PRINT September 2014

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IN A PRESS CONFERENCE on January 17 of this year, a hostile takeover was announced: The Generali Foundation, which was founded in 1988, would be closing its exhibition space, as well as its library and study center, in Vienna. The collection of approximately twenty-one hundred pieces of art will be transferred to the Museum der Moderne Salzburg Mönchsberg in Austria, where Sabine Breitwieser has been director since September 2013, on an initial twenty-five-year loan. Breitwieser paved the way for what the Austrian press has called a “coup” after months-long secret negotiations; the Generali Foundation’s director, Sabine Folie, learned of the decision only on the day of the press conference in Salzburg.

Disconcertingly, this power grab is a replay of Breitwieser’s own story—the difference being that she has switched sides. Breitwieser was Folie’s predecessor; in 2007, she tendered her resignation from the Generali Foundation, protesting that “an art institution that has existed for almost twenty years” was being subjected to “a far-reaching restructuring based on purely economic criteria and without any involvement of its artistic director or the advisory bodies that contribute art-world expertise.” At the time, Generali Group Austria had decided to scale down its commitment to the visual arts. The planned cuts were a consequence of the corporation’s financial difficulties, and they would doubtless have endangered the eminent reputation for critical art that Breitwieser, supported by the advisory boards and her team, had built since the 1990s. Yet that very reputation was what saved the foundation then: In the weeks after Generali announced its plans, massive resistance formed. The media echo culminated in a petitionwe initiated with the artist Anna Artaker that drew the support of more than a thousand museum directors, curators, gallerists, critics, and artists from around the world, as well as a statement of protest that ran in Artforum [January 2008]. Presumably, the fear that Generali Group Austria’s public image would sustain considerable damage induced the company’s executive board to change its mind. In the end, the foundation was able to continue its collecting and exhibition programs under its new director, Folie.

The most recent developments prompt us to speak up once again—though this time we find it difficult to defend an endeavor that has been seriously compromised. On the one hand, we take a very skeptical view of this ostensibly “successful” cooperation between the public and private sectors. On the other, we wonder what this strategy will mean for a collection of art specifically anchored in institutional critique, a collection that, as Breitwieser herself put it, is committed to a particular “ethic” concerning the relation between art and its social function. Beyond its local implications, the decision to shut down the Generali Foundation’s Vienna exhibition space seems to be a symptom of the conclusive historicization of the art of the ’90s, which may thus be said to have reached a definitive end—and so its museification makes perfect sense. In other words, art that is rooted in the traditions of Conceptualism and institutional critique is converted into discrete and self-contained “works,” a process that neutralizes its critical potential. In a programmatic shift, institutional critique is made to serve the very corporate branding strategies it formerly promised to scrutinize and subvert.

As Dietrich Karner, chairman of the supervisory board of Generali Holding Vienna AG, Generali Versicherung AG, and president of the Generali Foundation, stated, the relocation to Salzburg does not guarantee that the collection will be donated to the Museum der Moderne, now or in the foreseeable future. A joint press release issued by the two institutions, however, praises the “exemplary cooperation between the public sector and private business,” which can supposedly serve as a role model for future partnerships. In practice, it means that exhibition and storage spaces funded by the public are made available for a private collection. No public debate was held on the future of the collection, archive, library, or media library; no attempt was made to engage the Generali Foundation’s director—who has now resigned—or its artistic advisory board in such a dialogue. Alternative visions for the collection’s future were seemingly not considered.

Just like seven years ago, those in charge intend to make short work of the Generali Foundation, without regard for the distinctive and impressive profile of the foundation’s program, which Breitwieser created and which Folie and her team have steadfastly enhanced. But now—and this cannot but fill with bitterness those of us who once campaigned to preserve the Generali Foundation—Breitwieser has apparently come around to the view that works of institutional critique are mere movable goods of quantifiable value. It has been suggested that the corporate backer threatened to dismantle the collection and sell off the pieces, and that the deal between the Generali Foundation’s managing board and the state of Salzburg helped avert this fate, but this account seems dubious given the collection’s low market value—estimates put it well below that of comparable corporate contemporary art collections. And during the press conference for the opening of the Ulrike Grossarth retrospective on display this summer at the Generali Foundation, Karner stressed that his company is not exerting particular pressure on the foundation at this time, which suggests that there are currently no plans to sell the collection.

So the question remains: Why would the foundation risk injuring its reputation, which is so closely associated with its commitment to Conceptual art and institutional critique? Gottfried Fliedl, an astute observer of the Austrian museum scene, has pointed to a double dynamic: The foundation (temporarily) passes into public hands, while the state of Salzburg, which shoulders the greater part of the associated expenses, effectively privatizes part of its museum operation. The result, he argues, is a perfect marketing strategy for the corporation. The Museum der Moderne’s press conference, by contrast, focused on the benefits the collection will bring to the institution: “It lets us fill gaps in the museum’s holdings of international art after ca. 1960 at a single stroke.” No mention is made of the fact that this rationale also legitimizes Breitwieser’s own return to power over the collection after a seven-year hiatus.

But the Generali Foundation trove will fill the gaps in the museum’s collection only for a limited time, if the plan as it stands is implemented. Breitwieser is presumably well aware of the conflicts of interest that arise from her double role as director of a public museum and head of a private collection (she will control a budget allocated by Generali Group Austriafor the expansion and presentation of the Generali Foundation’s collection). In an interview that ran in the Austrian daily Der Standard on August 30, 2013, she expressed her approval of the unspoken rule that forbids museums in the US from presenting private collections that are not “given to them on permanent loan or, ideally, donated outright.”

That is in keeping with the critical perspective her own work at the Generali Foundation once fostered: an analysis of the inner workings of art and the institutions associated with it in a society ruled by corporate interests focused on accumulation and commercial exploitation. The artists who contributed to the collection, the authors who wrote for the foundation’s publications, and the interested public also consistently considered the problematic implications of the fact that the Generali Foundation was underwritten by a private business. By keeping a spotlight on this issue, the foundation’s two directors and their teams succeeded in creating a site of critical reflection on society and in building an antihegemonic canon that paradigmatically called the distinction between the work of art and its context into question. An international insurance company hosting contentious encounters with “critical art” and the discourses that attend it: This, it turned out, was not only possible, it even had a particular appeal. Faced with the corporate sponsor’s representational interests, Breitwieser’s Generali Foundation bravely insisted on the “fundamental question regarding the contemporary social function of art.”

What falls by the wayside as the collection is transferred to Salzburg are the specific conditions that made the Generali Foundation a productive site for the artists who worked with it: Open debate of controversial issues and antagonistic interests and the specific expectations the context set for critical and reflective art yielded much more thorough analyses of the foundation’s social position and role than the bubble of autonomy offered by museums. The move to Salzburg threatens this site-specific topicality. Consider, for example, Heimo Zobernig’s Untitled, 1994, a work that consists of a scaffold mesh bearing the Generali Foundation’s logo, which appeared on the facade of the foundation’s building in Vienna as it was being converted for its new purpose. The work bespeaks an artistic practice oscillating between the aspiration to autonomy and the provision of a service that both caters to and exposes the institutional yearning for a corporate identity enhanced by art. As a reflection on the generation of surplus value, the piece is an act of institutional critique that would be defeated by its museification under the auspices of a public- private partnership.

In retrospect, Zobernig’s twenty-year-old work may actually have anticipated this kind of scenario. For his contribution to the Generali Foundation show “unExhibit,” curated by Folie and Ilse Lafer in 2011, the artist reformatted the scaffold mesh into a wood-and-fabric replica of the interior concrete wall that was the signature feature of the foundation’s Vienna exhibition space. Untitled thus threw into sharp relief the fact that the conditions that underpinned the practices known as institutional critique have already become historical: Twenty years ago, Zobernig’s intervention was legible as a shrewd, mimetic reflection of his complicity in the Generali Foundation’s nascent corporate identity, but the work’s subsequent transformation into a movable piece of wall hints at the increasingly fine line between artistic autonomy and the freedom of the entrepreneur. We are apprehensive that the balance of power shared by art, the public, institutions, and corporations, which artists such as Zobernig have always carefully calibrated, is now shifting in favor of the private sector. Needless to say, this threatens to take the sting out of the art.

In the spirit of institutional critique, Breitwieser herself once wrote that what matters is “for whom or what someone ultimately takes an active stand.” The critical public should take her at her word and keep close watch. The rhetorical framework within which (institutional) critique has been produced at the Generali Foundation has lost some, perhaps all, of its credibility. Whether and how the artists represented in the collection will respond to the new situation remains to be seen. It is telling that, with a few exceptions, not much has been heard from them so far.

—Sabeth Buchmann and Achim Hochdörfer