The SKKG foundation been through some turbulent times. Bettina Stefanini, the daughter of its founder, became its president in 2018. She talks about participation-based funding models and what its impressive property portfolio means for the foundation.
You’re breaking new ground with the KulturKomitee Winterthur project. In this participation-based funding project, selected Winterthur residents award the grants. The foundation is making CHF 500,000 available for this?
Exactly. There’s CHF 400,000 on the table for grants and CHF 100,000 will be used to fund the entire project, the collaborators, the website and other ancillary costs. The Board of Trustees even gave its approval for CHF 2 million. We are planning to run the project at least four times. This means we can take an iterative approach and learn from it.
Why did you choose this participatory approach?
Various discussions revealed that after the Oskar Reinhart Foundation shifted its focus and the city of Winterthur simultaneously entered budget-cutting mode, local cultural sponsorship was a major concern for Winterthur. Very quickly, people started asking: by whom, for whom? Would it not be better if we, as locals, offered local support. We wanted to try it out. We will have an assessment by the people who have to make decisions on the spot, without dealing with the topic professionally. If it works, the effects could be multiplied. The jury will obtain experience, regardless of the funding for the cultural projects. It will have an indirect impact, like playing off the cushion in billiards.
What approach did SKKG take?
A random generator picked out the participants. We sent out 200 invitations and received 24 positive responses in return, which is an acceptance rate of one in eight.
What have the initial experiences of the project been?
I’m not quite sure. We have promised not to interfere in the project, so you will have to ask the project managers, Mia Odermatt and Noemi Scheurer. The projects are open until the middle of February, so we will probably be able to share experiences in the summer. We have also commissioned the University of Bern to evaluate them.
Scott C. Miller, US Ambassador to Switzerland: “Philanthropic work was the perfect preparation.”
How is the charitable sector handling the new approach?
Andreas Geis [Head of Grants at SKKG] told me that he’s heard positive feedback, although it’s been discussed only in a relatively small circle so far. We would like this new approach to make a bit more noise.
What does the participatory approach mean for the supported artists?
They have people in front of them who will look at culture in a different way, in the same way as an audience award, perhaps. In any case, it’s a challenge – for the awarder and the recipient alike.
Culture often has something very elitist about it. Can this approach help soften this a little?
It can indeed. SKKG’s roots lie in its founder, the collector. He was very much a self-taught man and he was keen to break free from these elites.
What was your father like?
He was born in 1924 and was a staunch supporter of meritocracy. If you’re strong and capable, you should be rewarded: that was his view. Gottfried Keller had already grappled with this. He was driven by a deep-seated need for democracy that was anchored in the welfare state. Everyone needs to be able to access our society. From this perspective, you could even infer he was a supporter of women’s rights, but of course he wasn’t. He was very patriarchal. But the motivation behind his collection and the foundation was that they were for Switzerland. That is his legacy. It resonates strongly with current trends, with the notion of participation.
Your father was a passionate collector, But it appears the concept of presenting the collection to the public was missing.
He had dreams of sharing his life’s work with the public, but reality shattered these plans. He had envisaged museums in Salenstein, Grandson and Brestenberg castles, and also an exhibition centre in Winterthur. However, he would have had to work much more closely with people and institutions to put them into practice. He would have had to let other people make decisions. Although he did this frequently with his earlier real estate projects, this did not work for his later projects with the foundation. That said, he had never planned the collection to be a private project.
A foundation has a public mandate…
Yes, particularly a charitable foundation. That must be our goal, and it is. We work in close collaboration with the local foundation in Grandson that runs the museum and we are funding the castle’s renovation. However, we do not intend to display a large part of our collection there: we want our exhibits to simply be part of the exhibition.
Why are you not planning your own museum?
Switzerland is home to 1,300 museums, and we do not have a good enough reason to build another one. We want to act indirectly.
So that museums are not reserved for one particular social class?
Exactly; that’s what we want to avoid. We want to show off our collection in an open, unbureaucratic way by engaging in collaborations with museums. We want to give museums the chance to explore interactions with things with which they would ordinarily never come into contact.
How does this work in practice?
The collection has 13 toy boats owned by Wilhelm of Prussia and Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, the grandsons of Wilhelm II, the last German Kaiser. We have lent them to the Stapferhaus for its exhibition on gender. Alongside the exhibits, we provide expertise on how to handle the items so they are not damaged. This allows museums to add value to the objects and make them accessible to the public. Another example relates to an enquiry from Mörsburg, near Winterthur. The castle operator was looking for a suit of armour and we actually had one from the right era. However, old castles do not offer the ideal climate for these exhibits, so we had a display case made to protect it, which we have rented to the Mörsburg association at a nominal price. Now, it can exhibit the genuine armour in the setting of the castle. That’s exactly how we imagine it…
Espace Jean Tinguely – Niki de Saint Phalle in Fribourg is home to a piece by Niki de Saint Phalle from your collection. But Hüntwangen village museum can also be a recipient of an exhibit?
That is very important to us. We are also engaged in discussions with art museums in Zurich, Berlin and Paris, where we are keen to exhibit our artworks. Supporting small galleries and village museums is just as important to us, and we hope that our funding can help the same beneficiaries. We collaborate with galleries to ensure, for example, that they can employ someone to value the collection in a participatory approach.
«There should be an active debate about the meaning of exhibits»
Bettina Stefanini, President of the Foundation SKKG
You provide exhibits and/or funds, so more people can access them. Are other museums and exhibitors open to this approach?
That differs greatly. We work very closely with five museums on funding-related matters, and they are quite far along this journey. However, I won’t say it’s the only journey to take…
…but it is a new approach. Is it possible to develop it?
We think it’s crucial that culture does not lose its foothold in our society. What is culture? What is our culture? Society needs to ask these kinds of questions. Alternatively, there should be an active debate about the meaning of exhibits, as Zurich University of the Arts has done with the Oxyd art space. This project really set my heart going.
‘Exploring the collection of the SKKG’. Students were able to choose an item in our collection and relate it to current trends. For this, three students picked out Theresa Garnett’s riding crop, with which this suffragette allegedly attacked Winston Churchill in 1909. The students looked at the whip in relation to women’s rights and hierarchies, and reflected on what a whip itself means. And to mark 50 years of women’s suffrage, their project looks at the endless pigeonholing of women’s suffrage campaigners by male politicians in Switzerland. The result? An impressive display of what can be done with the exhibits.
And that would be?
As a foundation, we are limited in terms of what we can do with interpretations. We can classify things historically, but the different facets of how the object is perceived can be worked out only in active discussion. That’s why this project is so important to me.
Will exhibits from the collection be displayed on the campo site, the foundation’s future headquarters in Winterthur’s Hegi district?
We are planning different formats at the campo site to enable people to access the collection, but we are just getting started. We want the place to have a cultural impact, but we are not yet sure how to do that We want to add value to these exhibits, for art historians and everyone else. The aim is not to create an ivory tower: we are planning various formats, plus a large space in which exhibits can be shown and discussed.
What other ideas do you have to make your father’s collection available to a wider audience?
We often talk about how we can get the collection into the public domain to generate collaborative ideas. After all, we own numerous properties, with all kinds of possibilities. The income generated funds the cultural foundation. Perhaps we can organise a project with our tenants.
How open-ended is the process you use to develop the campo site?
We are in the middle of test planning. We are not wedded to any particular outcome in one respect, in that we want to take on residents’ wishes and ideas. However, we also want to find what our aspirations are. We have expectations in terms of the process’ outcome from this perspective.
You unveiled the current status of the project at an initial insight meeting. What was your experience of this?
We did not invite the public at large: we were joined by our direct neighbours and representatives from politics, associations and local cooperatives. I was so pleased to see how long participants stayed. It showed that people needed to talk about Swiss issues, or at least those related to Winterthur.
What can be derived for the development of the property portfolio?
If we look at all the foundation’s tasks – and there are many – real estate management is an important part.
Where do you see the challenges?
We are sometimes faced with conflicting requirements in terms of the property portfolio. We have a social purpose. Our portfolio contains low-cost dwellings and that will remain the case. However, we also want climate-friendly housing and not least we need to generate stable returns for the cultural foundation. We need to find a middle ground and strike a balance between these requirements.
We are working on ways in which tenants can get involved. As far as property development goes, my father and his architects provided a strong foundation.
What does this look like?
In the late 1950s, they devised a functional, clear floorplan that they put into practice until the late 1960s. When we have found the perfect solution, it will make things easier to replicate. We are currently working on a prototype for renovations in Stäfa.
How did the legal construct come about?
In the first part of his life my father built property and in the second part he developed the foundation from the company, as many do. He made the foundation the sole heir of his real estate business. Now the relationship is reversed: the foundation owns the company and is responsible for it.
What does that mean?
How should we handle collaboration between these two areas. And how much does the foundation need to be represented in the real estate company. These topics shape our discussions. For example, last year, we defined that we wanted to view the real estate and the cultural foundation as a functional unit, even though the foundation’s statement of purpose does not include the property.
Who decides when and how at the Kultur Komitee Winterthur? A new, participatory funding strategy.
We love cultural heritage. The SKKG wants to bring its collection together in one place and is looking through all its holdings.