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Citing the Resurgence of Nationalist Politics, Director of Austria’s Kunsthalle Wien Resigns

Kunsthalle Wien director Nicolaus Schafhausen has reached an agreement with the city of Vienna for the early dissolution of his contract. Citing the “resurgence of nationalist politics in Austria,” the museum professional announced that he will step down from his post in March 2019, three years before his tenure is supposed to end.

The German curator has led the Kunsthalle Wien since 2012. In a public letter explaining his decision, Schafhausen said that the institution’s programming is facing opposition from the country’s new coalition government. “Advanced experiments in the arts are increasingly constrained” in the current political climate, he wrote. He added that cultural institutions across Europe that engage with complex societal issues “will require substantially stronger political backing in the future.”

In December 2017, Austria became the only country in Western Europe to have a far-right presence in government. The People’s Party won the national election by taking a hard line on immigration. Sebastian Kurz, the head of the party who has since been sworn in as chancellor, reached a coalition deal with the far-right Freedom Party. Led by Heinz-Christian Strache, who is the current vice chancellor, the party was founded by former Nazis in the 1950s .

There has been much speculation about how the government’s shift to the right will impact Austria’s cultural scene. For many, the cultural strategy outlined in a 182-page, five-year plan that was released after the elections last year does not bode well. Titled “Together. For our Austria,” the document adopts the motto of the Vienna Secessionists—“To every time its art. To art its freedom.” The appropriation led the historic Association of Visual Artists Vienna Secession to denounce the plan and to criticize the government’s notion that art is supposed to “buttress a national collective identity.”

For Schafhausen, the Kunsthalle Wien is an institution that is at the center of a “controversial debate that has manifestly hit a sore spot in the self-image and self-realization of Vienna’s cultural landscape.” While at the helm of the exhibition hall, which has two locations—one in the MuseumsQuartier and one at Karlsplatz—Schafhausen curated a number of exhibitions, including “Political Populism” (2015–16), which explored how art, pop culture, and aesthetics contributed to various facets of populism, and “How To Live Together” (2017), which presented diverse models of how to live together in the face of political and economic shifts. His current show, “Ydessa Hendeles. Death to Pigs,” which closes on May 27, is the first European museum retrospective of the Canadian artist Ydessa Hendeles, whose practice is rooted in her experiences growing up as the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

While Schafhausen has not yet revealed what he plans to do after his departure, he said that he is looking forward to “new challenges beyond the boundaries of conventional institutions.”