The first Kunstvereine were founded between 1800 and 1840 by the emerging middle class, which no longer wanted to leave culture and art to the nobility. From the beginning, they served as interfaces between the latest artistic production and a wide audience. They also advocated and advanced the democratization of cultural production.
Enshrined in association law, the programs in these institutions were decided by this new bourgeoisie, which took advantage of the legal structure to confidently emancipate itself from the old class system. Starting in the early nineteenth century, art associations formed in almost every major German city as early citizen initiatives for art. A short time later, Künstlervereine (artists’ associations) also emerged as professional associations representing artists, with the two kinds of associations led in parallel in many cities. Among the oldest Kunstvereine are the Kunstverein Nuremberg - Albrecht Dürer Society in Nuremberg (1792), the Kunstverein in Hamburg (1817) and the Badische Kunstverein in Karlsruhe (1818). Despite its long tradition, recent history shows that the association format has lost none of its appeal over the years, with new associations being founded in many towns and cities (often in areas close to art academies) with the aim of offering a new platform for innovative artistic expression. In other words, larger, older Kunstvereine with over 200 years of professionalization history and in some cases several thousand members are just as representative of Kunstverein history as the latest, fledgling Kunstvereine with just a handful of committed volunteer staff.
The development of Kunstvereine also reflects developments in German history. Many new Kunstvereine have been founded in former East German states since 1989, and they have played an important role in the transition from prescribed, state-serving art to a new, independent art scene. At the same time, it is important to note the importance of East German Kunstvereine in terms of anchoring emerging, international art in civil society. Even now, they do valuable and inventive work when it comes to networking and promoting local artists.
Kunstvereine, as they are organized in Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine (ADKV), are non-profit institutions. German Kunstvereine also have counterparts in Kunstvereine or association-like institutions in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, but also in the Scandinavian countries, where Kunstvereine are also considered models of civic participation in cultural activities.