how we live together, how we talk together, and how we do diplomacy.
How will this transformation change the mission of future projects like Ludlow 38 and the soft power they seek to exercise? What would a new Ludlow 38 residency program look like today? Some possibilities: Ludlow 38 could partner with institutions in New York, such as the SculptureCenter where Christian was the director, or the Queens Museum where Larissa is curator. The Goethe-Institut could do away with regional limitations so that anyone could apply. This would include not only junior curators, but also more established professionals with a proper curatorial practice. With a larger budget, someone could be hired to run the program full-time. Opening up the program could attract all kinds of institutions (smaller and larger) as partners. Participants could be curators, artists or educators, caretakers or lawyers. Expertise would be less important than how participants would engage with the potential of the Ludlow 38 project.
Even though the Goethe-Institut has been working in New York for many decades, it is not a New York institution. It works under completely different conditions than many art organizations in the city. It’s not financially struggling when the rest of New York City sinks into debt, nor does it necessarily have a fixed community. Because of this, Ludlow 38 curators always had to build their own networks. This is not easy when you come to a new city and a new neighborhood, especially when you are young and do not have such connections yet. In future projects, it would be important to rethink the size of the ecosystem that participants are invited to. That ecosystem should be larger than the one that was provided for Ludlow 38’s curators. When you broaden the circle of people who visit an exhibition, the newcomers are inevitably going to have different perspectives than those whom you have assumed to be your audience for years. This process of broadening audiences could start with the range of partnerships a project could form with local arts organizations (and more) in New York.
Culture was one of Germany’s foremost exports during the Cold War. The country imported Western culture and international culture and it exported German responses to that, sending cultural production as a Kulturnation back out into the world. What is Germany in a position to export culturally today?
Diversity is definitely on the horizon, and is already becoming part of Germany’s cultural and political diplomacy. In the past five or six years, support for the arts has been growing. In this cultural moment, Germany is doing better than most other countries in proving its commitment to the arts. Underlying this commitment is a view that the arts and culture are not merely there for recreation. Through them, a deeper form of conceptual and ideological thinking is possible. German cultural diplomacy in the post-COVID world should foster diversity in cultural exchange as a form of this deep thinking. The experience and collective achievements of Ludlow 38 are an important resource and can serve as a model for future projects.