On 23 May 2018, Kunsthalle Wien director Nicolaus Schafhausen announced his resignation, effective March 31, 2019, citing political reasons. Frieze spoke to the curator about Austrian politics, his tenure as director, and his future plans.
Kimberly Bradley Why did you resign now?
Nicolaus Schafhausen It’s the right moment to leave. There’s been a change in the city government [Vienna’s mayor Michael Häupl, a member of the leftist Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) retired earlier this month after 24 years], I announced my departure on the last day the person I report to, the city culture councillor with whom I worked closely and very well [Andreas Mailath-Pokorny (SPÖ)] was in office. It’s not my style to run away, and it’s not just a curatorial decision: Since 2012, I’ve been leading an institution of almost 50 colleagues and they’re dependent on not only my programming but also their employment. I want to be extremely sensitive, and I don’t want to harm Kunsthalle Wien as an institution at all.
But of course it is in the end a very personal decision that has everything to do with my personal conscience and how and where I feel I need to position myself in this political climate. All of us in the cultural institutional context will have to be making these decisions in the coming time. I know where I stand and it’s not on the side of acquiescence and compromise. That is a position that especially art and the institutions society needs to present can never adopt if they wish to remain credible.
KB Have you spoken to the new city councillor for culture, Veronica Kaup-Hasler?
NS Yes, of course. But the decision had nothing to do with her. I’m surprised at her appointment in a positive way.
KB In your public statement, you cite resurgent nationalist politics in Austria. But you must mean the federal government, which has shifted rightward since the parliamentary elections last October, not the city government, which remains Social Democrat, and which funds Kunsthalle Wien.
NS That's right; but the city of Vienna is not an autonomous Republic, but part of the Republic of Austria. The federal government is really changing the system here, and now the most important question will be, what powers does the city government have, and what impact will they have? Right now we’re working on the public budgets for 2019–21. It’s tricky, many are competing for funding and the councillors have to make decisions. As to politics, I know my decision contains inherent contradictions. Of course I could have said I’ll keep going, especially now, but a life in the subjunctive – ‘would have,’ ‘could have’ – is an absolute no-go for me.
NS I’ve slowly been affected by many decisions being made on the federal level in Austria. It’s about a slow shift in civil society. For example, NGOs, especially those working with refugee aid, are being slowly divested of power. That is connected and also responsive to the implications of governmental decision-making. So is the work of a Kunsthalle, whose mission is to show international contemporary art and promote and communicate discourse, and this art is often sociopolitical. But then are we, a Kunsthalle, the right instrument for resistance? I don’t wish to instrumentalize art this way either. It’s a contradiction in itself. Also for me.
KB Can’t Vienna be a stronghold against this rightward swing?
NS It’s a fundamental question of what we have in our neoliberalized world. Vienna acts as if it has nothing to do with the federal government. And many people think, ‘Oh, well, it’s not so bad.’ I see this differently. We have a government in which a classic conservative party is rising with a truly nationalistic party. It’s not just populist-right but nationalist-right. For me, from a psychological, personal viewpoint, a boundary has been breached.
It would be different if directors of public institutions, especially the large national museums, would at times question themselves in the artistic sense. But the art institutions here don’t do this. I believe and value curatorial and directorial autonomy, but sometimes I ask myself what an institution’s job is besides marketing and visitor numbers.
KB Your decision wasn’t sudden: how long have you considered resigning?
NS I’ve been doubtful about whether I can keep working here long-term since the yearlong presidential campaigns in 2016. I extended my contract then; it would have been silly not to. Staying now would have been a possibility, but here we have the ‘would have’ again. It’s easy to speak of this, harder to do it. I don’t want to be pushed into a defensive position, which can happen quickly in Austria – look at how many museum directors have, for whatever reason, been fired or left, or contracts aren’t extended. I think we’re again ascribing too much to art. I’d rather try something like this from the offensive position.
KB How were things for you when you began directing Kunsthalle Wien in 2012?
NS It was a huge surprise to be represented as ‘the other.’ I’ve never seen the words ‘the German’ in front of my name as often as here. It’s a form of ostracism. Resentments against Germans who work here even for public institutions, is ever-present, and it’s more than just a game. There’s always the question of solving everything domestically and then filling positions that way, too. No one talks about this, but it’s there. (long pause) I came here when Kunsthalle Wien was in a very different situation. It was restructuring from an association to a city-run LLC because of discrepancies with former director Gerald Matt. It was the employees who wanted to stop working with him. People often forget that. There’s this subjunctive again – what would have been, had he stayed?
KB You had a rough time with Austrian media from the beginning.
NS Those working for the local art media and daily newspapers are all closely connected. They don’t distance themselves from each other. Some of them constantly commenting on each other. It has nothing to do with independence. They’ve called Kunsthalle Wien a Feinschmeckerprogramm – a programme for connoisseurs.
KB But you redefined Kunsthalle’s mission and shifted the audience demographic.
NS Today we have around 70,000–80,000 visitors per year. These numbers are a pleasant surprise. I’m quite proud of this and of our team, which is international. The team might be why we attract younger international people who live here. Did you know that one in four people in Vienna can’t vote? The international people who live and work here take advantage of the wonderful quality of life here, but are politically quite voiceless.
KB Have you achieved what you wanted?
NS With the team we have developed shows in a local context, and offered a programme we thought was important and right. Very often we were right, and – considering our audience – filled empty gaps. Of course I’d do some things differently, but I don’t regret a single person who was an artist or speaker or guest. It was, and is, an exciting time.
KB What would you have done differently?
NS I would have dealt with the local press more diplomatically at the beginning. But then, how diplomatic can you be? And that’s one of those things in Vienna – resentment. I also never adjusted my speech to Austrian German. I could have, but didn’t.
KB Is that possible? I couldn’t imitate a Texan accent if I tried.
NS I know people who’ve done it. Not dialect, but they use Austrian vocabulary. It can be charming, but I can’t do it.
KB You stay until March 2019, and your curatorial programme ends in late 2019.
NS The new city culture councillor asked me to assure the programming goes until the end of 2019. Then the new director has the wonderful chance to begin anew.
KB What about you? Your official statement says you’d like to work outside the conventional institution.
NS My statement doesn’t mean I won’t curate somewhere else, freelance, and it also doesn’t mean I don’t have offers elsewhere. It doesn’t have to be the classical thing; I don’t necessarily have to direct a museum. I’ll continue directing Fogo Island Arts; I teach. I’m looking forward to the time afterward.
KB Do you want to increase the political pointedness of the exhibitions you curate?
NS Yes. Yes. And to look at themes more broadly.
KB To see how far we can take art, and how far art can go?
NS Yes. And also – to see how far I can take myself.
Main image: Nicolaus Schafhausen. Courtesy: © Kunsthalle Wien; photograph: Steffen Jagenburg