Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

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November 2002

Stuck on Munich

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker delights in living in the Bavarian capital

In preparation for her imminent move to Germany in 1991, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker enrolled in a German language course. As part of the course students were required to read German newspapers. As fate would have it, one of the first things Birnie Danzker read was an advertisement in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: it had been placed by the City of Munich, in search of a director for its Museum Villa Stuck.

The Villa Stuck was built by Munich painter Franz von Stuck in 1897. After his death, in 1928, there was a move to transform the building into a museum for Stuck's own works of art. The villa, however was damaged in the war and it took another 18 years before it was restored, in 1963, by Munich art patrons Mr. and Mrs. Hans-Joachim Ziersch. They, in turn, donated it to a private foundation as a museum devoted to Stuck’s work and Jugendstil. In 1991, the building and its collection were given to the city of Munich.

Birnie Danzker is a big fan of Munich. And she has plenty of good reasons for feeling this way, not the least of which is the fact that she was appointed the first director of the Villa Stuck, in 1992, and this despite her being an outsider, a foreigner, and at the time having a very limited knowledge of German. “They showed great courage in taking me on,” she says. And she hasn't failed them. A decade later, she is still director at the museum, brimming with ideas for exciting projects and exhibitions.

Australian-born Birnie Danzker left her hometown, Brisbane, in 1970 and has never looked back. After studying aesthetics and literature, and then getting a degree in education, it was time to discover the world. But while most of her peers were heading west to England, Birnie Danzker ventured east. Clueless to the ways of the traveler, she remembers wielding ungainly suitcases, instead of the usual compact backpack. Her first stop was Singapore. Then came Malaysia. With time and experience came courage, curiosity and a greater sense of adventure. So the intrepid antipodean went on to Thailand. And then decided to “see” the Vietnam War in Saigon. The year was 1968. After traveling through Phnom Penh, during the Tet Offensive, Birnie Danzker headed for the more peaceful Indian Subcontinent. She spent a fair amount of time exploring temples in the south, finally heading north to Nepal. Many months and miles later, only when her money ran out, did she make tracks to the West, to Winnipeg, Canada, where relatives gave her board and lodging until she moved to Toronto. And it was there that the Australian all-rounder began her career in the art world.

Until 1973 Birnie Danzker worked in a gallery in Toronto, the first for new media: video and sound installations, and other state-of-the-art technologies. In 1974 she moved to London as curator of exhibitions for Canada House on Trafalgar Square, as well as the London correspondent for the Milan-based art magazine Flash Art. From 1974 to 1976 she lived in Milan, as managing editor of the magazine. Birnie Danzker’s international perambulations continued when she moved to Vancouver in 1977, where she had been invited by the then director of the Vancouver Art Gallery (Canada's fourth largest museum) to be curator of its exhibitions and to set up the first program for video art and new media in a Canadian public museum. In 1984 Birnie Danzker, still in her thirties, became the museum's director, making her one of the youngest at the time. Being a woman wasn't the issue, she felt. A successful working woman was symbolic of the new attitudes of that era. “It was more an issue of age, than gender. People were always surprised that someone so young was running the show.”

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker seems to have floated effortlessly between countries and from one exciting, challenging and stimulating position to the next. Was it as effortless as it seems? “Always living in a country other than your own, the issue of identity manifests itself,” says Birnie Danzker. “It is the eternal debate about whether to maintain your own cultural identity or assimilate into the culture you are living in. And constantly working on a cultural level as I do, it gets pretty complex. However, the migrant who chooses to live in a particular country works harder to make his place within it. As a result, I find I have become more Bavarian than my Bavarian husband.”

Birnie Danzker holds a couple of aspects of being in Munich, and Germany, particularly dear. She feels that the English language is full of nuances and subtleties, which often makes it difficult to know what people are really thinking. “In Bavaria, you can separate the idea from the person,” she says, suggesting that while your ideas may be rejected, it in no way undermines the rejecter's respect for you, nor are you affronted by it. “Though it took some getting used to, there's a refreshing directness here, which I enjoy and appreciate. It has changed my way of working and has made me more direct. It enables a genuine exchange of ideas, which I really value.”

There's still more praise for Bavaria, and Munich in particular. She finds the city has an extraordinary press corps, whose highly educated members write about cultural activities with a talent she has not seen in any other city. “Added to that Munich has as many as 30 to 40 museums. Yet, even in times of extreme financial hardship, the city is committed to maintaining as high a level of activity as possible. This is not self-evident anywhere else in the world.” As a result, the younger generations in Munich are growing up with an incredible exposure to exhibitions, knowledge and ideas about art, making for a very sophisticated audience. “It allows for a dialogue, an exchange on a level of public debate, which for me is the greatest seduction. I feel truly privileged to be here.”

Birnie Danzker continues to clock up the miles, traveling transcontinental almost weekly. It's not surprising then that this world citizen has adopted Munich with such alacrity. After all, home is where the art is.

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