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Interviewed by Ronald Kolb and Dorothee Richter

Barbara Basting, Cultural Department of the City of Zurich

Ronald Kolb /Dorothee Richter: What is your professional background?

Barbara Basting: I studied French and German literature and philosophy, passed the state exams in French and German, and have about 25 years of professional experience as a journalist and editor for print media and radio with a focus on literature and contemporary art as well as cultural analysis (sociology, history, aesthetics, digital developments). I was partly in a responsible/ managing position, and for seven years I have been working in the current position for the City of Zurich. Since my studies, I have had a keen interest in contemporary art and photography.

RK /DR: How does your own professional/cultural background shape the work you are doing?

BB: From this background, my perspective is more of a transdisciplinary, broadly based approach to art as a place of social exchange. I am less interested in a perspective that is narrowed down to specialized professional discussions; what is important to me is an openness to new developments, especially to artistic developments that engage in or reflect a closer dialogue with social developments.

RK /DR: What are your tasks in the agency?

BB: My areas of expertise are: management of the Commission’s work (Commission for Visual Arts of the City of Zurich), together with an assistant—i.e., several major juries per year, grants exhibition at the Helmhaus, acquisitions, allocation of the subsidized studios of the City of Zurich, in short, all awarding processes in connection with the allocation of the freely available grants for visual arts.

Also, ex-officio representation of the city or cultural department as subsidy provider in city subsidized art institutions as well as in various working groups (e.g. AG KiÖR = Working Group for Art in Public Space of the City of Zurich).

In addition, this includes various tasks relating to art-specific issues dealt with by the cultural department, as well as general projects of the cultural department (e.g. development of the cultural mission statement, development of new funding instruments, strategic developments).

I am also responsible for answering all kinds of inquiries ( from the public and from the politicians/municipal council), maintaining contacts, representative tasks, as well as everything related to these tasks (budget, guidelines, accountability to the local council/special commissions/financial control/public).

In addition, I also have special tasks in connection with various special projects of the cultural department (e.g. Manifesta, “Kunstszene”, pilot for new forms of cultural support, etc.).

RK /DR: How can the task of the agency be described? What do you want to enable?

BB: Promotion of the visual arts in the City of Zurich, taking into account the possibilities offered by the legal framework (municipal regulations, cultural mission statement). According to the Swiss understanding, support is subsidiary, i.e. the City of Zurich’s task in this area relates mainly to artists living in the City of Zurich or otherwise closely associated with it. In contrast, other sponsors such as Pro Helvetia promote the placement of Swiss artists abroad.

I would like to use my opportunities to contribute as much as possible to ensuring that there is a lively and diverse art scene in the City of Zurich, where new developments have a chance and where social reflection through and about art is strengthened, including through attractive mediation. The Culture Department of the City of Zurich sees culture as an important medium for a society to understand itself. This is the more general perspective of our actions.


RK /DR: How is the agency structured? How many people work there, in what roles?

BB: Two people, 80% each = 160 FTE: one management post, one assistant post. The assistant is given as much leeway as possible; he/she can also carry out small projects or is involved in discussions on content wherever possible. Direct reporting to the Head of the Cultural Department.

RK /DR: How are the selection process for project spaces, grants, and acquisitions regulated?

BB: Through the general criteria for cultural funding as set out in the respective mission statement and the specific guidelines for the Commission’s work and for the various funding instruments. The detailed structure of the Commission’s work is derived from these guidelines. The Commission has a recommending function, but the recommendations are almost always implemented. The mission statement is approved by the City Council of the City of Zurich and taken note of by the City Council; the guidelines are signed by the Mayor. All funding decisions are based on pro and con arguments, which are recorded in minutes; funding decisions are made after a majority vote in the Commission or the relevant commission subgroups. Funding decisions are official decisions which are legally contestable.


RK /DR: How are you in contact with the Zurich art scene? With whom?

BB: I am in contact with as many actors as possible, through the representatives in the institutions with the respective boards of directors, through visits to exhibitions, galleries, degree exhibitions by art schools, events, partly studio visits (with the Commission) with curators and artists talks or appointments on request are possible, random contacts in everyday life (“Migros”, “Badi”) also occur regularly. However, the time available is far too limited for regular structured visit programs and visionary work, and a certain degree of separation is sometimes necessary in order not to be completely consumed by the various demands and requests. I can’t and don’t want to mention any names here, because there are a lot of them, and the contacts are constantly changing, which I try to keep aware of. As a representative of the “administration,” one should be and remain open to all actors, even if this is, of course, an ideal that is difficult to realize.

RK /DR: What role does the agency play (locally or internationally)?

BB: Our department in Zurich is certainly very important for the artists and the institutions. We are among the first contacts and addresses for the promotion of cultural and art projects; how we are perceived internationally I cannot judge well, there are no evaluations that I know of.

RK /DR: Is there a quota for gender on the funding schemes or acquisitions?

BB: There is no explicit quota, but there is clearly a need for diversity and gender balance both in staffing and in appointments to commissions, as well as in purchases. This is also stated in the city’s mission statement and in the guidelines for commissions in general. The commissions are regularly prepared by us during the jury work with a respective note.

RK /DR: What is the role of art in your opinion and from your position?

BB: I see art as a very specific medium for dealing with our world. It represents a potential force that can have an effect on society and allows it to learn more about itself.

Digital/Real/Public Space

RK /DR: Could you tell us more about the visibility of the agency, [how] do you make it known and visited? What is the relation between real space and digital space?

BB: Visibility is created by our homepage, by what we do in a very concrete way (e.g. scholarship exhibitions) and promote (obligatory logos/references to the City of Zurich as a sponsor in the case of contributions and subsidized institutions), by our presence, the presence of the Commission and that of the City of Zurich’s art collection in official buildings, schools, hospitals, and in public exhibitions both locally and internationally, publication of the art newsletter, other publications on occasion, media releases from the Presidential Department, media reports. Social media is a semi-official channel that is only partially available for individual events. Public discussions of all kinds, ad hoc or organized (e.g. hearing on the cultural mission statement), municipal council discussions (all documented publicly and on the Internet).

The homepage of the Cultural Department provides access to the most important information; all application procedures for funding must be submitted via the electronic application portal. The cultural mission statement is also posted there, as are various other documents, and is only available in digital form.

With all these functions, the digital space is a virtual twin of the analogue space; it ultimately always refers back to it. The service function is in the foreground due to limited resources.


RK /DR: What do you wish for the Zurich art scene?

BB: I hope that the sometimes strong “garden thinking” will give way to an approach that is more oriented towards common goals or cooperation.
I hope that the only too easily understandable “vested interests” will not help to slow down or even prevent new things from happening.

I hope that we will continue to be able to fall back on sufficient or even increased funding in the future because society is increasingly recognizing that the promotion of culture plays an important role for it as a very specific medium of understanding—far beyond “entertainment,” “leisure activities,” or “location improvement.”


Barbara Basting studied Romance and German languages and literature as well as philosophy at the University of Constance and at the Sorbonne in Paris. She was editor of "du"-Magazine (1989–1999), editor of Tages-Anzeiger (cultural pages), and managing editor of DRS2/SRF2Kultur. She now heads the division for visual arts at the Culture Department of the City of Zurich. She has been observing the culture(s) of digitality as a participant since the Net.art of the late 1990s.

Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/MAS Curating, which she founded in 2005 at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland. She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive and Curator at Kuenstlerhaus Bremen. She is Executive Editor of the web journal OnCurating.org.

Ronald Kolb is a researcher, designer, filmmaker and curator. He is Co-Head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, Zurich University of the Arts, and an Editor-at-Large of the web journal On-Curating.org and honorary vice-chairman of Künstlerhaus Stuttgart. He is a PhD candidate of PhD in Practice in Curating, a cooperation of ZHDK and University of Reading, supported by swissuniversities.

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Issue 48

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