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May 2004

The Smithsonian

Curator Courtenay Smith is an essential fixture of Munich's art scene

Surrounded by stacks of plasterboard, tangles of electrical cables and the loud sounds of motorized construction tools, Courtenay Smith attempts to make herself audible to the English couple flanking her. The dark-haired, Dallas-born woman seems at ease amidst the cacophony, casually elaborating to her listeners on the main points of the exhibition being set up around them in the lothringer dreizehn building. A few minutes later, in her office one story above the exhibition spaces, Smith reveals that managing a jam-packed schedule, often requiring doing several things at once, has become second nature since she has become curator at the contemporary art institution lothringer dreizehn 11 months ago. As a freelance curator contracted by the City of Munich, Smith occupies a unique and unusually challenging position. Free to plan exhibitions—four to five a year—and commission artists for the state-funded institution without having to report to or request permission from any supervisory board or committee, she enjoys an unusual degree of curatorial freedom. That freedom, however, comes with the added responsibility of procuring any additional sponsoring, hiring and paying staff members and financing advertising, transportation and other costs that may arise.

Thirty-five-year-old Smith made her way to Munich in 1999. Why did a curator at a well-established university museum in Chicago decide to up and leave for southern Germany? As is the case with countless other American expatriates, love was the initial draw. While working at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum, where she was curator for three years, Smith met Munich artist Stefan Eberstadt. After two years of transatlantic dating, during which she got to know Munich and even managed to squeeze in several critiques and lectures at the Munich Art Academy, Smith finally decided to relocate to Bavaria’s capital. She soon began working as an editor at the art book publishing company Prestel. But as she began to carve out a niche for herself in her adoptive home, there remained one pressing concern on her mind: how to get actively involved with her main passion, contemporary art.

“I’m interested in contemporary art in all its forms—film, video, fashion, architecture, and especially works in the public sphere,” says Smith. “Simply, I feel I am a person of my generation, of the present.” After completing her master’s degree in art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Smith had actively decided against pursuing a PhD in art history because, as she explains, she is not “a person who likes to sit around, reading and writing about history. I felt it wasn’t relevant to be an art historian.” Instead, Smith is inspired by what she calls contemporary visual culture, which encompasses anything that can be seen and interpreted. “This Coke bottle and that cup,” she offers as an example, “how do they relate to each other? What do they say about the times we live in? What messages do we read in the objects we surround ourselves with?”

In securing a position for herself in Munich’s contemporary art scene, Smith aimed to find a way to continue working with people, as a curator, as a “thing maker,” organizing programs, bringing people together, instigating artistic exchange. “I didn’t have enough money to rent my own little white cube,” she recalls. “But in Chicago I learned to think flexibly. Can’t afford a gallery space? Rent a hotel room and do it there. Do it in an overcoat, in a bar, do it in your apartment.” On September 8, 2000, that’s precisely what Smith did—opened the doors of the flat she shares with Stefan Eberstadt to the public as an exhibition space for European and American artists, which they aptly dubbed “homeroom.” From that time until she assumed the position of curator at lothringer dreizehn, two rooms of the Westend flat served as a forum for conceptual exchange, artistic networking and about a dozen group and solo shows.

By the following year, Smith had worked her way up to a membership in the curatorial board of the Kunstraum, by means of which she brought the work of Texas artist Erick Swenson to the Museum Villa Stuck in 2002. During that time she added to her activities as “thing maker” the co-authorship of two books, Xtreme Houses (2002) and Xtreme Interiors (2003). The books, which address fascinating examples of revolutionary, temporary architecture and interior design, highlight Smith’s special interest in interdisciplinary exchange—that is, the blurring of the boundaries that divide artistic creation into traditional categories, such as sculpture, architecture, design and installation.

Smith was named curator of lothringer dreizehn in July 2003, where she continues to apply the concepts of interdisciplinary and international exchange that shaped the “homeroom” project. Making use of an international network of artists, galleries and institutions, Smith hopes to help draw more international attention to the Munich art scene. “I’m very concerned with the second-city complex that seems to exist here in Munich,” she says. “It’s similar to the way people in a city like Chicago think that the art scene in New York is so much more desirable. I was tired of hearing all these Munich artists complaining, ‘Oh, if only I could be working in Berlin …’ It’s not true that Berlin—or any other city, for that matter—is so much better than Munich.” Smith sees herself serving as “eyes and ears for Munich,” with the aim of spotlighting the city’s innovative talents and involving them in the artistic dialogue that transpires among cities like Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and London. “There’s an incredible collection of museums, galleries, curators, artists and writers here. I’m really interested in what’s going on here right now, and what will be going on in the future.”

Smith, however, refuses to speculate on what exactly that future might bring—for Munich or for herself. “I don’t like to predict anything,” she asserts with a wry grin. But she’s certainly excited about the fresh ideas being put forward by the many foreigners currently occupying leading positions at such Munich art institutions as the Kunstverein, the Museum Villa Stuck and the Haus der Kunst. No doubt, Smith is quite optimistic about the growing reputation and diversity of Munich’s contemporary art scene. As for her own plans for the future—will she stay in town after her contract at lothringer dreizehn runs out next summer? As she says, her “homeroom” project is merely on hold. “You have to be committed to the city you live in,” she concludes. “Of course, I’ll continue to travel frequently. It allows you continually to refresh and reshape your vision of the place in which you live. But I’ll keep my home base in Munich.” On behalf of the city’s contemporary art lovers: we’re glad to hear it.

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