Meetings confirmed, reports printed, phone charged and he’s off: Sven Mündner is on the move, connecting people and projects across his many interests. These include serving on PSC’s Advisory Board, where, since joining in 2014, he’s been instrumental to the organisation’s midterm development and long-term visioning. This draws on a wealth of expertise that Sven has acquired through diverse cultural projects. Consider the research-based approach of Mythos Berlin: A London Perspective (The White Review, 2012), which he co-edited with Sarah Hagenbart and Benjamin Eastham. Composed of essays, interviews, case studies and more, this eclectic anthology critically documents the rise of Berlin as a cultural capital in league with Paris and New York in their heydays and London at present.
It’s deep knowledge like this or, more specifically the transfer thereof, that helped Sven blaze a trail from his Peckham base. Before working as a consultant on strategies related to culture and the creative economy, he co-founded the critically acclaimed Hannah Barry Gallery in 2008. For seven years, Sven nurtured Bold Tendencies, the gallery’s annual summer sculpture exhibition in a 10-storey Peckham Rye car park. We asked this cultural pundit to reflect back on this enterprise and share with us some of the challenges and opportunities that mark such an ambitious undertaking. This weaves into our conversation vis-à-vis broader changes that are reorienting London’s cultural production. The following account is based on two interviews, one that took place at Sven’s home in Peckham and the other in the meeting room of muf architecture/art, who introduced Sven and PSC back in 2014.
Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre: We’d like to share with our readers threads that we’ve been exploring in our ongoing conversations. This includes what’s required to support interesting artists in their realisation of ambitious artworks and projects, which is an obsession we have in common. There’s broad agreement, of course, that bodies like Arts Council England (ACE) play a leading role. Public support in the UK and your native Germany has been integral to vibrant and diverse cultural production. But with the belt-tightening induced by austerity measures, i.e. cuts to ACE and other public monies, we’ve been charged with finding other funding. In the UK’s current economy, which increasingly resembles that of the United States, how should we be thinking about fundraising? This is arguably one of the most pressing questions facing the cultural sector today.
Sven Mündner: Yes, public funding is so important. ACE has a very good application process that enables different types of people to apply and benefit. I often meet artists who mention they’ve made applications and received funding and this is a good sign. But philanthropic support for the arts could be much better, too. If you look at the States, there are a fantastic number of awards and residencies that are privately funded and we don’t have anything comparable to this in the UK. So I think the funding system needs to change and I really believe in private support, because often it’s much more generous and less bureaucratic. We need to encourage more of these opportunities as a sector. There are people who have money and want to do something but without creative and robust structures in place, there’s a tendency to default to setting up your own foundation and your own mission statement. But this doesn’t really work unless there’s big money. So a foundation established with half a million might, if the investments are good, yield £30k annually. PSC could do a lot of amazing work with that money but it’s hardly enough to both run a foundation and support other initiatives besides. So we need to get a lot more creative in our funding models and think about possible hybrid approaches that diversify support.
PSC: Perhaps the only thing we can bank on is the overhauling of our current system. So the future is very much unknown.
SM: Of course, there is more than money to consider. There’s also, for instance, influence. It’s important for sculptors, especially younger ones, to have people they can look up to. So I’m all in favour of mentoring projects. Or take someone like Leo Castelli (of the long-running Leo Castelli gallery). However difficult he was as a character, he was somebody who really pushed people to do their best work, making this their priority. And he was also thinking about the commercialisation of this, of course. This comes on to the question of what role galleries might play in the new funding landscape? There are some very good curators. Stephanie Rosenthal, for instance, is really tickling stuff out of people. It’s not so much that the gallery system needs a revolution. It needs to cultivate ambition by saying to artists, ‘That’s good but you could do it even better’.
That said, better isn’t necessarily bigger. I don’t think ambition is necessarily scale, budget or size. It could, for instance, relate to duration, a sculptor engaging in a ten-year project. Rather than, you know, bragging rights that you topped Damien Hirst in terms of dimensions. Now that Hirst is building a whole village, does that mean we have to build a town? The reference points of ambition need to be very carefully scrutinised. This is especially important when people start. So to think about where their ambition is located and what drives their work.
PSC: With this in mind let’s turn to Bold Tendencies and invite you to reflect on how it came into being. And we should mention for those unfamiliar with this ambitious project, that on its website, Bold Tendencies self-describes as a not-for-profit commissioning organisation that, every summer for the last nine years, transforms a multi-storey car park in Peckham through a summer programme of art, music, literature, architecture, food and drink and more.
SM: Well, I once heard Martin Roth, Director of the V&A, say that every institution starts with the space. It was absolutely like that with Bold Tendencies. The idea was sort of there, in a latent way, but it wouldn’t have been properly born or become conscious without the car park. And it was trial and error and still is. So because it was an unusual situation it required unusual solutions. And so it was about really going in there and seizing the opportunity.
PSC: And how did you get that opportunity?
SM: In a precursor project we did ten exhibitions of various kinds, one of which was called Bold Tendencies. It was a tiny sculpture exhibition on a different rooftop, that of an old Victorian school that had the sports ground on the top floor, on the roof. And off the back of that, we started a conversation with the head of regeneration at that time. Our first question was about funding. They didn’t have any money but they did have spaces, which was good for us because we had to give the house back where we’d been working.
I think it’s the story of many initiatives. You have to establish trust. And you have to show that you can run the place. And obviously the other element was the audiences. They adopted the car park as a place. And the programme has developed. Clearly there is a lot of energy, a lot of persistence involved in this. It’s almost like an artist’s career, the career of Bold Tendencies. So banging on. Not giving up. There were a gazillion reasons to give up. We didn’t make money. Debt. Didn’t get the Arts Council funding and so had to find other money at the last-minute. It always worked out in the end.
PSC: This is interesting from the perspective of growing a project and the scalability of Bold Tendencies. One gets the impression it’s massive.
SM: We were positively surprised that it was so enthusiastically received. Of course you always wish your projects to be successful and that they speak to many people. That Bold Tendencies did that was nice. I’m not sure Nick Sorta (Director of Tate Group) anticipated having five million people moving through Tate Modern. He probably expected one million. Well, we expected 1,000, or something like that. And we had 70,000 per year. So it seems we’ve hit on something. But you have to keep at it. I think it’s good, though, because it keeps the project on its toes.
PSC: Could we go back to how Bold Tendencies began, the early days.
SM: Well we opened it as the summer sculpture exhibition of Hannah Barry Gallery, which was already up and running. After a couple of years of Bold Tendencies, we realised we needed a completely different approach and this was mainly to do with funding. And so we set Bold Tendencies up as a CIC–a community interest company.
PSC: At at this stage, who was involved?
SM: Well technically, in legal terms, it was Hannah and myself as directors. But there were many kindred spirits and helping hands, supporters, experts, none of whom were paid for this. We also had to come up with a legal structure that would hold it. And this was supported by various boards. The most continuous one was a curatorial board. This was the exhibition’s selection committee.
PSC: And of who did this board comprise?
SM: There were various people. Lizzie Neilson [Director of the Zabludowicz Collection, and member of PSC’s Advisory Board], Stephen Feeke [Director of Roche Court] and lots of others. It was really trying to find a generation above us or the same age that could help us to develop Bold Tendencies. Of course you need to know that you can work with your board members. It’s tough enough just to get people together for meetings, let alone take decisions about who to feature in the exhibitions.
So there was a loose association of artists that merged into Hannah Barry and the early exhibitions on the car park were really Hannah Barry shows. But then after a couple of years we wanted to feature other artists. So then we asked ourselves what artists we wanted to work with. And we wondered: Do we need to make this decision ourselves? Maybe not. We can ask other people and this will bring other exciting people to the table and that was really good.
PSC: So what, if you don’t mind us asking, were the problems–the challenges? With Bold Tendencies, that is.
SM: Getting the funding was really tough. We always put concept first and then fundraised after. And so it was a full-risk strategy and it didn’t really consider what kind of price we’d have to pay as people. But there’s a point when you can no longer think and act like that. So, for instance, you have ten artists and you want to give them £10k each. You have to get £100k but you get to a point when you should have all this money in the bank, but it only amounts to £60k and you can’t go back because the work is already commissioned. Getting the missing £40k out of nowhere is a lot of stress. You can do it and we always managed. But it takes a toll. And obviously, no Nick Serota would do that, necessarily. There’s always a risk assessment. We didn’t have a corporate strategy to deal with the business risks, which was good because it really pushed the whole thing ahead. But it is only doable to a point. And, of course, Bold Tendencies learned this lesson and it caught up in time.
The other thing was crowd management and site management–the openings. That ate up huge amounts of energy. This management is boring work and had nothing to do with sculpture. It’s distracting but so crucial. And that’s really where we learned the tricks of the trade–or at least some of them. Of course when you do new projects you learn new things. The thing about Bold Tendencies, though, was the steep learning and the scale. Nobody had looked at public liability in advance, so we had to develop a whole strategy at the last minute. It starts with basic things that you can fix very quickly but it’s a lot of work. We had to secure the whole site and think about things falling off the side and storm and weather. We had to learn how to do proper risk assessments – all the way to getting the health and safety officer from the Council in. So all of that! And crowd management – the openings – it’s easy to lose track of how many people go in and then you have to get them out and you’re responsible for that. And then there’s the whole conversation about audiences and sculpture, taking care of the exhibition.
For example, we had a very long steel girder. It was completely safe. But the health and safety officer was worried. And so it was on the ground and we put all the signs around it: ‘DO NOT TOUCH THE ARTWORK’, ‘NO BALL GAMES,’ ‘PARENTS RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR CHILDREN’. And so we do everything by the book. And then a child jumps on the work and there’s a problem. And so how do you deal with that? Do you then say that next time: no unsecured steel girders, thereby restricting the curatorial remit? Where do you draw the line? Do you play is safe or do you go for it and find solutions that make it possible. I think that an institution has a responsibility not to impose too much of this on artists, especially young artists. It’s very easy for an institution to cut off potential risk but it’s counterproductive–especially for the radical nature of artworks. There are enough restrictions on artworks already.
PSC: This is something that we’re thinking about when it comes to new arts organisations like us. We’ve yet to be institutionalised and so we’re in a phase in our development when we can really push the envelope. So how can we as an arts organisation take risks in ways that supports–maybe even inspires–the artists we work with to do the same? This nips at the question of organisational growth and the kinds of things that might catalyse or collapse this–and what we should perhaps anticipate when this happens. This recollects something you mentioned once about Bold Tendencies. A transformation happened. It happened when you guys went from managing the project on your own to needing a team. When and how do things shift and how does the work change as a result?
SM: When does an enterprise gel? I think it’s once you’ve found your voice, which follows from knowing what you want to do. Then you just have to keep beating the drum. And there will be that moment when people join you and then you suddenly think, OK! But other indicators? Probably numbers. But it’s also about people coming to ask you for advice or people asking you to do things in contrast to you having to call other people and ask them for help. So people want to use you for business or something like that.
There’s also your gut–instinct. When you feel like it’s going to happen and then you need to push. If you have other commitments, you have to give them up and you throw yourself into your project. Or you throw your staff’s time into your project. This investment is really key. Projects can suffer from time poverty or staff poverty. Of course you can’t continue to kick start an organisation without getting anything back. You probably have to have a job on the side to support yourself. But once you see that your project is going, you have to throw it all in.
PSC: Were you working full time on Bold Tendencies? Was there a moment when you fundraised to pay people? How did that work, practically?
SM: That was quite a specific situation because we were running the Hannah Barry Gallery as a commercial gallery in parallel to Bold Tendencies. So basically what happened was that when it came to money, staff and time, we sucked everything out of the gallery during the summer months and put it into Bold Tendencies. You’d only see this resource ‘sacrifice’, though, if you were looking at both entities. The gallery suffered when Bold Tendencies was running – a really crucial point. But we had to run this risk because people don’t take you seriously if you’re not going for it all out. There are different ways of doing this. But when it comes to the labour intensive activities we talked about such as fundraising, installing, crowd control etc, it’s not really something you can do on the side. If you need to raise money then you have to go for it, ten hours a day and then you get that money.
PSC: How long did you work unpaid before Bold Tendencies was in a position to remunerate you?
SM: The Directors were never remunerated, it was a not for profit project and we wanted to do it. But the answer is again complex. With the money we had, we prioritised paying our staff because we could see the value of having a larger team, bigger than Hannah and myself focusing on the project, which in itself wouldn’t have made much difference. And £500 to us isn’t the same as £500 to a recent graduate. So we decided to run a kind of trainee scheme which included some support for the trainees to get them through the month.
It was just about carefully choosing your way through our resources.
It was tough for the directors, but I doubt this challenge will ever change: if you want to get something new off the ground you have to get your resources from one job to fund others.
I was lucky in that I happened to stumble into museum fundraising which is a relatively well-paid area in culture-related work. This four day a week fundraising job allowed me to pay the bills and set up the gallery and Bold Tendencies in the evenings and the rest of the week. The helpful thing was that the fundraising job and my projects in Peckham had nice overlaps. If you work in a museum you can see the exhibitions for free, take an artist along and get to know a lot of rules in the art world that we could then use for our own work. It’s small things like that.
PSC: Did you make money from Bold Tendencies through selling the work?
SM: It was always for sale. The artworks were always produced in situ and the work was often quite large. There were a few sales.
PSC: So it wasn’t something you pushed?
SM: The work was heavily exposed to audiences. It was always meant to give young sculptors the opportunity to do something large-scale and outside. And we were always happy to take the risk that it was going to fail in some way. And to be very frank, some works did fail. Overall, though, the majority were very successful artworks in terms of each artist’s progress and the development of their practice. That was the overarching accomplishment and that makes me very happy. It’s very rare that artists are really allowed to go for it, especially if it’s a big exhibition. And Bold Tendencies was often accused of not being rigorous enough. It’s not that I didn’t care about this; rather, there were other aspects we focused on. Bold Tendencies is not the White Cube. It’s an opportunity that pushes artists to risk failing. And with regards to commercial success: there were sales off the back of Bold Tendencies. So patrons commissioning artists to do new work based on what was on exhibition. And that to me is even better than selling work.
PSC: The idea of supporting artists to realise ambitious artworks chimes with PSC’s commitments to a tee. By way of closing, could you offer a few examples of artists whose ambitious projects posed specific challenges? Maybe talk about three that featured in Bold Tendencies while you were part of the project?
SM: There are many that I could, of course, mention. For starters, there’s Camille Henrot’s sculpture which is called, The Price of Danger. For starters, there was the structural challenge of moving the seven-meter high metal artwork from France to the UK. It comprised of a steel wing from an aeroplane that had been cut into. So we had to get it to Peckham and then erect it on a prefab plinth that integrated with the building’s structure in a way that ensured the artwork wasn’t dangerous. There was a lot of precise planning involved but we managed and it was safe.
That was in 2011 and the same year, there was this work by David Brooks, Adaptable Boardwalk (with Three Genetic Drifts). It was this wooden sculpture that looked like a deconstructed boardwalk. Conceptually and aesthetically this was a no-brainer for Bold Tendencies. The challenge was again health and safety. With 70,000 people trying to climb the work, often with drinks in their hands, the solution was also a no-brainer: Work with the artist to make something that people could interact with. Design it so people can sit on some parts of it while making the more dangerous bits inaccessible. We also had lots of wardens in place.
And third, Mary Redmond, who works in installations. Her project for Bold Tendencies 2012 comprised an entire floor, 80m long. There were industrial and other materials that were positioned in a way that it gave the impression of walking through a bamboo thicket on the seventh floor of the car park. The installation was on the way to the bar and both its position in the exhibition and its materiality prompted visitors to interact with it. To minimise damaged we posted lots of wardens in this area and also did daily touch ups.
About Mythos Berlin
At the time of publishing this interview, Sven Mündner was heavily involved in the redevelopment of Hackney Wick & Fish Island as communities that combine cultural and residential aspects.