Chefkurator des Chicago Cultural Center besucht Hamburg

Ein Interview mit Gregory Knight
Mr. Knight, it is a wonderful coincidence that you are here in Hamburg as we are just preparing our first issue of the Hamburg ChicagoNews. Please give us a quick overview of your work in Chicago!

I am curator for visual arts exhibitions at the Chicago Cultural Center. We offer free programs for the public-art, music, dance, literature, every sort of program – maybe 800 programs a year.

We organize about 25 exhibitions, which change every few weeks. The Cultural Center is run by the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), which is one of the smaller city departments. We have about 100 employees, and another 100 people who are working for the department but are privately paid by our seven foundations. One is the Sister Cities International, another is the Chicago Cultural Center Foundation. These foundations allow us to raise funds and pay bills. All in all, DCA is really active throughout the city.

The Chicago Cultural Center has a mixture of so many different kinds of arts. How do you think this benefits the whole institution?

Gregory KnightIt’s quite a remarkable place. I have worked there for nearly 29 years since I was studying in college, so I have worked at the same place almost my whole life. Architecturally it’s a beautiful building, many people come just to see the architecture, but they also may come to hear a concert. There’s a lot of synergy, I guess, in terms of shared experience. Last year we had about 850,000 visitors, probably 25% coming for exhibitions. We opened five exhibitions in January and February alone! We don’t collect art like The Art Institute of Chicago does or the Hamburger Kunsthalle, but we have wonderful big spaces for exhibitions.

And then we do collect art for the public art program – these are pieces that are typically commissioned by artists or purchased and then we put them permanently in buildings all over the city. So it may be in a police station, it may be in a central library building or in a senior center. More recently we are doing lots of projects with the public transportation system, and we’re commissioning new art at almost every station, sometimes murals in mosaic. It may be outside, it may be inside, or stained glass windows instead of clear windows, for example or designs in the pavement.

How is the position of the Cultural Center towards contemporary history? For example, does the war in Iraq have an influence of your exhibitions?

It might, as we don’t have a policy to stay away from political issues, but we first want a good aesthetic reason. It is really important to show an exhibition that is at least the highest level documentary. We’re soon doing an exhibition against landmines in different parts of the world, but it’s also really good photography. We’ re not taking an „official“ City position against landmines, but we are showing that this is an important issue in the world. Our whole purpose is really about education. We’re trying to fill in with a lot of things that would not happen in Chicago if there wasn’t a Cultural Center. It’s a local focus within the context of the national and the global focus.

Thin Skin. The Fickle Nature of Bubbles, Spheres and Inflatable Structures
Impression der Ausstellung "Thin Skin. The Fickle Nature of Bubbles, Spheres and Inflatable Structures" im Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago/IL (USA) 2003
How is the Cultural Center financed?

Well, it is partly financed by the City and partly privately. We raise funds from foundations and grants from governments, both federal and state. There are various avenues of funding. In Chicago things are more private than in Hamburg. I mean the museums are privately run, all the hospitals really are private businesses and universities are big businesses with very large endowments. From the City, we have core support to run the Chicago Cultural Center, but we are always fundraising for programs and exhibitions. We just wrote a grant request to Boeing for support of an exhibition from India, so hopefully we will receive a large grant, having invested a lot of time in writing it. Then we have some other possibilities for additional support: we are organizing exhibitions that will travel in the U.S., so we rent them to other museums and make some income back that way. For example, right now we’re making this exhibition from India which afterwards goes to Kansas, to New Jersey, and we’re working on a third venue, that might be Cleveland or San Francisco. We function more as a museum than a community cultural center, which in other cities can be kind of a „shared space“ with no specific profile. Very interesting we find ways not only to ship the art in and show it to the public, but also to create exchange opportunities for artists to travel and meet each other, so that these projects have a life that goes on.

Is it contemporary art?

Yes, painting, video, new media and sculptural installation. All the artists are living in India, it does not include Indian artists in London or anywhere, so they would come and be part of the creation of work in our venue – a wonderful old building from 1897…

1897 was also the opening of the Hamburg town hall!

Yes, I was in the town hall yesterday. This is my second visit to Hamburg, my first was in the early 1990s. I wanted to come back since it seems that we have more and more contact. Maybe I can put some fi re under certain issues!

We learned that you actually have a flat in Berlin, is that right?

I do, for about two years. Owned together with a good German friend – so he comes and goes, I come and go, and other friends use it. It’s in Corbusierhaus, near Olympiastadion. For me it’s wonderful – the reality of having a European base that’s near London, near Düsseldorf, Munich…

…and not far away from Hamburg…

Yes, this was very close! Last time I came it was a three-hour train ride, now it’s one and a half – it’s perfect, it couldn’t be easier. So this won’t be my last visit to Hamburg. Later, I am going to spend the rest of my day in your museums.

Are you going to visit the Mahjong-Exhibition?

Yes. We actually had a big exhibition of Chinese contemporary art in Chicago in 1997; maybe I will recognize some of the artists. Besides, Chicago wants to have kind of a China-Festival in 2009. We’re talking here about some possibilities, we have some of the same sister cities – Shanghai-Chicago-Hamburg – there is a triangle. Chicago now has about 25 or 26 sister cities.

What do you like about Hamburg?

It’s wonderfully clean and well-organized, I think, in terms of getting around. Today I’m going to visit the museums to see, what are the contrasts and what are the similarities. It’s an interesting city, of course it’s much lower-rise architecturally compared with Chicago. They are rebuilding the harbor, they are planning a Chicago Square. There’s good contemporary art energy; things like fi lm, dance and fashion design are really strong here. We hope that Mayor Daley will visit Hamburg again sometime this year. I think he will take great pride in the idea of a Chicago Square. Maybe we can really figure out funding and ways to have a public art piece as a part of that development. Maybe an artist who deals with environmental issues in sort of sustainability, or something that has a message besides just being beautiful.

Is there a kind of German community in Chicago?
Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago Cultural Center, Washington St., Chicago/IL (USA)

Yes, there is a large German presence. In fact – and if I think of the Chicago Cultural Center – a lot of it was built with Italian and German immigrants in the 19th century – fine craftsmanship, mosaics and glass work – old world crafts that where brought for application. You know, the German presence in Chicago is always visible, but it has, of course, a little bit of nostalgia attached. I think our goal is now to be forward looking. For instance, we did a very big contemporary art exhibition from Poland, and some of the more traditional Polish immigrants thought it should be some kind of beautiful Renaissance art, and they where shocked by our exhibition. That makes it interesting, that makes it challenging for people. I think public art needs to be fairly challenging, too, as people usually don’t like it at first. They may find it as something new that they don’t accept immediately.

Where would you suggest people go in Chicago?

People always love to go to Navy Pier, an amusement area; I would highly recommend Millennium Park with its Frank Gehry Pavillion, beautiful landscape, and really international profile of contemporary public art pieces. Chicago also offers lots of good food, international cuisine.

What is your favourite place to relax?

At home (laughs). In Berlin. I am addicted to museums, but I prefer quiet museums. I like to spend peaceful time in exhibitions, and there is a wonderful opera in Chicago, and I go to the symphony sometimes.

Thank you for your time!

About Gregory G. Knight
Gregory G. Knight is Deputy Commissioner/Visual Arts for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, heading both the Chicago Public Art Program and the Exhibitions Program at the Chicago Cultural Center, where he has worked for 29 years. He supervises a staff of 12 curators and arts professionals, and serves as Chief Curator for over 20 annual exhibitions in Chicago. Knight holds a B.A. in art history from Arizona State University (1974) and an M.A. in art history from The University of Chicago (1978). He has curated numerous exhibitions featuring Chicago and Illinois-based artists, as well as several dedicated to artists from across the United States and many other parts of the world. Knight is a frequent curator or juror of regional exhibitions and grant competitions, and his interests lie in the cultures of diverse peoples and geographical areas, both contemporary and historical, in addition to lecturing and writing texts for various publications.