The conflict at the Academy is irresolvable. This quote ran as the headline for an interview with Stephan Schmidt-Wulffen published by Der Standard newspaper in late January. Still in office as rector of Viennas Academy of Fine Arts, Schmidt-Wulffen announced that after nine years in the job he would not be seeking to renew his contract and would be moving instead to the New Design University in St. Pölten. This decision came as no surprise, since the rector lacks support for re-election in his own ranks. The conflict he refers to doubtless exists it has structural roots. But the fact that it appears irresolvable has to do not least with Schmidt-Wulffen himself.
Looking back over his tenure, one is struck by the radical changes that have taken place at the Academy of Fine Arts in the past decade. The rise and fall of its rector are also an expression of the difficulties involved in implementing new teaching concepts and definitions of art in traditional institutions. The move from the traditional master class model in favour of university-style departments, a process begun under Carl Pruscha (rector from 1988 to 2001), was accomplished. In addition, the Academy attained complete independent legal status, which brought greater autonomy in teaching and research, but also greater financial responsibility. Schmidt-Wulffen made use of the resulting leeway to fundamentally alter the Academys profile. Under his aegis, the staff became significantly more international, and the importance of theory in art teaching was gradually increased. The Academy became visible beyond its own institutional borders as a location of discourse whose strong political orientation connected with debates that have had a tradition in Vienna since the 1990s (Depot, Generali Foundation, etc.). Theorists like Sabeth Buchmann, Diedrich Diederichsen and Tom Holert, but also artists like Martin Beck, Matthias Herrmann, Dorit Margreiter and Heimo Zobernig practiced a form of critical reflection rarely seen in this concentration at other art universities in the German-speaking world. In terms of individual institutes, the department for training art teachers in particular exemplified successfully what Schmidt-Wulffen likely had in mind for the Academy as a whole: the seamless integration of creation, education and reflection.
The changes welcomed by theory enthusiasts across all disciplines did not go entirely unchallenged within the institution. Schmidt-Wulffens focus on artistic research prompted fears, especially among long-serving professors and non-professorial teaching staff, of a scientification which, they claimed, is not only diametrically opposed to the core tasks of an art university, but also threatens the freedom of art in general. Schmidt-Wulffen succeeded in uniting these contrary viewpoints in uniting them against him. Almost single-handedly, he attempted to realign the Academys entire range of courses to the structure laid down in the Bologna Accords: a three-tier system of Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees. This campaign was one of the reasons students and staff occupied the Academys main hall in October 2009.
The wrangling that ensued effectively suffocated any further meaningful discussion, for example on the problem of the economization of education (Bologna keyword: employability) or on the question of which models of artistic practice should shape the training programme of an art university. Schmidt-Wulffen set this necessary debate in motion, but his communicative and organizational mistakes also hindered it. Creating the basis for a return to genuine discussions between all parties is one of the challenges awaiting the future rector. This will also involve overcoming the oversimplified polarization between theory and praxis (or scientification and the freedom of art). In fact, behind this supposed set of opposites lie different forms of artistic practice with a more or less discursive emphasis. Their coexistence under a single roof is potentially productive, and it would be good if both sides could be convinced of this productivity. A viable vision for the future of the Academy of Fine Arts can mean neither rashly reversing the achievements of the Schmidt-Wulffen era, nor disregarding critical voices. Instead, it will be a matter of building on what has already been achieved and making adjustments in places where things may have got out of joint. The main task of the future rector will be to mediate in this process and to secure the necessary resources. The range of opinions and viewpoints a key ingredient in the attractiveness of any art university is always also a question of what the institution can afford.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 1