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In the town of emperors and artists

With its worldwide support for culture, Volkswagen helps give millions of people access to art and culture – such as through the award-winning initiative “VOLKSWAGEN ART 4 ALL” in cooperation with the National Gallery in Berlin. In the town of Goslar in Lower Saxony, the company backs an unusual project that no one would suspect there: the Imperial Ring.

The midday sun falls on old houses at Goslar’s market square. Tourists stop to take photos of the town hall. Gray-haired folks enjoy the beautiful day in cafés. As pretty as the town in Lower Saxony may appear on this day, it has little in common with the world’s major centers. With one exception. If you leave the market square between the town hall and church, you can pass through narrow alleyways and come to a special house. Its garden is home to a mine cart which the famous New York artist Christo once packaged. Bettina Ruhrberg opens the door and asks the visitor in. The director of the Mönchehaus Museum has intimate knowledge of the remarkable evolution in the town’s art scene. One specialist journal termed it the “Miracle of Goslar.”

Goslar in the 1970s: A town of 50,000 inhabitants near to the border between West and East Germany. In the Middle Ages, emperors often came here to rest with their retinue. But that was centuries ago. “Goslar was a blind spot on the map of modern art,” says Ruhrberg. But one person from Goslar was determined to change that: Peter Schenning, an art collector and successful window manufacturer. “Schenning had excellent contacts with artists and art experts all over the world. And so the idea of donating a prize for modern art originated,” states Ruhrberg. Its name was to recall Goslar’s roll in medieval times: the Kaiserring (“Imperial Ring”).

The Imperial Ring – a new one is made every year by a goldsmith from Worpswede near Bremen

But how do you persuade prestigious artists to take an award from a town in Lower Saxony seriously? After all, the prize was not to come with any money. “Once again, Peter Schenning’s efforts were crucial,” says Ruhrberg. He assembled a jury that included well-known museum directors and art experts. “That enhanced the prize’s image.” And without further ado he took Henry Moore – the famous sculptor who was the first artist to win the Imperial Ring in 1975 – on board a helicopter to show him Goslar.

Artists to engage with

One of the special aspects of the Imperial Ring is that the winners not only come to the award ceremony, but are also there to see and talk with for three days. “We invite every winner to a discussion with school pupils from Goslar at our museum and to a gala banquet in a former medieval hospice,” notes Ruhrberg. The day after that, the mayor and town council hold a formal assembly in the Imperial Palace to present the Ring. The artist then opens his or her exhibition in the museum – and also signs autographs. “Most of the winners like this encounter with the town and its people. It’s quite a contrast to the sober award ceremonies you experience at many other places,” says Ruhrberg.

Works by the current Imperial Ring winner Wolfgang Tillmans can be seen at the Mönchehaus Museum until January 27. Bettina Ruhrberg gives a guided tour of his exhibition

What is amazing is that for the past more than 40 years the jurors seem to have had a lucky hand almost all the time. “The great thing is that there’s been no dip in popularity, even though the jury has sometimes opted for unknown artists instead of blue chips. Several winners only became international stars later. But now they’ve an extremely prominent presence in the art scene and international museums,” adds Ruhrberg. The list of prizewinners ranges from B for Beuys, G for Gursky to V for Vasarely and reads like a who’s who of modern art.

A turndown is followed by repentance

Only once, in 1980, was there any hint of discord between Goslar and the chosen winner – the Swiss painter Jean Tinguely declined the award. “He was worried that the Imperial Ring might be too much of a marketing tool for Goslar – and that contradicted his artistic ethos. But, according to our knowledge, he later came to greatly regret not having accepted the Ring,” says Ruhrberg. 

How times change. 40 years later, it seems no one is ruffled any more if an art award also enhances a city’s image. The Imperial Ring means Goslar attracts attention from far beyond the region – and that’s pretty rare for a town its size, says mayor Oliver Junk. “However, the Imperial Ring also has a very strong internal impact. After all, how do you make a town or city attractive? Not only through trendy streets and nursery school places, but also with a rich cultural offering.”

Goslar’s mayor Oliver Junk (left) presents the Imperial Ring to Wolfgang Tillmans

The “Miracle of Goslar” is not taken for granted, even after 43 years, emphasizes Ruhrberg. Goslar’s Art Association counts more than 2,500 members – “an incredible number given the town’s size.” Nevertheless, preparing the exhibition of the winner’s works every year involves a major organizational and financial effort, one that depends on support. Some winners need numerous helpers from their studio to prepare the works for the exhibition and assist in setting them up. Rising prices on the art market are also making themselves felt. “The more valuable the works are, the more expensive they are to insure against damage in transit and at the exhibition.”

Partners for culture

Volkswagen has supported the Imperial Ring for the past four years. The company enables the winners’ works to be exhibited at the Mönchehaus Museum. In addition, Volkswagen is currently helping to fund a film about the history of the prize and its artists. This engagement strengthens cultural diversity in the region around nearby locations of the company, such as Salzgitter or Braunschweig, and fosters international networking between cultural partners.

The cooperation with Goslar is not a one-off – the company is a partner to major national and international cultural projects at many other places. Their commitment aims at giving as many people as possible access to art, music or design. Volkswagen thus promotes mutual inspiration, dialogue and lively and spirited engagement with current ideas and stances of numerous creative artists.

Example of New York: As a partner to the Museum of Modern Art, the Volkswagen Group of America supports the development and implementation of new learning formats at the famous MoMA. One example of the many joint projects is the museum’s online courses, which are available for free to art lovers throughout the world. More than 300,000 people have already used the offering – and the course has even been translated into Mandarin Chinese thanks to Volkswagen. The Volkswagen Group of America is the Lead Partner of Education to the MoMA and, as part of its support, attaches great importance to fostering an understanding of modern and contemporary art.

Volkswagen is sponsoring the solo exhibition of the photographic artist Andreas Mühe at the Red Brick Art Museum in Beijing – one example of the company’s worldwide engagement

Example of Beijing: Volkswagen is currently sponsoring the solo exhibition of the prestigious photographic artist Andreas Mühe at the Red Brick Art Museum. In the past year, the Volkswagen Group China supported the exhibition “Deutschland 8,” at which more than 750,000 visitors were able to view around 300 works by contemporary German artists at eight locations in Beijing. 

Video: VOLKSWAGEN ART 4 ALL

Example of Berlin: “VOLKSWAGEN ART 4 ALL” offers all art fans free admission to the contemporary art museum “Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart” every first Thursday in the month (from 4 to 8 p.m.) There are guided tours, workshops for children and regular new events, such as discussions with artists, performances or talks.  Volkswagen was recently presented with the Corporate Art Award at a ceremony in the European Parliament for this initiative.

Example of Kassel/Athens: Volkswagen was the main sponsor of the prestigious documenta last year. Trainees from Volkswagen’s Kassel plant helped build “The Parthenon of Books,” a monumental work by the Argentinean artist Marta Minujín in the center of the city that proved to be a real crowd-puller. The exhibition in Kassel attracted almost 900,000 visitors over its 100 days.

The jury’s secret

“Deer Hirsch”, a work by Wolfgang Tillmans dating from 1995 Photo © Wolfgang Tillmans, Courtesy Galerie Buchholz Berlin, Cologne

Back to Goslar. This year the Imperial Ring’s jury awarded the prize to the photographic artist Wolfgang Tillmans, whose works are currently on show in the Mönchehaus Museum. Tillmans rose to fame in the 1990s through his photographs from youth and popular culture. However, he also deals with social and political issues, such as the UK’s withdrawal from the EU (Brexit) or the revival of nationalist ideas and sentiments. His works can be seen in Goslar until January 27. 

While the works of the current artist are still hanging on the wall, museum director Ruhrberg already has her sights set on the next prizewinner. The 2019 winner will be announced at the Goslar New Year’s Reception at the beginning of January. Ruhrberg already knows who it is. That’s because the jury traditionally convenes to choose the next candidate on the fringes of the award ceremony in September. “That saves jury members from elsewhere the bother of traveling twice.”

Seven art experts and six representatives of Goslar then sit in Ruhrberg’s office, discussing potential candidates. “All the experts name their favorites. Every expert then holds a short speech advocating each of the proposed candidates – including for the others’ favorites,” says Ruhrberg. The members of the Goslar jury also consider whether the town can also be persuaded that the winner merits the award. “There have certainly been years where the jury of experts was not able to get its way with its first proposed candidate.” What was important was that only the quality of the artist’s work was judged. “Market success has never played a role.”

The jury’s meeting is over after two to three hours – all the members leave the museum and are bound by a strict vow of silence. So Bettina Ruhrberg cannot yet reveal who will receive the 44th Goslar Imperial Ring. She only lets us into this: “We’re giving the award to a person who stands up for their convictions in social issues. I’m looking forward to the next exhibition – it will leave its mark on the town.”


The exhibition: Wolfgang Tillmans – 2018 winner of Goslar’s Imperial Ring. September 29, 2018 to January 27, 2019. Mönchehaus Museum in Goslar. Mönchestraße 1, 38640 Goslar. Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.moenchehaus.de

Information about the story

The jury has spoken: Barbara Kruger is going to receive the Goslar Kaiserring Award 2019. The American conceptual artist is known for her strong visual language and provocative messages about consumerism, sexuality and ideology.