Art is not normally part of the core business of Xing founder and technology investor Lars Hinrichs – but to bring teamLab’s art to Germany, the Hamburg native made an exception. Together with Managing Director Caren Brockmann, he is responsible for bringing the Digital Art Museum into being. How did this come about, and what can visitors expect? The two explain in this interview.
J-BIG: Mr. Hinrichs, you are the founder of the Digital Art Museum in Hamburg. What was your motivation and how did the collaboration with teamLab originally come about?
Lars Hinrichs: I first encountered teamLab’s art in 2016 when I saw one of their works at the Fondation Maeght in southern France. It immediately became clear to me that this is something exciting. A few weeks later, I was in Tokyo at the Mori Art Museum, where teamLab was also exhibiting in two rooms. From then on, I was a fan and totally fascinated by this kind of art.
J-BIG: Ms. Brockmann, as Managing Director, you will be in charge of running the new museum. How did Mr. Hinrichs convince you of this project?
Caren Brockmann: When you talk to Lars Hinrichs, you can feel his enthusiasm for this project in every sentence. And he really did a wonderful job of passing this spark on to others – not just me, but the whole team. We are incredibly excited about the project, and I am very happy to have the opportunity to tackle this as Managing Director. What is being created here is something wonderful and it didn’t really take much convincing.
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J-BIG: Apart from your own enthusiasm, what convinced you that teamLab’s art concept would also be compelling from a business perspective?
Lars Hinrichs: I’m not a typical museum director, but what I found extremely exciting was that this is, in a way, a new era of art, namely art in times of digitalisation. Art that can be felt and experienced directly, that has little to do with short-lived trends. I think this is important. Many people have heard about exhibitions like ” teamLab Borderless” or seen pictures on Instagram, but that only reflects a fraction of the experience you have when you are actually there. The exhibition is also about visitors interacting with and even touching the artworks. This connection, this immersive art – that’s what’s really new and exciting, and I quickly realised that it’s not just me who felt that way.
The first time I visited the “teamLab Borderless” exhibition in Tokyo, I looked closely at the people coming out of the museum. And I noticed immediately: Everyone leaves with a smile on their face. I stood there for a really long time, and without exception, every visitor seemed elated. That in itself is something very special and has strengthened my belief that what I experienced was not just a purely personal feeling, but an almost universal experience.
Another aspect that was important for me is this: I am convinced that everything that can be digital will eventually become digital. In this respect, it is only logical that this development does not stop with the art scene. The digital approach that teamLab in particular takes was so extraordinary, and so close to my identity as an entrepreneur in the tech industry, that I really wanted to bring this experience to Hamburg.
J-BIG: Why did you choose Hamburg as the perfect city for this project?
Lars Hinrichs: On the one hand, there are some very selfish motives: Hamburg is my hometown and I didn’t want to have to travel to Berlin all the time. But in all seriousness, I am convinced that Hamburg is the more exciting city for a project like this. The Hamburg metropolitan area comprises about three and a half million people, in Berlin we’re talking about five million people. But half of them probably wouldn’t want to spend the money to visit, especially since there are, of course, an enormous amount of other attractions and museums that need to be paid for. I hope that with the Digital Art Museum, we can enrich the museum scene in Hamburg and thus appeal to both the people living in the city and the millions of tourists who come to visit every year.
J-BIG: What exactly is the concept for the Hamburg project, what can you reveal already?
Lars Hinrichs: The Digital Art Museum will be located in HafenCity and comprise an area of 7,000 square metres. This will make us the largest museum for digital art in Europe – we are constructing a completely new building for it that is especially tailored to the needs of the exhibition. This is also a new experience for teamLab and naturally opens up much more freedom than having to adapt to the conditions in the Mori Art Museum, for example. At the same time, the Digital Art Museum will be the first really big and, above all, permanent teamLab exhibition outside of Asia, and we are very proud of that.
Caren Brockmann: The concept of the museum itself is based on the “teamLab Borderless” exhibition the art collective set up in Odaiba, Tokyo. However, the artworks and installations shown here are curated for Hamburg and also somewhat modified for our new building. So visitors who already know the exhibition in Tokyo will certainly still have a great time in the Digital Art Museum. Completely new installations are not planned for the time being – but the beauty of teamLab’s art is that it is not static, but constantly evolving. The exhibition will be modified again and again, both in terms of the artworks and the technology used.
J-BIG: How do you communicate this extraordinary experience to people who don’t know teamLab yet?
Caren Brockmann: That’s indeed a great challenge. It is almost impossible to put into words, no matter how much of your own excitement and enthusiasm you bring into the conversation. In the art scene, teamLab is an established entity, so that makes it a little easier for us. But in the general public, especially outside of Asia, the collective is still mostly unknown. Pictures and videos help a lot in this regard: For many people, they are a real eye-opener. I have experienced this in my circle of friends and family, as well. Instagram is therefore an important communication channel for us; we are already in the setting-up phase here. Of course, nothing beats the actual experience, but I think the pictures give you an idea of what to expect.
J-BIG: Is there an installation or a project that illustrates particularly well what the Digital Art Museum is all about?
Caren Brockmann: We do have a kind of main motif, which is also the first thing you see on the website. But quite frankly: We have of course asked ourselves this question more than once, and we haven’t found a clear answer yet. You will have seen it yourself in Tokyo: the exhibition is an overall experience and many installations flow into one another. What’s really special is to visit the whole thing, to be swept along and let the exhibition put a smile on your face. We have carefully curated the installations for Hamburg and we love them all.
J-BIG: Who do you see as the target audience for the Digital Art Museum? Art lovers, techies, or maybe someone else entirely?
Caren Brockmann: We say on our website that we are targeting visitors from 0 to 120 years old, and we mean it. A great strength of teamLab’s art is that it transcends generations and even cultures; there’s something very universal about it. It’s all about the emotional experience – you don’t need to have studied art history or understand the technology behind the installations to enjoy them. This kind of art doesn’t exclude anyone. One target group is families – they often don’t have the easiest time persuading their little ones to visit a museum. This will be different with the Digital Art Museum, I’m very confident about that. For example, we have an interactive children’s area where the young ones can bring their own art to life. Unlike some other museums, there is also no language barrier, which makes the museum very attractive to international tourists. The Digital Art Museum is really accessible in every respect, and nothing makes us happier than when a grandfather visits our museum with his granddaughter.
Lars Hinrichs: Our plan is to attract 700,000 visitors in the first year, and we are confident that we can achieve that. After all, pre-sales for the opening in 2024 are currently underway, and the first 1,000 tickets have already been sold. At 19.90 Euros for adults and 9.90 for children and teenagers, admission is not practically free, as it is in some other museums. But we believe that people will quickly realise that the experience justifies the price. For those who already know teamLab, that already seems to be the case. In the long term, our wish would be for the Digital Art Museum to become one of the central tourism hotspots in Hamburg – in other words, everyone who comes to Hamburg to visit should feel like they need to see the Elbphilharmonie, maybe a musical, and our museum.
J-BIG: Can you say something about the investment? How much money did you put into this project?
Lars Hinrichs: A project like this can only be realised with a proper investment. After all, we are constructing a completely new building, and around 10 million Euros have been invested in the technology needed for the exhibition alone. All in all, we are expecting a commitment of around 40 to 45 million Euros. That’s a big investment, but I feel very secure with it. And even more important to me than the financial aspect is to bring this art experience to Europe and especially to Hamburg.
J-BIG: How did this original idea become an actual project? Did you approach teamLab directly?
Lars Hinrichs: The best medium for international enquiries is still e-mail. I outlined what we had in mind and relatively quickly, the Pace Gallery, which represents teamLab internationally, got in touch with me. I was able to explain my request in more detail and the gallery in turn communicated to teamLab that this was a genuine request, with someone who had the financial backing for such a project. That was in 2017. From then onwards, we started communicating directly with teamLab and we have been driving the project together ever since.
J-BIG: What respective roles do teamLab and yourself play in this project? Is there a strict separation between artistic and financial or organisational matters?
Lars Hinrichs: Working with artists is always collaborative, but of course, there are separate responsibilities to a certain extent. Curating the artworks is ultimately in the hands of teamLab, although we do discuss together what would be most suitable. On the other hand, it was clearly our task to make Hamburg as a location work and also to convince the artists’ collective of why we thought the city is so ideal. teamLab then came to visit Hamburg and was thrilled by the idea of HafenCity as one of the largest inner-city development projects in the world.
Likewise, we also organised a trip for the mayor of Hamburg to visit teamLab in Tokyo, not least because the land for the new development belonged to the city. That was in 2019, and in the course of that trip, the contract was signed.
J-BIG: Not too long after the signing of this contract, the Covid crisis hit the whole world. How did that impact or complicate the planning process?
Lars Hinrichs: First of all, it led to an additional passage in the contract that clarifies what happens in the event of a pandemic. But we entrepreneurs are generally optimists, and people who have earned their money with technology always assume that technology will save us. It was clear that the museum would not open in 2021, but rather in 2022, ‘23 or ‘24, and of course it would have been nice to be able to make more personal visits in both directions. But I think that the cooperation worked very well, despite everything. Building a museum via Zoom is a very new experience for all of us, but I think we are managing it quite well.
J-BIG: The opening of the Digital Art Museum is at least two years away. What is the arrangement for customers who are already buying tickets?
Caren Brockmann: Of course, we want the early buyers to be rewarded for purchasing their tickets now. Currently, December 31st, 2024 is stated as a stand-in on every ticket, but we will approach the early buyers in the run-up to the opening and change these placeholders into fixed dates and times. It doesn’t make sense to assign specific dates now, but we guarantee our earliest buyers entry within the first month after opening.
J-BIG: In Germany, we have often seen that large-scale projects like this can take longer and be more expensive than planned. How do you ensure that the Digital Art Museum does not meet the same temporary fate as the Elbphilharmonie?
Caren Brockmann: You’re right – we love our Elbphilharmonie, but of course all the postponements were far from ideal. One big advantage we have in this case is that Mr. Hinrichs is the building owner and sole investor. This secure financing also helps our partners to stay on schedule and not become uneasy. In addition, we have looked for the best partners we could find for the cooperation. Of course, it would be presumptuous to rule out anything. But we have done, and will continue to do, everything in our power to stick to the timing. So far, we have succeeded well, despite Covid, and we are extremely confident that we will be able to push ahead with the next steps at a similar speed. We are currently in the construction planning phase and will start building this year. We are in very close communication with the construction company and up until now, everything is going according to plan.
J-BIG: Do you experience any criticism of teamLab’s concept from the local art scene, or questions whether what you are doing here is really art?
Caren Brockmann: Unfortunately, I have to say: I believe this discussion about “is this art or is this nonsense” is to some extent typically German. To some degree, this is certainly part of the discourse, and we are happy to engage in it. But to completely question at this point whether one can speak of art here is, in my eyes, the wrong approach.
Fortunately, I get the impression that a lot of things that have to do with Japan have a very positive connotation in Germany and Europe – especially when it comes to innovation and aesthetics. That helps with gaining acceptance.
J-BIG: A large-scale intercultural project like this also tends to bring out the differences between German and Japanese mentalities. Are there any situations in your interactions with teamLab where you become aware of this?
Caren Brockmann: I agree that one should be aware of cultural differences. Japan is not Europe and Europe is not Japan. One is not better or worse than the other, but in some ways, they are different. But the nice thing is that when you work on a common vision and have the same goal in mind, it makes the cooperation incredibly constructive and positive right from the start. Especially since we have a Japanese colleague on board who helps overcome language and cultural barriers. We have weekly calls, so the exchange is very close, despite Covid.
For us, it’s been a really great collaboration so far, and we’re looking forward to this great project together. Maybe it would be different with other topics, but I don’t have the feeling that we are dealing with different nationalities here. We try to keep our meetings very to the point and efficient. Maybe that’s typically Japanese, but it’s also very Hanseatic. We have a clear agenda and work together to move it forward as quickly as possible. We are already looking forward to the opening together and are excited about the time ahead.