An Interview with Nicolaus Schafhausen

Nicolaus Schafhausen. Photo: Sabine Hauswirth. © Kunsthalle Wien

Nicolaus Schafhausen epitomizes the definition of “international.”

Born in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1965, he quickly established himself as an artist before launching a successful career as a global curator. In addition to organizing exhibitions in Europe, North America, and Asia, Schafhausen has led institutions in Rotterdam and Frankfurt. Since 2012, he has also worked as Strategic Director of Fogo Island Arts / Shorefast Foundation in Newfoundland and Labrador. The residency-based contemporary art program supports artists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, curators, designers, and thinkers in their artistic pursuits. 

Schafhausen is also the Director of Kunsthalle Wien, one of Europe’s largest centres for contemporary art in Vienna, Austria. 

This year, Schafhausen was selected as the very first international juror for the prestigious Sobey Art Award, now administered by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). He recently spoke with NGC Magazine about his experience on the panel, and how it has enriched his understanding and appreciation of contemporary Canadian art.


NGC Magazine: How did you first become interested in the arts? More specifically, how did you come to specialize in contemporary art? 

Nicolaus Schafhausen: I grew up in former West Berlin and in Düsseldorf in the 1970s and 1980s. In Germany, you can find museums or associations for contemporary art in almost every small community, and my grandparents were members of those museums. It was just a part of my life, in a way and, because of that, it was quite natural for me to become professionally involved [in the art world].

Installation view: Politischer Populismus, Kunsthalle Wien, 2015. Photo: Stephan Wyckoff: Goshka Macuga, Model for a Sculpture (Family), 2011, courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; Of what is, that it is; Of what is not, that it is not 1, 2012, Courtesy of the artist and Prada Collection, Milan

NGCM: Did you always want to work as a curator? 

NS: In the very beginning, I wanted to become an artist, not a curator. I even had a career as an artist when I was 25 or 26. But then I started to organize exhibitions with friends of mine, and I slowly started to move into curating. I never pursued a curatorial program or a post-graduate program, though. They did not exist at the time.

NGCM: How did you end up as Strategic Director of Fogo Island Arts?

NS: When the Fogo Island opportunity arose, I was living in Brussels, but had already been working with Canadian artists for about 15 years, including Ian Wallace — for whom I had organized a retrospective — and Geoffrey Farmer. I was very engaged in the British Columbia art scene in particular, and had served as a visiting curator at the Banff Centre, when Kitty Scott was the director there. We both ended up joining the artistic advisory board for Fogo Island Arts in Newfoundland at the same time.

Zita Cobb, a strong believer in the value of the arts, was founder of the Shorefast Foundation, and has also been the heart of Fogo Island Arts. She ended up visiting me in Brussels, and offered me the position of Executive Director for Fogo Island Arts. I wasn’t sure about it at first, given that Fogo Island was so far from home for me, and so different from what I was used to. I had spent my whole life in major cities, and I couldn’t see myself moving to Newfoundland permanently. At the same time, I was deeply moved by the people of Fogo Island, and by the prospect of turning this rural area into an important and respected art initiative. Although I wasn’t keen to change my home base, I still wanted to be a part of the project, so we developed a new position. I am now a Strategic Director, and have been working remotely for almost six years. 

At Fogo Island Arts, we organize conferences, develop publications, enable the production of art, and produce exhibitions. We are a small institution on a small island, but have a truly global perspective. I’m currently based in Berlin, but I commute to Canada and Newfoundland every two or three months to spend time with the Fogo Island Arts team in person.

Fogo Island Arts’ Bridge Studio in Deep Bay, Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada. Photo: Alex Fradkin

NGCM: What is your approach to curating? Do you have a style, routine, or process?

NS: When I organize, curate, and select artists, it always needs to make sense within the local context where I am working. I enjoy working with artists, and often find that, no matter how much planning and research goes into a project, trusting intuition is important at the end of the day.

NGCM: What is your perspective on contemporary art around the world? Is there a location that you think stands out, or a place that needs greater attention?

NS: I really think that we are all too Western-centric. We have to embrace art practices from around the world, highlighting and encouraging research on art from Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia.

NGCM: Shifting focus to the Sobey Art Award: how did the opportunity arise for you to become the Award’s first international juror?

NS: For someone who doesn’t live in Canada, I have a relatively deep knowledge of what is going on there. I’ve been watching the Canadian art scene from afar for some time. I organize so many exhibitions with Canadian artists, and my engagement with Fogo Island is well-known. So I suppose it made some sense for them to ask me to become involved in the Sobey Art Award. It helps as well that, although I work with Fogo Island Arts, I’m based in Europe and don’t really represent any particular region in Canada. Hopefully, that makes me a relatively neutral advisor.

The 2016 Sobey Art Award shortlist jury deliberations took place at Crombie House in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. The Crombie collection of 19th and 20th-century Canadian art was assembled by Frank and Irene Sobey, and includes work by Cornelius Krieghoff, the Group of Seven, and many other significant artists.

NGCM: Some have compared the Sobey Art Award to the Turner Prize, an annual award presented to a visual artist under the age of 50. Do you think that these prizes are comparable?

NS: When the Turner Prize was first introduced in 1984, “Cool Britannia” — the rise of pop culture and pride in the United Kingdom — was gaining momentum. For Europeans, Britain defined what was cool. The Turner Prize and how it was received by the mass media made it a pop-culture phenomenon.

The Sobey Art Award is completely different, in my opinion. Rather than limiting itself to celebrating a single artist or body of work, the Award has a greater focus on supporting the careers and raising the profiles of younger Canadian artists. By showcasing the state of contemporary art practice in Canada through the longlist and shortlist, the Sobey Art Foundation and the National Gallery of Canada are also demonstrating a commitment to the promotion of contemporary thinking and contemporary art.

 NGCM: What has your experience been like as the Sobey Art Award’s international juror?

NS: It was a pleasure to be invited, and I think we're having a great time as a jury as we deliberate the shortlist. We've been sharing our knowledge and our various perspectives, and debate long and hard at every stage.

It is a very intense, stimulating and rewarding experience and, although I knew many of the artists already, I am gaining a much deeper insight into the diverse practices and innovative art that is being created across Canada.The encounter is truly enriching my thinking about Canada and the production of Canadian art. There is so much new talent across this vast multicultural land, and in my opinion, the Sobey Art Award has unquestionably helped to strengthen the visibility and rich diversity of Canadian art abroad.

The Sobey Art Award winner will be announced at a gala awards ceremony on November 1, 2016. The works of all five finalists will be featured in an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada from October 6, 2016 to February 5, 2017. To learn more about the Award, including information on all artists and jurors, please visit

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