Daimler Art Collection: Interview with Renate Wiehager (2009)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 24 March 2011
This interview was previously published in Sculpture, 28(5), pp. 20-1 in June 2009.

Daimler Art Collection: Interview with Renate Wiehager

Originally formed in 1977, the Daimler Art Collection includes about 1,800 works by approximately 600 German and international artists, focusing on abstract and geometrical painting. In the 1980s, the collection also began acquiring sculpture by internationally recognized modern and contemporary artists, including Jeff Koons, Heinz Mack, Keith Haring, Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mark di Suvero. In 1989–90, Daimler-Benz acquired a group of 10 large sculptures for its new headquarters in Stuttgart-Möhringen, including works by Walter de Maria, Ulrich Rückriem, Bernar Venet, and George Rickey. Additional large-scale works by Tony Cragg and Bernhard Heiliger were acquired for the Mercedes-Benz plant in Stuttgart-Untertürkheim.

From 1996 to 2001, the Daimler Art Collection was in charge of locating and commissioning eight sculptural works for Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, formerly a no man’s land between an East and West Berlin divided by the Berlin Wall. The site was redeveloped in 1994–98 to include 19 buildings and 10 streets, and it now symbolizes a unified Germany. Potsdamer Platz is also home to Daimler Contemporary, a 500-square-meter exhibition space at the historical Haus Huth that features abstract and media art from the Daimler Art Collection. To learn more about the organization, I spoke to Renate Wiehager, the Daimler Art Collection’s director since 2001.

R.J. Preece: Why did Daimler form the Daimler Art Collection, and why does the organization continue with the initiative?

Renate Wiehager: When the collection started in 1977, the first intention was to bring the art and culture of Mercedes-Benz’s home territory— Stuttgart and South Germany— into the company. At first, collecting concentrated on classical Modernism in this region, with works by Adolf Hölzel, Oskar Schlemmer, Willi Baumeister, and Johannes Itten. When the collection started to look further afield in the 1980s, the need to educate internally became more important, in other words, making art accessible to employees.

From 2000 on, outside exhibition activity was added to our internal education program in the form of temporary exhibitions and guided tours in public places inside the company. Since then, about 40 exhibitions from the collection’s holdings have been shown at Daimler Contemporary in Berlin, with about 250,000 visitors from all over the world. In addition, about 300,000 visitors worldwide have seen our exhibitions in museums in South Africa, Brazil, Japan, Spain, and Singapore. Today, the collection contributes to internal and external cultural education and promotes new art through acquisitions, exhibitions, and publications.

R.J. Preece: Looking back at the collection’s 31-year history, what do you identify as the key events?

Renate Wiehager: First, there was the decision that the collection should operate at museum standards, and that high-quality works, and series of works, should be acquired. Second, working with Andy Warhol in 1986 for the 100th anniversary of Mercedes-Benz was an important event. The resulting “Cars” series was shown in international museums and brought contemporary American art into the collection. Third, the Daimler Art Collection acquired about 30 public sculptures between 1989 and 2001 for Stuttgart and Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Fourth, since 2001, we have widened the collection’s remit to include contemporary photography, video, and object art from Asia, Australia, South Africa, and South America. And finally, in 2003, the Daimler Art Collection began a world tour in Karlsruhe and Detroit, which then traveled to important museums in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Tokyo, São Paulo, Palma de Mallorca, Madrid, and, most recently, Singapore in autumn 2008.

R.J. Preece: Your website describes the large sculptures as “associated not just with their various locations but above all with the company identity.” Could you explain?

Renate Wiehager: A car company works to a very high standard in the fields of aesthetics, design, and engineering, as well as in the treatment of surfaces and materials. So, for example, Jeff Koons’s Balloon flower (1995/99) combines seductive surfaces with elegance and lightness. Heinz Mack’s Large stele (1989), the tallest sculpture in Europe when it was set up in 1989, conceals high achievement in technical detailing behind its reduced appearance. Walter de Maria’s Five continents sculpture (1989) brings the millennia-old story of white stones from five continents into the pure presence of a cube.

R.J. Preece: Most of the Potsdamer Platz works (1996–2002) are by established artists. Was the idea behind the selection to make the site artistically significant? Was this a way to shift the site’s status as a former symbol of a divided Berlin and Germany and an attempt to replace that “lost history?”

Renate Wiehager: The world-class architecture that Daimler achieved in Potsdamer Platz, and the location’s exposed urban function, made it possible to work with sculptors whose quality and background could respond to its demands. Since predominantly German artists are represented in the neighboring government quarter, Daimler chose prestigious international artists to enrich Berlin’s sculptural landscape. None of these sculptors were previously represented in public space in the capital. It wasn’t so much a response to a lost history as a signalling of a new future.

R.J. Preece: Why does the collection focus on non-objective art? Are there advantages for a corporate collection in doing this?

Renate Wiehager: The fact that the Daimler Art Collection concentrates on abstract 20th-century avant-garde art is linked to the birthplace of the company and the collection. First in 1905, and then in 1945, many outstanding artists were working on developing abstract art in Stuttgart and in South Germany. At the same time, elements of abstract art— geometry, reduced forms, connections to applied arts, and concentration on modern materials and surfaces— form a link to the company’s products and history.

R.J. Preece: What advantages have you experienced as the director of a corporate art collection?

Renate Wiehager: Working with a commercial concern is broadly based. We not only have to take care of a high-quality, museum-standard collection and develop it with new acquisitions, but we also have to offer a high level of communication through exhibitions, training programs, and publications. We have to address people who are not used to moving in the field of art and culture.

R.J. Preece: Do you think that the Daimler Art Collection has provided unique opportunities for certain artists?

Renate Wiehager: Yes, to the extent that we have acquired some outstanding work. We have just rediscovered a number of artists such as Jeremy Moon and Charlotte Posenenske. We are also acquiring work series from emerging artists at a very early stage in their careers. We feel that they should be supported via contractual projects.

R.J. Preece: Future plans for the Daimler Art Collection?

Renate Wiehager: We plan to acquire a representative selection of photography and media art, as well as sculptures and commissioned works for existing and new company sites.