PRINT January 2008


the Generali Foundation

AT A SEPTEMBER 2007 press conference announcing the merger of the Generali Foundation and the Bawag Foundation, representatives of the two Vienna art institutions stood smiling beneath the neon script of Cerith Wyn Evans’s 2003 sculpture Scenes from a Marriage—apparently unaware that the piece alludes to Ingmar Bergman’s oppressive portrait of a union in crisis. This particular art-world betrothal should perhaps not have been a surprise, since the corporations that respectively own and fund the foundations had themselves merged earlier in the year, when financial-services conglomerate Generali bought a majority stake in troubled Austrian bank BAWAG P.S.K.. Yet to many, the prospect of “consolidation” was indeed a shock. And as details of the plan emerged, the inadvertent allusion to a doomed marriage came to seem all too appropriate. The Bawag Foundation, it appeared, was to move into the Generali Foundation’s space, where, starting in January 2008, the two organizations would take turns making use of the exhibition galleries. Somewhat confusingly, the institutions were to be jointly referred to as Foundation(s)Quartier while also retaining their individual names and, ostensibly, their discrete identities. Each would continue to have its own artistic director—although the directors would no longer have budget authority or the power to make personnel decisions autonomously. No one would be fired, but for the most part people who left would not be replaced. The fusion of the foundations, said Generali and Bawag executives at the press conference (which was held in the Bawag’s original galleries), would “take advantage of personnel, infrastructure, and financial synergies.” Bawag director Christine Kintisch, who was also in attendance, didn’t hide her skepticism: “We won’t know how the pudding tastes until we eat it,” she remarked. For her part, Generali’s director, Sabine Breitwieser, who had not been consulted on any of these plans, promptly resigned. Explaining her decision in this past December’s Texte zur Kunst, she writes of the restructuring: “Were I to accept that, I would lose all remaining autonomy in my work,” and voices her fear that—through being answerable to the directors of marketing of both sponsors—her exhibition program, with its emphasis on critical art, would quickly be subjected to “the pressure for successful mass appeal.”

The merger is just one in a series of recent blows to a group of innovative venues that, over the course of the past two decades, established Vienna’s prominence in the contemporary art world. In the past year, this network of publicly and privately funded institutions has unexpectedly imploded. The celebrated Wiener Secession has been paralyzed by internal power struggles. And although here there is reason for hope (since elections to the board of artists were held on December 3, with András Pàlffy elected as the new president, and a promising exhibition schedule, including shows with Jo Baer, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Sharon Lockhart, has already been announced), the same could not be said of the Kunsthalle Wien, which is and has been in crisis. Several qualified curators have left, and the program has declined accordingly. However, the Bawag-Generali consolidation has been the worst blow of all, perhaps especially (with all due respect to the Bawag Foundation) because of the threat the merger poses to the Generali.

The two institutions are radically different. The Bawag Foundation, whose recent program has included solo exhibitions for Candice Breitz, Rodney Graham, and Asger Jorn, operates more like a kunsthalle, mostly featuring small, concentrated shows by single artists. The Generali, on the other hand, in terms of both its program and its infrastructure, operates more like a museum, and one with a very clearly defined and singular sensibility. Since Breitwieser took the helm in 1991, the foundation has traced a rigorous genealogy of conceptual art, starting with Valie Export (whose films Generali restored), Mary Kelly, Martha Rosler, Harun Farocki, Dan Graham, Hans Haacke, Adrian Piper, and others, and moving on to a later generation of practitioners including Andrea Fraser, Heimo Zobernig, and Maria Eichhorn. Indeed, in the 1990s Generali established itself as one of the most important international showcases for the freshly politicized, institutionally critical, and, often, site-specific conceptualism exemplified by the latter group. More recently, Generali has followed this vein as it extends into the practices of Mathias Poledna, Dorit Margreiter, Florian Pumhösl, and others, while also presenting exhibitions of such underknown figures as Gustav Metzger, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Edward Krasiński. Meanwhile, its surveys—for example, “Vivências” (2000), an overview of Latin American Conceptual art between 1960 and 1980—have made significant art-historical contributions. And in addition to its exhibition program, Generali maintains an archive and study center, which is known as a place where one can find works of contemporary theory that won’t appear in public libraries for years, if at all. It also puts out scholarly publications (not just catalogues). Last but not least, it has developed a strong, focused collection of some 2,100 works, many of them gifts, by 170 artists, from Export, Graham, and others mentioned above to Július Koller and Isa Genzken. All this is to no small extent Breitwieser’s achievement. Over the years, she has worked with an artistic advisory board whose members have included Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Lynne Cooke, and Theodora Vischer. There have also been staff curators, such as Hemma Schmutz, Cosima Rainer, and Bettina Spörr, whose task has been to tap into the world of current production with experimental projects and to map new connections between local and international scenes. Guest curators, like the duo Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, have contributed as well. But it was Breitwieser who established the framework that has held these initiatives together as a coherent and unique program. And in view of the current situation, it is all the more clear that these commitments were problematically bound up with the name Sabine Breitwieser.

The perceived combination of naïveté, ignorance, and disrespect that put this program under threat is widely regarded as a scandal. As of this writing, an impromptu letter of protest has been signed by more than nine hundred artists, curators, critics, historians, and directors of cultural institutions worldwide. Moreover, a series of artists, including Haacke, have reportedly made private statements of concern to the Generali Foundation’s president, Dietrich Karner, and to its board of managing directors (which is not to be confused with the artistic advisory board). One of the key points of contention is the fact that not only was Breitwieser excluded from the original discussions about the prospective merger, but the move was initiated without consulting any experts in the field, whether independent or associated with the foundations whose fates were in question. And so institutional structures and protocols built up over decades have been abruptly countermanded in a surprise attack. What has clearly influenced the decision makers here is the logic of corporate culture, of the aforementioned “synergies,” of efficiency and cost-benefit calculation—at the expense of the very attributes that helped the Generali Foundation win the trust of artists: its aura of integrity and stability, the cohesiveness of its exhibition and collection strategies. In early December, it was announced that Sabine Folie, having defected from her job as chief curator at the Kunsthalle, would replace Breitwieser as artistic director of the Generali Foundation in February of this year. Folie will be on the board of directors, meaning she will presumably have a strong role in budgetary and personnel decisions—a signal that Karner et al. have perhaps absorbed some of the criticism directed at them. Still, one is left with the impression that the Foundation(s)-Quartier—the name refers to Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier neighborhood—is both a marketing scheme and a transparent cover for the gradual dismantling of both the Bawag and the Generali as serious and independent institutions.

The whole sad story casts a harsh light on the corporate partnerships that have been much touted in the art world of late. But perhaps here we are at risk of forgetting an exhibition conceived for the Generali Foundation in 1991, in which Heimo Zobernig proposed strategic complicity with “corporate identity” as the sine qua non of sitespecific, institutionally critical art. Or, as Fraser put it in a 1995 report (a component of her work A Project in Two Phases, 1995) on the workings of the Generali Foundation and its corporate parent, “The Foundation does not exist simply for itself. The Foundation also has a function: image transfer. It is not about art for art’s sake.” The Generali Foundation’s mission, in other words, was always in part to act in the interests of corporate capital. This is apparent above all in the case of conceptual art from Eastern Europe, which was an area of concentration for the foundation partly because of Generali’s economic interests in insurance markets in the region. No one except the managing directors themselves knows why this kind of “synergy” is no longer seen as worthwhile. All we know is that, for whatever reason, they are now enforcing the marginalization and devaluation of the contemporary art they once claimed to support. Apparently what is at stake here is a different art and a different audience—perhaps those very things that were rejected in a progressive spirit twenty years ago.

Sabeth Buchmann is an art historian, critic, and professor of the history of modern and postmodern art at the Academy of Visual Arts, Vienna.

Achim Hochdörfer is a curator at the Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.