Blue Danube

Trouble in the museums and presidential palaces of Vienna

Often described as a ‘nation of culture’, in political speeches as well as tourism campaigns, Austria has adopted a label that seeks to emphasize the riches of an upscale travel destination and ignore the many controversies that have recently marked the country’s cultural and political life. Visitors to Vienna, the performing arts festivals in Salzburg and Bregenz or the Steirischer Herbst festival of new visual art in Graz, are unlikely to see any signs of turbulence in what otherwise appears to be Austria’s smoothly functioning cultural machinery. But the recent controversy surrounding the missteps of a leading Austrian museum director shows that the supposedly apolitical cultural sector is, in fact, very much involved in the ideological upheavals that are shaking Austria in the run up to a critical election – one that could potentially leave the country with a right-wing head of state.

Austria’s Minister for Arts and Culture, Thomas Drozda (of the Social Democratic Party), was prompted to take action against a member of the country’s cultural elite by the following passage in a report he commissioned: ‘The compliance-related charges are to be treated as embezzlement and are thus valid grounds for dismissal.’ After lengthy hesitation (and having already promised her that her contract would be extended), Drozda had to tell Agnes Husslein-Arco, the director of the Belvedere, one of the country’s most successful art museums, that her post would be vacant at the start of 2017. Housed in a baroque palace in Vienna, the Belvedere is undeniably a heavyweight institution. Each year, over a million visitors come to see both its architecture (in addition to its main building, the institution has a second palace, the Winterpalais, as well as a striking pavilion, 21er Haus, which houses its collection of contemporary art) and its art, ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day.

The scale of the problems with executive governance in Austria’s cultural sector suggests that it is not a matter of individual failings but a structural issue.

The director of this state-owned museum allegedly filed as business trips her travels between Vienna and her summer home on Lake Wörth in Carinthia, not only violating the institution’s ethical guidelines but also risking prosecution for misappropriation of funds. But sacking Husslein-Arco was not an easy decision for Droszda, especially as, since taking office in 2007, she had turned the Belvedere into one of the country’s most successful museums. It was clear, though, that the enquiry’s findings left him no other choice. 

The Husslein-Arco affair was merely the latest in an inglorious series that has damaged the reputation of Austria’s cultural institutions. In 2011, Peter Noever, then director of the Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art (MAK), had to resign because he was found to have hosted private parties at the museum’s expense. Likewise, Gerald Matt, director of Kunsthalle Vienna, lost his job in 2012 following a vote of no confidence by his staff; although cleared of all charges that he had made improper use of museum services, Matt’s autocratic style rendered his position at this publicly funded exhibition venue untenable. This was followed, in 2014, by the greatest of all these scandals when the then Minister for Arts and Culture, Josef Ostermayer (also of the Social Democratic Party), fired the managing director of the Burgtheater, Matthias Hartmann, after millions of euros were discovered to be missing from the institution’s accounts, a fiasco for which Hartmann was accused of being partly responsible.

The scale of such problems with executive governance in Austria’s cultural sector suggests that it is not a matter of individual failings but a structural issue. Recent reforms of state-owned arts institutions might be partly to blame. The Federal Museums Act of 1998 took museums and theatres out of state administration, and set the expectation that these institutions would operate in the manner of independent businesses. Referred to as ‘full legal capacity’, this status enabled the improvement of collections and the renovation of performance venues, most of which had been founded before World War I. Over the following years, however, the level of annual funding remained static, eventually leading to severe financial pressure as staff and production costs increased.

The new freedom for independent fundraising went hand-in-hand with rising costs, so that the federal museums had to court sponsors, increase ticket prices and expand their shops and restaurants. Although these museums are still defined as academic research institutions, the Austrian politicians responsible for culture mainly focused on whether the operating results were deemed successful, and consequently valued skills such as networking and self-promotion over expert cultural knowledge. Noever, who had been heading the MAK since 1986, was a vehement advocate of full legal capacity and an inspired autodidact who presented himself as someone who would fight the bureaucratic machine. Matt, the former director of Kunsthalle Vienna, also deviated from the standard museum career path, which usually begins in academia, starting as the museum’s business manager before being promoted (thanks to his good political connections) to artistic director. Husslein-Arco had worked at Sotheby’s for nearly two decades before switching to the museum sector; the list of her academic publications does not extend beyond her student days. However, she managed to turn the Belvedere into a brand, thus erasing the restrictive identity of a gallery that existed mainly to document the art history of a nation.

Although all of these directors of cultural institutions had time-limited contracts, unlike in the private sector, these were usually extended almost automatically. State representatives only began to take charge of their proprietorial duties when things had already spiralled out of control. They had hired managers, but these managers then began to behave like artists. Exhuming the myth of the exuberant bohemian, some of these well-paid museum directors (Husslein-Arco’s annual salary, according to a 2015 official report, was €251,000) claimed special status, which met with broad media approval. Commentators granted these flamboyant entertainers licence to bend the law. In 2011, the artist Erwin Wurm expressed regret over the ‘witch hunt’ against Noever. The newspaper Die Presse recently even declared a measure of madness as a prerequisite for the profession: ‘A museum director should not only be permitted to play the fool. It should actually be required in the job description.’

For many art-lovers, Husslein-Arco’s merits outweigh her misdemeanours – but, at a time of heightened political tensions, that might prove to be a misjudgement. Politically, Austria is currently split into two opposing camps of nearly equal size. In May this year, the former Green Party politician Alexander van der Bellen was elected Federal President with a small majority, and was destined to take office at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace. But, within a matter of weeks, the result was overturned by Austria’s constitutional court due to formal errors in the way votes had been counted. On 4 December, Van der Bellen must face a second run-off against Norbert Hofer, leader of the populist right-wing Freedom Party of Austria. Hofer’s party constantly rails against what it sees as corrupt elites who abuse their privileges and don’t take ‘the people’ seriously. This context may well have influenced Drozda’s decision to bring Husslein-Arco’s career to a premature end. Otherwise, the impression of an establishment elevating itself above the law would have been too powerful to deny.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Main image: the Belvedere, Vienna. Thumbnail: Ai Weiwei, F Lotus, 2016, installation view at the Belvedere ViennaCourtesy: Ai Weiwei Studio and the Belvedere, Vienna. 

Issue 183

First published in Issue 183

Nov - Dec 2016

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