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A Big Idea and a Big Donor Bring a New Art Museum to Austria | Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Big Idea and a Big Donor Bring a New Art Museum to Austria

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VIENNA — Amid hammering and drilling, works by the Austrian artists Valie Export, Arnulf Rainer and Günter Brus waited quietly in a row against a white wall, ready to be hung.

The building where they are to be displayed is a longstanding, if long decrepit, landmark: the Künstlerhaus, on Vienna’s grand Ringstrasse, provided in 1868 by Emperor Franz Josef for the country’s oldest artists’ society and used in 1939 for the Nazis’ traveling exhibition “Degenerate Art.”

And the organization behind the exhibition is also an old Vienna institution: the Albertina Museum, founded nearly a decade before the construction of the Künstlerhaus around a formidable collection of prints and old master drawings, and now attracting over a million visitors a year.

But this show, “The Beginning: Art in Austria, 1945 to 1980,” is nonetheless the start of something new: the Albertina Modern, a satellite of the Albertina that will share the Künstlerhaus with the Austrian Artists’ Society as a result of a public-private partnership on a scale never before undertaken by an Austrian state museum.

Alongside state support to the museum, the art collector and industrialist Hans Peter Haselsteiner gave 57 million euros ($63.7 million) to restore the building, through his family foundation; his construction company, Strabag, took on the three-year renovation. He has also provided the Albertina with thousands of works from an important collection of postwar Austrian art, on a 27-year loan.

“The Beginning” will be a beginning in another way, too. It is the first comprehensive survey exhibition on Austrian art from the immediate postwar era to be mounted at an Austrian museum. The public will be allowed in on Friday; entry to an opening event Thursday night has been restricted because of coronavirus fears.

[Update: Albertina Modern’s website said on Thursday that the opening was “postponed until further notice.”]

Subsequent exhibitions will combine homegrown art with works by renowned international artists, according to Klaus Albrecht Schröder, the general director of the Albertina.

“I want to exhibit the Austrian canon alongside the larger canon,” he said. “In later exhibitions we will include artists like Georg Baselitz, Cindy Sherman, Alex Katz and Mike Kelley. But Austrian artists will always be present, at least 50 percent.”The Albertina’s latest expansion is the result of a complex and difficult series of negotiations.

One strand concerned the Essl Collection, around 7,000 works purchased over several decades by the entrepreneur Karlheinz Essl and his wife, Agnes, and considered a seminal collection for postwar Austrian art.

In 2014, with Mr. Essl’s business near bankruptcy, the collection was in danger of being liquidated. Sixty percent of the collection was sold to Mr. Haselsteiner’s family foundation, and the Essl family later donated 1,323 works, worth an estimated €90 million, to the Albertina.

Mr. Schröder said he had recognized a gap in Austrian museum programming and felt the need for more space to exhibit the Albertina’s growing holdings of modern and contemporary art.

He proposed his vision of a second Albertina venue to Mr. Haselsteiner. Later talks with the Artists’ Society produced an agreement to cede part of the Künstlerhaus in exchange for restoration: The society lacked funds to maintain the building, which had fallen into disrepair.

In 2017, Mr. Haselsteiner lent his foundation’s portion of the Essl Collection to the Albertina Modern.

Mr. Haselsteiner also hopes to support Austrian art, which he has collected since his thirties. “Austrian artists have been underestimated compared to, say, Germans. We’re a smaller country, with a smaller art market. But we have so many good painters and sculptors. What we have to do is promote them,” he said, in a new glass-walled office in the Künstlerhaus. (Mr. Haselsteiner will play no role in museum decisions or administration; Mr. Schröder will direct both Albertinas.)

With the reopening, the Künstlerhaus exhibition spaces sit on the building’s upper floor atop a sweeping staircase framed by faux-marble walls, columns, restored terrazzo floors and a sparkling glass ceiling. On the main floor and lower level, Albertina Modern occupies about 21,500 square feet of exhibition space, much of it newly constructed.

“The Beginning” is a sprawling showcase of 400 works, 200 from the Albertina Modern and another 200 on loan.

On view are abstract paintings from the late 1940s to the 1960s by lesser-known artists like Hans Staudacher, Arnulf Rainer, and Oswald Oberhuber. One room highlights the exuberant, saturated colors in works by the painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

There’s documentation of 1960s performances, often involving blood and feces, by Viennese Actionists like Otto Muehl, Günter Brus, and Hermann Nitsch. Avant-garde feminist art from the 1960s and 1970s is present, by artists including performance pioneer Valie Export, as are gentler drawings and photographs by Birgit Jürgenssen and a room of pastel-hued self-portraits by the painter Maria Lassnig, who reached international acclaim with a solo show at MoMA PS1 in 2014.

Some art alludes to the darker sides of Austrian history, including Gottfried Helnwein’s photorealistic images of wounded or poisoned children.

“These artists have something in common: They all turned against the ideals of the Third Reich,” said Mr. Schröder.

“I’m doing a kind of exorcism,” he added. “Exactly here, where ‘degenerate art’ was shown, I’m showing artists who after 1945 declared war on the degeneracy of war.”

Austrian art has evolved past such concerns, but what could the Albertina Modern mean for museumgoers in Vienna? Its mission fills a vacuum in Austrian art history, moving beyond the Austrian favorites Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele so often on view at the Belvedere or Leopold Museums, and offering an alternative to Mumok and the Kunsthalle Wien’s focus on more recent international art and performance.

The president of the Artists’ Society, Tanja Prusnik, is optimistic about the shared real estate. “Synergies are possible,” she said. “We can bring more people into the Künstlerhaus. We got our building back in a condition that can bring us further, and we’re visible again.” (The Künstlerhaus show “ReOPENING” began on March 6.)

The public-private partnership that enabled the restoration is rare in a country where private arts funding is viewed with suspicion: Mr. Haselsteiner’s patronage could set a precedent.

Jasper Sharp, a curator at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, pointed out that the Albertina Modern treads close to the territory of other Vienna museums, and that Mr. Schröder has long been criticized for moving his institution too far from drawings and graphics. But, he added, “a historical building in the center of Vienna has been renovated, and a number of important Austrian artists whose work is not always found in permanent collection displays here will now be presented more frequently,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Schröder said: “I think that many more Austrian artists will be canonized into international art history in the next few years. This is one of our goals. Albertina Modern has to be able to show how rich Austrian art actually was.”


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