Near the Kiel Canal, the non-profit cultural initiative Kunstwerk Carlshütte organizes an impressive art show every year in a former ironworks. The imposing industrial halls are now surrounded by a sculpture park. In 2024, NordArt, founded 25 years ago, will celebrate its anniversary and will present all the winners of the art prize from previous years.

NordArt is a huge exhibition project. How did it come about in the tranquil town of Büdelsdorf?
It all started 24 years ago with an entrepreneur and an artist, Hans-Julius Ahlmann and Wolfgang Gramm, who got on well together. They wanted to put on an exhibition together to give the city a highlight and make it worth visiting. At that time, the exhibition was smaller, as was the site. But from the start, it was international. The first artists came from the north, Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark. Participants from the USA and France soon followed.

Why was the site in Büdelsdorf chosen?
It is a former industrial site on which the former Carlshütte iron foundry stands. It is considered the oldest industrial company in Schleswig-Holstein. After it was closed down in 1997, Hans-Julius Ahlmann, the great-grandson of the company founder, and his wife Johanna created the “Artwork Carlshütte” with a sculpture park. The NordArt now takes place in the 22,000 square meter factory hall and the 80,000 square meter park.

The hall is already half the battle: a look into NordArt 2023.

© NordArt

Last year, 200 artists took part with over 1,000 works. How do you manage that in a town of 10,000 inhabitants?
For this you need the right people who think the right way. Or you could also say: who are simply brilliant. Both Büdelsdorf and Rendsburg are committed to the exhibition. For them, NordArt is the best proof of a vibrant cultural life.

The exhibition runs throughout the summer, for five months until the fall. Do you have to build up the infrastructure anew each time?
We have ten permanent employees all year round. We also have a number of freelancers who help us set up and dismantle the works. And in the summer, around 100 students and schoolchildren help us.

In 2023 you experienced a real rush with 100,000 visitors. What is special about NordArt – what makes it so popular?
There is a kind of magic. NordArt is a total work of art. The works are not simply presented, but communicate with each other. They form a unit with the building.

Rusty accent: Corten steel sculpture by Jörg Plickat in the NordArt park.

© NordArt/Jörg Wohlfromm

How do you get access to so many international artists and their works?
There is an application process. Around 3,000 artists from all over the world apply each year, and we select from them. There are also collaborations with invited independent curators for the country focus and special projects within NordArt. We can draw on a large network.

What’s special about NordArt is that it is a private exhibition project on private property. How do you finance yourself?
The main sponsor is the ACO Group, which works in the field of civil and structural engineering with Hans-Julius Ahlmann as managing director. There is a public-private partnership in which the two towns of Büdelsdorf and Rendsburg are involved. We get most of the budget from entrance fees.

Experience the sea!

© Daily Mirror

There is a noticeable focus on Chinese artists. Is this due to your main sponsor Hans-Julius Ahlmann, whose company has business connections to Asia?
No, that goes back to NordArt founder Wolfgang Gramm, who has maintained intensive contacts with China since 2008. The most famous Chinese artists now exhibit here.

Tormented laughter? Yue Minjun was one of the many Chinese artists who had a major appearance at NordArt with his sculptures in 2023.

© NordArt/Jörg Wohlfromm

What role does political art play for you?
Politics always plays a role, including with our artists. But that is not a premise on which we select works. In 2023, we also presented Ukrainian artists whose work did not involve war or destruction. Art is not an illustration. It is much more than just a reflection of a current situation, or at least it should be.

Do you provide thematic guidelines for your respective NordArt issue?
No, the artists themselves set the themes and we then put their works together. An exhibition can be set up in such a way that visitors leave sad or happy. But we want them to leave with a positive feeling. Instead of hopelessness, NordArt wants to build on a better tomorrow.

In 2023, Turkey was your focal point country, from which we keep hearing about authoritarian tendencies. Was this also reflected as criticism in art?
No, we are more likely to build a counter-world. We have presented works by Turkish artists who, despite all the negative trends, show what makes life worth living for them. And yet there are also critical undertones, for example in “Stilt Walker” by Ayla Turan, which shows the view from above and thus of the threatened world of children.

NordArt is characterized by large works and enormous sculptures. Does this have to do with the sheer size of the industrial halls and the park?
Yes, the huge rooms and the extensive grounds make it possible to show such positions. But there are also intimate and small works. We are designing the exhibition in such a way that they are also shown to their best advantage. But part of the exhibition is also the architecture, which always offers surprising perspectives. We are proud of this backdrop.