BY Jens Kastner in Profiles | 09 AUG 11
Featured in
Issue 2


Business and private matters do get mixed up, unavoidably, structurally. But there is a need for limits. Laws mark these limits and guarantee a minimum of transparency.

BY Jens Kastner in Profiles | 09 AUG 11

Jessica Craig-Martin, Real Wasps Arrive, Denice Rich Benefit Gala, 2006, 2007

In late February 2011, Peter Noever, the Director of the Austrian Museum for Applied Arts / Contemporary Art (MAK) in Vienna, resigned. More than once, he had thrown parties at the museum on the occasion of his mother's birthday. In his resignation statement, Noever admitted that he should have treated these events as private, even though they did benefit the museum. Wolfgang Zinggl, spokesman for cultural affairs for the Austrian Green Party, considers Noever a grand master of wastefulness and nepotism and ultimately triggered the resignation by means of a parliamentary enquiry into Noevers use of funds. In a full-page feature on Zinggl, the daily newspaper Die Presse dubbed the Green politician and former artist the directors nemesis, referring not only to his attack on Noever. Gerald Matt, director of Kunsthalle Wien, may appear in court over a number of attempts (all unsuccessful) to help particularly well-heeled donors obtain Austrian citizenship, for which Zinggl reported him to the authorities in April 2011. It is not acceptable, Zinggl told the broadcaster 3sat, for rich people to buy citizenship under the pretext of patronage of the arts. To date, Matt remains in office.

In light of these revelations about two big names in the Vienna art world, focussing the debate on value judgements about specific individuals would be a mistake. The motives are structural. Measuring criminal acts by the same moralistic yardstick as dandyish posing and trips in limousines as Zinggl tends to do merely repeats the gesture of the tabloid press. Such discursive amalgams the weapon of the enemy are also deployed by Noevers friends, but to the opposite end. Prominent figures from Austria and abroad declare their solidarity on the website Zaha Hadid describes Noever as a close friend, and everyone basically agrees with Marko Lulic concerning the great things he has achieved on behalf of the Austrian and international art scene. Many praise Noever for restructuring the MAK from a museum for applied arts into a contemporary venue and for initiating the Schindler grant programme in Los Angeles. As if these merits had anything to do with the revelations, the laments over the latter mix up the directors achievements with his misdeeds: Noever is said to have fallen victim to a witch hunt (Erwin Wurm) by representatives of a brand of politics that is hostile to art (Roberto Ohrt) and by Austrian small-mindedness (Hans Weigand). As one might guess, when such forces are at work, they inevitably promote Austro-neo-provincialism (Wolfgang Denk). Consequently, the websites initiators issued a dramatic warning: Local mediocrity must not be allowed to rule! And the writer Robert Menasse even appeals for self-censorship, calling on the Greens to remain silent on cultural affairs until they have replaced Zinggl with a new spokesperson.

Meanwhile, a successor has long been found for Noever: Christoph Thun-Hohenstein a former Austrian Foreign Ministry staffer and Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York certainly cannot be accused of mediocrity or provincialism. But portraying the spoilsport as provincial is just as much part of the game as confounding private affairs and business. The game here means the rules and operations of the art world: more than ever, all those involved in that world use such hybrid practices. The sale of works is discussed at parties, critics are paid, not by the line, but in air miles and who makes or needs contracts? The world of contemporary art thrives on the unofficial and the informal. In her book High Price. Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture (2008), Isabelle Graw described the scene as a whole as being characterized by the combination of unselfish companionship and professional contact. So why not throw a nice party for your friends or secure citizenship for people who may be funding your exhibitions in future?

There are reasons. Business and private matters do get mixed up, unavoidably, structurally. But there is a need for limits. Laws can mark out such limits. They guarantee a minimum of transparency. And transparency, in turn, is needed to ensure that legitimate networking can still be distinguished from mafia-like machinations. In this respect, Noever himself appeared cleverer than his supporters when he admitted that the parties were private affairs even though they did benefit the museum. The accumulation of symbolic capital, in this case enhancing the museums prestige, may not be pursued at all costs. The outrage of intellectuals at the supposed hair-splitting mentality of the Green Party spokesman for cultural affairs smacks a bit of a knee-jerk reaction of hedonists against the petty bourgeois. It also runs the risk of endorsing the kind of nepotism based on mutual gain that, just as anywhere else where this constellation occurs, must discredit dissenters (mediocrity, hostile to art, provincial). Long tenures Noever was in office for almost 25 years, Matt has held his post for 15 so far also facilitate a top dog economy from which many profit over the years. But it cannot be described as democratic or transparent. To help these qualities gain ground in the art world, whats needed is not hot-headed animosity but professionalism.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Dr. Jens Kastner teaches Aesthetics and Art Sociology at Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien.