Barry Bergdoll didn’t know there was a major Bauhaus exhibition already in the works in Germany when he raised the idea of mounting one at the Museum of Modern Art at a meeting in January of 2007. Soon, though, the MoMA’s newly appointed chief curator of architecture and design discovered that the three major Bauhaus archives in Germany—located in Berlin, Dessau and Weimar—had been planning for several years for a large scale show that would be exhibited at the Martin Gropius Building in Berlin. Before long he was on a flight to Germany to meet with the curators there.
The Berlin show, which opened this summer, would mark the first time that the three Bauhaus archives would exhibit their holdings together since Germany’s reunification 20 years ago. As Mr. Bergdoll explains it, the show was conceived by the Germans as a “celebration of their holdings” of and related to the massively influential school of design and thought—and of their relatively newfound ability to combine them all into one exhibition. The MoMA show, which will run from Nov. 8 through Jan. 25, will be rather different.
And yet for a while it seemed like Mr. Bergdoll and the MoMA team would join forces with the curators organizing the Berlin show and put together a single exhibition—one that would travel from Germany to New York. But over the course of many visits and meetings, it became clear that such an arrangement was impossible.
“They had a number of imperatives that weren’t going to work for us,” Mr. Bergdoll said in an interview Tuesday. “[The shows] became more separate than we thought they might be at the beginning.”
And so, as Mr. Bergdoll put it, the two shows started evolving parallel to each other. Two entirely different checklists were drawn up, and two entirely separate catalogs were produced. In the final count, the MoMA show will feature just 150 of the 960 works on display in Berlin.
As Mr. Bergdoll’s co-curator on the exhibition, Leah Dickerman, from the department of painting and sculpture, put it: “We resolved amicably to create two shows that would be complementary, where we’d share a group of loans but have distinct curatorial perspectives.”
Mr. Bergdoll emphasized the friendly nature of the split, warning that “there’s not a backstory of a fight or a decision not to work together” and recounted “countless weekend retreats” at places like Dessau and the Albers Foundation in Connecticut during which the curators together discussed scholarship and methodology.
According to Mr. Bergdoll, the decision to put on two separate shows instead of one was motivated by a few practical considerations and a few philosophical ones.
“Part of the reason was that they had an enormous amount of space, so it was clear from the beginning that they were going to do a gigantic show and we were going to do a large show,” he said, noting that the MoMA show will, in total, have less than half the number of objects (450) as Berlin. “From day one I said, well, if you’ve got a whole floor of the Martin Gropius and we have two-thirds of the sixth floor of the MoMA, we’re not talking about the same exhibition.”
He added: “Theirs is very, very comprehensive and it covers many, many things, but it’s much more of a mosaic of ideas and vignettes and things like that. Their show is more like an anthology and ours is more like a very long essay that develops a proposition.”
Ms. Dickerman, who joined MoMA a year after Mr. Bergdoll, articulated that proposition during a press breakfast at the museum on Tuesday morning.
“One of the things that Barry and I have really come to feel is that the Bauhaus’ most lasting and relevant legacy is the way it helped the faculty … engage in an intense conversation about what the nature of modern art should be,” she said. “So this faculty and the students they were working with tackled questions of how to make art in this age of technology, mass media, and in the wake of global warfare. They really wanted to know what was relevant for their own moment. This idea, a cross-media cultural think tank for troubled times, seemed like it was very relevant for our own moment, and the conversation across media is the thing that will structure our show.”
After the breakfast, Ms. Dickerman elaborated in an interview: “One of the things they’re celebrating in the German show is very basically the richness of their collections,” she said. “That is very real and very sincere. I would say our show is more thematically driven overall. We’re trying to tell a story about the Bauhaus, and those are not completely the same things.”
Both Ms. Dickerman and Mr. Bergdoll said that the collaboration that did occur between MoMA and the German curators should not be given short shrift.
“The collaboration is incredibly important on a symbolic level,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “For us to be counted as one of the four repositories of the memory of the Bauhaus—so, three German ones and then MoMA—that is very powerful.”