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The Intersection of History and Modernity: Nina Zimmer's Direction of Kunstmuseum Bern and Zentrum Paul Klee

Since August 2016, Nina Zimmer has steered the course of the Kunstmuseum Bern and Zentrum Paul Klee, both under the auspices of the Umbrella Foundation. These institutions represent a confluence of history and modernity, each distinguished by its singular emphasis and charm. Zimmer, with her global experience and a comprehensive academic and professional background, infuses a dynamic perspective into these museums. She seeks to blend tradition with innovation, making the museum's future as exciting as its past. In this conversation, we dive into Zimmer's ambitious plans for these cultural landmarks, highlighting their enduring legacy and their strategic evolution in the international art scene.

Nina Zimmer

 Nina Zimmer, the director of Kunstmuseum Bern and Zentrum Paul Klee

Please give a brief introduction to the museum and share your journey to becoming its director?

We manage two institutions, the Kunstmuseum Bern and Zentrum Paul Klee, under the Umbrella Foundation. The Kunstmuseum Bern, rooted in the Enlightenment era, boasts a vast collection ranging from medieval to contemporary art, with particular strengths in Swiss Renaissance, 19th-century art, and a pioneering approach to global contemporary art. The Zentrum Paul Klee, celebrating its 20th anniversary next year, is housed in a striking Renzo Piano-designed building and focuses on Paul Klee's work and modern art, complemented by an extensiveeducation and community outreach program.


I am originally from Germany. My background includes studies in Germany, France, and the U.S., with professional experiences across the globe, including South Korea and as a visiting professor in Chicago. My international experiences greatly influence my approach to museum leadership, aiming to infuse a global perspective into our exhibitions and programs.

Nina Zimmer

 Vincent van Gogh, Verblühte Sonnenblumen (Zwei abgeschnittene Sonnenblumen), 1887, late summer, Oil on canvas, 50 x 60,7 cm, Kunstmuseum Bern

Nina Zimmer

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Alpsonntag. Szene am, Brunnen, um 1929, Oil on canvas, with mounted, original frame, 168 x 400 cm, Kunstmuseum Bern

Before stepping into your leadership role at the museum, how did your background in teaching and researching art education prepare you for this role?

Teaching is as much about learning as it is about instructing. My role as a visiting professor at the National Art Academy in Seoul, South Korea, where I taught contemporary Western art, and previously at the University of Chicago, focusing on modern art, underscored this belief. The inquisitiveness and inquiries of students have been invaluable. Engaging with the younger generation has not only fueled my curiosity but has also encouraged me to stay receptive to new experiences and the evolving realities of our fast-paced world. I am optimistic that this curiosity will continue to energize me and broaden my perspective, especially in my role at the museum.

How has your curatorial philosophy evolved, especially now that you oversee a wider array of art periods and styles?

Fundamentally, my attitude remains the same, yet the landscape in which we operate has certainly shifted. Nowadays, we have more opportunities to utilize digitized materials and adopt hybrid methodologies. This allows us to appreciate both archival and artistic materials in new and equal ways. Sustainability has also become a key focus. We're more meticulous in deciding which objects need to be physically transported to make an impactful presentation, and where we can alternatively use digital means to convey information. This balance is crucial; while we cherish the unique presence of original artworks, minimizing the environmental impact of transporting them is equally vital. Maintaining an international perspective is essential to me, but it requires us to thoughtfully consider the necessity of travel and shipping in bringing original artworks to our audience.


Nina Zimmer

Paul Klee, Ad Parnassum, 1932, Oil on canvas, original mounted wooden frame, 100 x 126 cm, Kunstmuseum Bern, Verein der Freunde

Can you share insights into the current presentation focus of the 19th and 20th-century collection?

We aim to achieve a balance in our exhibitions by showcasing both the cornerstone pieces of our collection and the works that have gained new appreciation over time, such as those by women artists. We've committed to uncovering and celebrating these previously overlooked contributions, with recent exhibitions bringing to light fascinating narratives from our own archives, particularly about female and other marginalized artists, placing them at the forefront of our curatorial efforts.


Among the standout pieces in our collection is Paul Klee's “Ad Parnassum," akin to our own "Mona Lisa." This artwork captures the essence of Mount Niesen, a local mountain whose depiction by Klee conjures images of an Egyptian pyramid, blending Swiss landscapes with global icons. It's one of Klee's most significant and largest works, holding a central place in our collection.


Additionally, we highlight Teruko Yokoi, whose art we recently added to our permanent collection following an exhibition dedicated to her life and work. Yokoi, who spent the latter part of her life in Bern and was once partnered with American painter Sam Francis, brought a unique blend of Bernese and Japanese influences to her art. Her story and contributions enrich our collection, illustrating our commitment to diversifying and deepening the narratives we present.


Looking ahead, what are your major goals for the Kunstmuseum Bern, and what new initiatives are you excited about?

We're in the process of selecting an architect for a new museum building to replace the 1980s extension. I'm also enthusiastic about our exhibition of the work of South African artist Tracey Rose, which marks our first partnership with the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town. This initiative represents a significant step in our ongoing efforts to engage with contemporary art on a global scale. The new building is expected to be ready in approximately ten years, signaling an exciting phase of growth and innovation for the museum.


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