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The founding of the Center for Art and Media can be traced back to the year 1980, when the idea for a media arts center first came into being. By 1986, a project group had been organized, consisting of local politicians and representatives of the university, the State Music Academy, the Center for Nuclear Research and other institutions in Karlsruhe. In »Concept 88«, they described their vision for bringing together art and the new media in theory and practice.

In 1988, the government of the province of Baden-Württemberg, led by Minister President Lothar Späth, voted to establish the Center for Art and Media as a foundation incorporated under public law. With the establishment of the foundation's council in 1989 and the appointment of Prof. Heinrich Klotz as founding director, the realization of a Center for Art and Media started to take form.

Originally, the Center was to be housed in a new building on a site south of Karlsruhe's train station. However, implementing the plans of Dutch architect Rem Kohlhaas would have exceeded the allotted budget by far. After long and heated debate, the idea of a new construction was abandoned. Instead, a historic monument was chosen - the vast edifice of a former munitions factory, »Industrial Works Karlsruhe Augsburg«, was to become the home of the new Center for Art and Media. Architects Schweger & Partner undertook planning, reconstruction and renovation, converting a structure of dominating, static monumentality into a building ideally suited to presenting advanced technologies and artistic experiments. In the early phases of its founding and construction, the Center's offices were scattered across the entire city. Nonetheless, events such as the series »ZKM in the Factory« and the media art festival Multimediale with the Siemens Media Arts Award, gave audiences a chance to experience the broad spectrum of the Center's work even before it opened its doors in 1997.

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