Carnegie International co-curator Daniel Baumann guided by his worldview

With family in tow, the Swiss curator brought an outside-the-box aesthetic to the Carnegie International


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Swiss national Daniel Baumann brings many attributes to his co-curatorship of the 2013 Carnegie International, but none so unique as his two young children. Diversity and pluralism have been articulated goals in the contemporary art world for decades but children are a generally overlooked constituency. Not so in this International, which sports an outdoor playground and an underlying thematic current of "play."

That said, the 2013 is no International Lite, and play, as perceived by the exhibition's curatorial triumvirate, is not to be confused with entertainment. Play is active rather than passive, and is a realm where creativity thrives.

Mr. Baumann, 46, has only to look across his living room to find his inner child in Hanna, 13, and Jacob, 10. He and his wife, Gabriela Burkhalter, 45, met in high school. She is an urban planner who is researching the history of playgrounds and is guest curator of "The Playground Project," a component of the current International. It's installed in the Heinz Architectural Center and includes a video by Ei Arakawa and Henning Bohl, and a Tezuka Architects installation.

When Mr. Baumann boarded the airplane for his first meeting with Carnegie Museum of Art staff, he was pretty certain that he would not accept the position as a curator for the International. It would make his family's life too complicated, he reasoned, with a trans-oceanic move and all the travel required of him. But then he experienced Pittsburgh.

"I really like the way that Pittsburghers are proud of their city even if some of the history is difficult. I like the feeling that this exhibition means something to this place, that we can do something important here. I like the people at the Carnegie. I like that across the street from the museum there is a dive bar [Panther Hollow Inn]."

At the beginning of his tenure, Mr. Baumann lived in the Lawrenceville apartment the museum has used for off-campus International-related programming. The rest of the family moved to Pittsburgh in August 2012 and they now live in Squirrel Hill. They'll return home to Basel in December.

The children attend the Campus School of Carlow University, where Hanna is in the seventh grade and Jacob is in the fifth. They didn't speak English when they arrived but are now fluent, Mr. Baumann said, and were most surprised by how independent students are in the United States. In Europe they are always with a group.

Overall the family's experience "has been extremely welcoming," he said. "We've connected with other families through the school and go canoeing or on ski weekends with them."

Asked what else he's enjoyed here, Mr. Baumann answered that it's "very green, with a lot of trees. Very, very pleasant. Braddock library and Braddock in general. I love the Strip District. Frick Park is great. Biking through Schenley. The Laurel Highlands. Ohiopyle. And Downtown. I must say Downtown Pittsburgh is really beautiful."

He's not as complimentary about the taxis. "The taxi system is a disaster here," he said, and then quickly corrected. "The cab drivers are great. The dispatch system is a disaster."

He and his wife have found particularly interesting the city's different neighborhoods. They had read, while in Europe, about the challenges Rust Belt cities face.

"Gabriela and I are both interested in public space. That's not an easy place -- a lot of people claim it for different reasons. And we learned things. At the end of the day, I want to learn things. I want to understand things."

Mr. Baumann is director of the Adolf Wolfli Foundation in Bern, Switzerland, the repository of the estate of an outsider artist who left behind a 25,000-page illustrated narrative when he died in 1930. The foundation is housed within the Museum of Fine Arts Bern but is an independent institution.

Mr. Baumann began his association with the foundation as an intern in 1988. He became director in 1996. Wolfli's art -- created as a patient in a mental asylum -- was outside Mr. Baumann's field of specialty, but he found it an appealing alternative to the "sometimes more superficial contemporary art world." The unique body of work begged many questions: "Who makes it? Who buys it? Who defends it?"

"You have to cross boundaries in order to answer the questions. That's what we do [with the Carnegie International], too. Investigate what contemporary art is today."

Two outsider artists are included in the 2013 International, American Joseph Yoakum and Chinese Guo Fengyi. Both are deceased.

Mr. Baumann is a "big fan" of certain outsider artists, although he doesn't think that all of them are interesting. He also doesn't refer to them as outsider. "I'm against the labeling as outsider art. I think some are more insider than we are, so deeply marked by history."

He said they should be seen as artists first, and then people can talk about outsider, folk, visionary or whatever other term is in vogue. The curators aren't pushing the label, although it may be a good idea from a marketing viewpoint because outsiders are popular with the public now, he said.

"They are also loved by artists. They all are artists' artists. It's more the institutions that have trouble with outsiders. Their art doesn't fit the narrative so easily, or the canon."

Wolfli's art became a professional reference point for Mr. Baumann. "People in the contemporary art world would smile at me when I said I worked at the Wolfli. It became a benchmark. When I looked at a contemporary artwork, I'd ask myself 'Is it at least half as interesting as Adolf Wolfli?' If not, I just dropped it."

Mr. Baumann curated a Wolfli exhibition held at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City in 2003, and contributed to a major Martin Ramirez retrospective organized by the museum in 2007. Ramirez was born in Mexico and died in a California asylum in 1963.

The curator is also contemporarily conversant, having organized such exhibitions as the first retrospective of German artist Martin Kippenberger in 1997 at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva. A large installation by Kippenberger was included in the 1999 Carnegie International.

Mr. Baumann is co-founder of New Jerseyy, an internationally lauded Basel exhibition space for contemporary art, film and music. Why the name?

"You add another y, it's such a bold error, it's easy to remember. When you Google it, only one in the world comes up." He also co-founded a digital arts festival, curates a Basel public art project, and writes criticism for several arts publications.

Besides his outsider art knowledge, and open-mindedness toward expression beyond the mainstream, Mr. Baumann brought experience of the contemporary European art world to the curatorial team. In a period when contemporary art conversation transcends latitude and longitude, his was an outlook that was significantly not U.S.-centric. And he had an enviable passport for global travel.

"We sent the Swiss guy to Tehran," co-curator Tina Kukielski quipped in an earlier interview. The other co-curator is Dan Byers.

Pulling together such a large and prestigious exhibition "offers a lot of opportunity to surprise people, to change things, to get challenged, to make the place [museum] interesting," Mr. Baumann said. He thought the Carnegie's 2011 exhibition "Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story" did this well.

"People were challenged, but it worked. It was almost like entering into a research project. The [original] photographs were not meant to be framed, not meant to be media, not high art. [The show] was an experiment, a bit adventurous. It wasn't pretentious -- that's what I liked. They didn't force it into the fine art canon. Rather, we have to reformulate the canon.

"In the end, how can you gain knowledge? One way is to break down boundaries that are just confirming what you already know. I don't want to get bored. I think great art is art that really challenges you."


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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