Artists look into the past of Julia Stoschek’s Nazi family
DÜSSELDORF, Germany — In early June, the Julia Stoschek Collection, one of the world’s foremost private institutions for media art, was established an ambitious new show here to celebrate its 15th anniversary: “Worldbuilding”, an exhibition centered on the intersection between art and video games that presents works exploring issues such as transphobia, gun violence and environmental degradation.
Stoschek, 47, the billionaire heiress to a German auto parts fortune, owns the collection – one of the world’s largest collections of “time-based art”, a term encompassing performance, film, video and digital works. “The younger generation of gamers are raising awareness about serious topics, like refugees, racism, the treatment of women,” Stoschek said of the “Worldbuilding” show, which runs until December 10, 2023. The works were “made to interact with hot topics,” she added. “It’s very topical and often political.”
In addition to overseeing two popular exhibition spaces in Düsseldorf and Berlin, Stoschek has served on boards and committees of MoMA PS1 and the Whitney Museum in New York, as well as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Angeles; she currently sits on the board of directors of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. She has financially supported numerous artistic projects, including several German entries at the Venice Biennale.
Yet while arts funders have come under intense scrutiny in recent years – including calls for museums to distance themselves from donors such as the Sackler family and oil giant BP – observers in Germany have raised questions about Stoschek. Some have argued that there is a contrast between the politics of its collection and the origins of the money that supports it.
Stoschek’s great-grandfather, German industrialist Max Brose, was a member of the Nazi Party. During World War II, his car company made gas cans and armaments for the German army, using forced labor in part. While many German companies, including Hugo Boss and Bertelsmann, have openly attacked their involvement in the Nazi regime, the Stoschek family have been accused of sweeping their history under the rug.
The family has long said that Brose was an unideological member of the Nazi Party who treated his company’s forced laborers, many of them Soviet prisoners of war, well. This account is supported by a 2008 book that the society commissioned from historian Gregor Schöllgen. Entitled “Brose: a German family business,“it drew backlash from some scholars and journalists for its largely rosy portrayal of Brose, and because the published work contains no footnotes, which made it difficult to verify its claims. The The New York Times learned that footnotes had been available upon request for a few years, but a Brose historian said no such request had been received.
As news of Brose’s connection to forced labor and the Nazi Party circulated through the German art world, it led to debate among artists about the ethics of working with Stoschek.
In 2020, artist Leon Kahane showed an animated video as part of an installation that obliquely addressed the connection between Stoschek’s fortune and forced labor in a pop-up exhibition next to the space of Stoschek exhibition in Berlin, as part of the city’s art week. The work sparked heated discussions on the Berlin art scene.
Since Stoschek’s collection “includes artists who deal with colonialism and slavery, and German history,” Kahane said in a phone interview, “this made some people who had signed the Stoschek project nervous. “. He stressed that he wasn’t trying to “cancel” the collector, but rather push her to transparently examine her family history. As an artist, he said, he wouldn’t consider working with her unless that happened.
In an interview in Berlin, Stoschek said she accepts any scrutiny of her family’s fortunes. “It’s very important that the art scene, as it has recently, looks at where the money is coming from,” she said.
But she argued that the money funding her collection did not come from the Nazi era and that it was put together by her grandfather and father in the decades after the war. “Our business was in economic ruin after World War II,” she said. She added that the company had contributed to a forced labor compensation fund. In 2000, Brose donated about $734,000 to the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future Foundation, according to Uwe Balder, a company historian. About 6,500 German companies have contributed about 5.2 billion euros, or $5.4 billion, to the fund, according to the foundation’s website.
Stoschek said she supported Schöllgen’s book, which she added was written without any pressure from her family. “We worked on the history of our business,” she said, adding that footnotes were available upon request from Brose’s business historian, but he was ” interesting that no one enters our archives”.
Tim Schanetzky, a historian at the University of Bayreuth, said in a telephone interview that most comparable reports investigating corporate activities during the Third Reich include published footnotes, partly to avoid accusations. to rely on flawed evidence, including so-called denazification trials. , a procedure carried out after the war to verify the degree of German participation in the regime. According to Bavarian state archives, Brose was eventually classified as a “follower”, the second lowest of five levels of complicity. A “follower” was generally defined as a nominal member of the Nazi Party, who participated only in basic or compulsory party activities.
Schanetzky said witness statements during these proceedings often favored the defendants because of German resentment of Allied victors or because employees wanted to maintain good relations with their employers.
At the request of the Times, the Brose Archives provided a list of footnotes showing that certain exculpatory sections of the book described statements by Brose’s defense attorneys and supporting witnesses during his denazification trial. as essentially facts, including the claim that he took a leadership position in a regional trade association primarily to limit “Nazi influence on local economic administration.”
“If you cite denazification documents, you have to reflect that it’s subjective,” Schanetzky said. A book like Schöllgen’s, he added, must give weight to the evidence on both sides of such a trial to be persuasive.
Other sections describing the company’s generous treatment of forced laborers come from statements made by Brose himself. The book makes little mention of a dozen Brose workers’ demands contained in other trial documents the Times has seen in the Bavarian state archives. These accounts describe the mistreatment of forced laborers, including, in some cases, daily beatings and chronic malnutrition.
In an email, Schöllgen, the book’s author, said he had treated “the incriminating and exculpatory evidence” of the denazification proceedings with skepticism, and that his portrayal was supported by the trial verdicts and subsequent calls. He added that the Brose company’s contribution to the forced laborers’ compensation fund was proof of its commitment to serious work throughout its history.
Schanetzky said that if Schöllgen’s work had been done transparently, “nobody would talk about it”, and he also disputed Stoschek’s assertion that there was no dividing line between money that she invests in her collection and the work done by Brose’s company during the Third Reich. “The decisive point is that the business was still there ‘after the war’, ‘including the goods and the machinery,’ he said. “There were a lot of businesses that failed, and these families don’t hire historians and collect art.”
Such baggage complicates the public image of Stoschek, a self-proclaimed “politician” who has said she wants to use her collection to support underrepresented groups in the arts scene. About half of the works in the “Worldbuilding” exhibit are by women or non-binary artists, Stoschek said, adding that her goal is to diversify her collection to include more artists outside of Europe and overseas. North America.
After what she described as a “conservative” and “traditional” upbringing, Stoschek converted to video art in her twenties, after seeing “Play Dead” by Douglas Gordon; Real time,” an influential video work in which a trained elephant feigns death in a New York gallery. “It’s an absolute masterpiece,” said Stoschek, adding that his decision to collect media art also came from his desire to “engage” with artists of his generation.
She was aided by prominent connections in the art world, including an early friendship with Klaus Biesenbach, former director of MoMA PS1 and MOCA, who now runs the Neue Nationalgalerie. “She was one of the pioneers of her generation in showing that you can successfully, and with influence and impact, collect and exhibit media and performance,” Biesenbach said in a phone interview. He described Stoschek as “utopian, which means you believe the world can get better.”
The relative lack of prominent private collectors focused on media art has made her particularly influential in this segment of the art world. Stoschek collected works by Hito Steyerl, Anne Imhof, and Ryan Trecartin; as Hans Ulrich Obrist, who curated the “Worldbuilding” exhibition, explained in a video interview, Stoschek had a strong impact by supporting artists early in their careers, including video artist Ed Atkins. “She, from the start, had a curiosity about artists before they were well known,” Obrist said.
But this role of patron committed to supporting inclusive and political art is increasingly criticized. Last year, an instagram chat between two cultural commentators – artist Moshtari Hilal and essayist Sinthujan Varatharajah – in which they called for more transparency on the funds of the cultural scene linked to the Nazi era, attracted the attention of the German media. In it, Hilal argued that Stoschek needed to distance himself more assertively from his great-grandfather. “I think it’s great when the great-grandchild promotes our politics, civil rights, intersectional feminism,” Hilal said, “but it’s weird when the other side isn’t not mentioned.”
Stoschek said many such discussions were “driven by emotions”, adding that she repeatedly asked Hilal and Varatharajah for a face-to-face conversation, but her invitations were ignored. (In an email, the two said they were never contacted by Stoschek’s team.)
Stoschek added that no artist in his collection has spoken to him about concerns about his family history. “They trust us – that we’re looking into it,” she said.