Art On Call

The Relocation of the Museum Auf Abruf Invites New Recognition

“Towards the end of the month, it always seems so empty,” I thought walking around the corner of Felderstrasse, on my way to the MUSA – Museum auf Abruf – the most prominent, new neighbor of Vienna’s neo-gothic City Hall.

What was empty was my wallet. There was only an account statement showing a discouraging negative balance and a lone five Euro note. Still, this was just enough to pay the entrance fee to the newest and most novel addition to Vienna’s long list of fine museums.

A billboard, announcing the current exhibition, “Lange nicht gesehen – Long Time No See,” was wrapped around one of the otherwise gray, stone columns of the museum building at Felderstrasse 6. Once inside, I made my way past the busy construction workers, a sign of the recent opening- with a lot of work still to do.

However, the MUSA as an institution is not so recent, it’s just new at this location, after several moves. Starting in 1991, there had been attempts to make the growing collection– a collection of some16.500 pieces acquired by the city from artists living and working in Vienna – available for public view. “The best way to promote contemporary art is to purchase it,” says the government’s official statement on the MUSA website.  Discussions about bringing the collection out had begun as early as 2000, and took shape with the opening of a gallery next to the Vienna art academy. However this new home seems far more impressive.

As soon as the thick glass doors of the building closed behind me, the construction work noise was closed out. Pulling out my sad wallet, I walked towards the reception are at the entrance. Behind the desk sat a young woman whose colorful clothes matched the walls around her, cluttered with posters. She smiled.

“It’s free, you don’t have to pay a fee,” she said. I smiled back at her. “That’s great,” I said genuinely delighted. Now I wouldn’t have to skip lunch! As I waited for the museum’s director, who earlier had assured me ‘to drop in for a chat,’ I tried to get an overall impression.

The atmosphere in the museum reflected the space, which felt as open and welcoming as the people working in it. Laughter came from the back where the team worked in an open-plan office space – apparently preparing for the upcoming exhibitions. “We are a very young and very open team, reserve is not our cup of tea,” said the director, Berthold Ecker, approaching me from behind. Dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, he took me on a tour.

MUSA’s mission is it to bring contemporary art closer to the public.

“We see this museum and our work in it as a service,” Ecker said. The current exhibition presents works of over 80 Viennese artists, with any artist living and working in Vienna considered ‘Viennese,’ regardless of nationality.

“There is an special focus on and openness towards Eastern European artists,”  Ecker explained, “which has contributed greatly to turning Vienna into one of the most interesting art centers in Europe.

“There are over 100 galleries here, “ he went on, “of which twenty are regarded as true ‘world market players.’ ”

The MUSA’s concept is as straightforward as it is diverse. Out of four topical exhibitions per year, three would be comprised of pieces from the city’s collection. The fourth show will be an international exhibition. For this section, they will emphasize Eastern European artists.

“There lies great potential that will bring a fresh breeze to Vienna’s art scene,” Ecker said. MUSA will also encourage their international co-operation partners to bring Austrian art into their countries. Thus the name “Museum auf Abruf” gives a hint at the institution’s flexible nature.

“If we are called by another international institution to exhibit there, as we are this summer in Germany, we can follow that invitation very quickly, anywhere from Canada to Moscow,” he said. “Our exhibitions are arranged so that they can easily be stretched or shrunk in size without losing their essential message.”

Cooperation will also include curators.

“We insist on having a different curator for each exhibition, to support young curators, to give room for experiments with international curators,” Ecker said. “It is more exciting if it not always the same cook who prepares a meal.” He smiled.

For this exhibition,  “Lange nicht gesehen – Long Time No See,” Bulgarian Jara Boubnova known for her work in the Moscow Biennale and the Centre for Contemporary art in Sophia, is curating. To get such a well known coryphée, MUSA had made contact years before and kept in touch from the beginning of her career.

“It was important for us to invite a woman from Eastern Europe as curator,” he said. “We were curious how a person with this specific background would perceive and play with our Austrian art pieces,” giving the exhibition a fresh look, with combinations of pieces that Austrian insiders would have never thought of. As I move from one room to the other, from traditional painting, to photography, video installations and sculptures, I realize what a research intense and skill requiring Busk’s task of showing a cross section – ein Querschnitt– must have been.

“It is extremely difficult to give an overview without falling into the dangerous trap of showing a seemingly arbitrary assembly of disconnected pieces,” Ecker said.

An art expert scanning through the names of artists, pieces and movements might compare the assembly to a bunch of wild field flowers, hand picked, mixed with bred roses and exclusive orchids.

Busk had not hesitated to place a piece of the world renowned Siegfried Anzinger next to a yet unknown art academy graduate and the unjustified forgotten but revolutionary sculpture work of Josef Bauer. Or to put a piece of Ines Doujak also present at this year’s Documenta, in the middle of the room, surrounded by contemporary, unknown but genius photography.

“Nobody from the Viennese scene would have been able to come up with such unconventional mixture, “ he added.

Boubnova herself said she had “tried to do everything to make the viewer feel involved and not to only show well known artists.” This, she hoped, would blur the border between art and real life. “My slogan was, the bigger the better, the more colorful the better and the cooler the better!”

The wide open halls of the museums were renovated and redesigned by a young architect couple, who not only created straightforward, airy spaces but also included progressive equipment. Behind the white walls hidden wires lead to a special air conditioning system and the high ceilings are covered with an extremely sophisticated lighting system.

“Each single spot light can be handled and dimmed; the lighting, air and space conditions are revolutionary,” Ecker said, essential so that the MUSA meets international standards. “Even a world class artist will find everything he or she needs when exhibiting in the MUSA,” he assured me.

The finding of a new home for the MUSA had been difficult, but in the end, the location has turned out to be inspired Surrounded by other , yet less well known institutions such as the Vienna Library, the America House, the ‘Kulturkontakt Austria’, the MUSA plans to engage in synergies to give the area around the City Hall an artistic seal.

“Such synergies have created real subcultures here in Vienna such as the “Eschenbachgasse” a cooperation of galleries, the ‘MQ’ or the ‘Freihausviertel’ near the Naschmarkt – an especially vivid cultural and alternative art area,” he explained.

“Are there intentions to sell some of the pieces?” I asked, curious. Ecker laughed.

“No, of course not, that would be a crazy idea,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “This collection is the artistic memory of the city and of Austria; its acquisition has been done in a long and strenuous procedure. We won’t give that away.”

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