BY Matthias Dusini in Reviews | 05 APR 14
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Issue 14


Shaken Foundations: The death of Vienna’s privately funded art institutions

BY Matthias Dusini in Reviews | 05 APR 14

The Generali Foundation exhibition hall

End of March 2014: the Austrian entrepreneur Karlheinz Essl decides to sell his art collection of around 7,000 works. Essl needs money to save his building supplies chain Baumax from bankruptcy. To make sure that his collection – currently presented in a private museum in Klosterneuburg just outside of Vienna – stays together, he petitioned the Austrian state to buy it. The step was seen by many as close to blackmail: 7,000 art works in exchange for 4,000 jobs. The discussion surrounding the Essl Collection is only the latest in a trend that has recently haunted the Viennese art scene: the last year has already seen the closing of two of the city’s most high profile privately funded art institutions – BAWAG P.S.K. Contemporary and the Generali Foundation. While the former closed at the end of 2013, the latter will close in June after its current exhibition. The reasons for both are not just cost-related.

At the end of January, Generali Group Austria announced its plan to relocate the Generali Foundation from Vienna to Salzburg, where it will become part of Museum der Moderne (MdM). Under the terms of a loan agreement signed by the Federal State of Salzburg and the insurance company, the collection will remain in Salzburg for at least 25 years, presented in a permanent exhibition. The company will pay a supervisory staff of three and the Generali Foundation brand affiliation will remain in place. BAWAG P.S.K. Contemporary, on the other hand, was shut down last summer.

Last exhibition at BAWAG P.S.K. Contemporary FRAGILE, 2013, Installations view, Photograph: Nela Eggenberger & Gregor Ecker

BAWAG P.S.K. Contemporary was foun­-ded in 1974 under the name BAWAG Foundation by the Bank für Arbeit und Wirtschaft (a bank with close ties to Austria’s trade unions). In the mid ’90s, long-serving director Christine Kintisch gave the conservative-leaning exhibition programme a new profile, shifting from a focus on established painters like Georg Baselitz to more experimental concepts including an exhibition of videos by Kutlug Ataman and a site-specific installation by Elmgreen & Dragset.

Founded in 1988, the Generali Foundation originally focused on Austrian sculpture. The remit of the collection was then expanded by founding director Sabine Breitwieser to include Conceptual art of the 1960s and ’70s. The collection comprises 2,200 works, in­cluding representative bodies of feminist art and Institutional Critique by artists such as Martha Rosler and Hans Haacke. Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack, who went on to direct Documenta 12, curated their first major show here (Things We Don’t Understand, 2000). A study room and ambitious publications contributed to the Foundation’s excellent reputation.

Last exhibition at Generali Foundation: Ulrike Grossarth, Wäre ich Stoff ich würde mich färben, 2014, Installation view

The crisis began when the two institutions were conjoined. In 2005, close to bankruptcy, BAWAG merged with Austria’s post office savings bank (P.S.K.) and was sold under the new name of BAWAG P.S.K. to the American firm Cerberus Capital Management. The Austrian branch of Generali, on the other hand, lost its operations in Central and Eastern Europe to the parent company in Triest in 2006. Both Generali and BAWAG P.S.K. needed to cut costs and decided in 2007 to merge their art spaces but not their names. The home of the Generali Foundation in Vienna’s Wieden district became the joint FOUNDATIONQUARTIER, with the two institutions presenting alternating exhibitions at the same venue and sharing office space.

At the time, it was clear to most people that this marked the start of a long goodbye. Breitwieser did not approve of the cohabitation and resigned as director of the Generali Foundation in 2007. After several years as curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, she returned to Austria in 2013 and drew up a new plan with art-loving former Generali CEO Dietrich Karner to move the Generali collection to Salzburg. As the new director of MdM, she was able to make one of Karner’s long-standing wishes come true: to secure the future of the collection by integrating it into a public museum. On 31 January 2014, Karner turned 75 and was forced to surrender his seat on the advisory board. Before losing his influence and seeing the collection broken up, he managed at least to sort things out.

Last exhibition at Generali Foundation: Ulrike Grossarth, Wäre ich Stoff ich würde mich färben, 2014, Installation view

Although the Generali Group had always emphasized the Foundation’s independence, the underlying power structure now became apparent: one boss left and his replacement had no interest in his predecessor’s hobby. One can only assume that the company would have ended its patronage even in more prosperous times. Breitwieser’s successor Sabine Folie and her staff of ten were not informed of the deal with MdM in advance. They will have to find new jobs.

BAWAG P.S.K. Contemporary will not be granted a second life, however. After the failed merger, Christine Kintisch took her contemporary programme to a new location at Franz-Josefs-Kai. Everything changed in March 2013 when she was informed by the company’s sponsorship department that BAWAG P.S.K. Contemporary was to be transformed into a ‘location for contemporary art and its themes’. Kintisch’s post was put out to tender, prompting many curators to submit their programme ideas. An advisory committee was said to be assessing the entries ahead of announcing the new director. Instead, applicants received an informal note telling them that the art space was to be closed. No obvious economic reasons were cited. Just recently, the bank announced it had doubled its annual profits. Some controller must have struck off a budget item that did not belong to the bank’s ‘core business’. As a result, Vienna has lost two important windows onto international art, two esteemed directors, and two venues for curatorial experiments. And art has had one more bad experience with big business.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Matthias Dusini is a writer and editor of the magazine Falter. He lives in Vienna. His most recent book, written jointly with Thomas Edlinger, is In Anführungszeichen – Glanz und Elend der Political Correctness (Quote Unquote – The Splendour and Misery of Political Correctness, Suhrkamp, 2012).