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From Mozart to Marina: Vienna Art Week Tries to Rebrand the City, But Does It Work?

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Running up to a trip to this year’s Vienna Art Week, an initiative sponsored by the Dorotheum auction house, many a groan from fellow Berliners was heard that it would be boring, conservative, and provincial. It wasn’t. Okay, of course we’re not talking a swell of international activity like during Frieze week or indeed Miami later this week — in Berlin that doesn’t exist either — but a surprising level of contemporary art and a truth to the city’s core there was, even if it wasn’t fully realized by the Viennese themselves at all times.

Centered around an exhibition titled “Predicting Memories” curated by Robert Punkenhofer and Ursula Maria Probst, the art week featured between 100 and 200 events and studio visits, depending on who you asked, reaching from the city’s major institutions to artist studios in Vienna’s outskirts. “It was really important to include all the off spaces and to organize studio visits to show that we are also a city of production,” Dorotheum managing partner and Vienna Art Week director Martin Böhm told ARTINFO. “In the 16th district, you would never find a museum but we put them in conversation with the major houses such as the Albertina, the MAK, the Essl Museum, and the galleries.”

In step with the Vienna Fair’s new leadership of Vita Zaman and Christina Steinbrecher, the hope is to increasingly frame the city as a capital for contemporary culture. “Vienna is always just thought of as a place for music. It would be my dream and a real legacy if people see Vienna increasingly as a contemporary city, not just for the Habsburg time,” Böhm remarks chuckling that the family crest, which graces the Mezzanine of his auction house and still heavily rules the identity of the city. “I started this because I realized that if I didn’t do it no one else was going to. The Dorotheum is a very old company. We’re not moving so fast, but we are moving very carefully. The art week for me is really an investment in Vienna’s future,” says Böhm.

That’s no easy investment. Because of Vienna’s history, the cultural scene is still relatively more aristocratic or at least bourgeois than in Berlin, London, or New York. As one Brooklyn based artist part of the Essl Museum’s “New, New York” exhibition curated by John Silvis described the opening party, “It feels like you’re stuck in some inescapable version of the Upper East Side.” Likely, the complaining Berliners from before the week would say the same swapping UES for Kurfurstendamm. The vibe is deliberate on Böhm’s part to attract Viennese who might otherwise scoff at a performance of two women shouting poetics and tussling on the floor. Citing the shift from a more internationally focused program, Böhm says that, “It became equally necessary to communicate this contemporary scene to Austrians as well. They even didn’t realize what was happening,” in their own city.

A similar strategy could be seen with the joint VIP openings of Pae White’s “Others” and “Vienna 1900” at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) on Monday night. The institution’s various trustees and supporters focused heavily on the latter, a survey of Viennese design from the 20 Century, but some, in increasing numbers throughout the evening ventured upstairs to White’s marvelous wunderkammer of objects pulled from the MAK’s collection that are either unattributable in origin or have no known use. Many of those remained, looking curiously at the objects she selected, in what might have tipped a few more heads towards an investment in current production.

The exhibition provides a good metaphor for what might be happening within the city at large: a layering of a contemporary mindset on top of what have been generations of historical interest and preservation. While in Berlin we deal with the past through monuments and pile on as much contemporary production on top as possible, the Viennese have been and continue to take a different, more measured approach. In simplistic terms, there is also money for such layered growth to occur, for new institutions to be built and further developed: Francesca von Habsburg’s new space for the TBA21 and collaboration with the Secession for Sharon Lockhart’s posthumous collaboration with Noa Eshkol is a perfect example of that.

The private funding of the art week itself is another unique trait, both allowing it to maintain autonomy from state and tourist board interests and demonstrating a commitment from the city’s oldest institution to the very youngest of artists. Certainly, neither Vienna as a contemporary art hub nor Vienna Art Week and the Vienna Fair are yet to international stature, but they could be. At the very least, they have the building blocks that make it possible: relatively inexpensive rent for artists, endless money in the coffers of collectors (especially if you consider their neighbors to the northeast), an already thriving gallery scene, and institutional directives for forward motion. Suffice it to say, we’ll keep an eye pealed.

Check out the slideshow for ARTINFO’s favorite works and moments from Vienna Art Week. [auf deutsch]

Image: Reiner Riedler, “Superman, Kremlin, Turkey (aus der Serie „Fake Holidays“)” (2006), © Rainer Riedler

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