25 04 06

The Foundation, the State Secretary and the Bank

A Journey into the Cultural Policy of a Private Institution

Beat Weber, Therese Kaufmann

Between summer and spring 2006 a ship is travelling from Istanbul over the Black Sea and along the Danube to Vienna, collecting artistic contributions from the traversed regions by critical artists such as Zelimir Zilnik (Novi Sad), Róman Ondák (Bratislava) or Renata Poljak (Vukovar). Basis of the project is Kutlug Ataman’s award-winning video-piece „Küba“ about a poor part of Istanbul of the same name, which is mainly inhabited by people from rural areas in Turkey and Kurds. The participating artists are invited to respond in their work to “Küba” and to issues of identity and minority, which are at stake there. Concluding element is an exhibition in the former Jewish theatre at the Nestroyhof-Theatre in Vienna, where the project was also presented in November last year. The project assembles some of the currently most interesting artists in Europe – yet, in what context? The project was financed among other co-producers (foundations, galleries and museums) by the private Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation (T-B A21). In addition, it receives direct funding from the Austrian state secretary for the arts Franz Morak of 240.000 Euros in total. Further funding comes from Erste Bank/Tranzit. Thus, three very specific actors are joining in this project: the foundation, the state secretary and the bank. The question arises to what extent such conjunctions can be read as paradigmatic shifts and a consolidation of economic and cultural-political power relations in Austria as well as in the other participating countries.

Refurbished conservatism acting as donor

The director of T-B A21, Thyssen-heir und Habsburg-Lothringen-spouse Francesca Habsburg, is like Agnes Husslein a significant example for representatives of ultra-conservative aristocratic circles trying to manoeuvre themselves beyond heritage caretaking into important positions in the field of contemporary arts. For many years, mainly engaged in safeguarding traditional cultural assets, especially in war-torn places like Dubrovnik, the foundation now models itself rather on examples such as Artangel in the UK, which finance contemporary artistic spectacles by people such as Matthew Barney and Jeremy Deller. Trend-setting crossover-projects, transgressing conventional borders and definitions of art are to establish an exceptional position and vanguard-role of the foundation in the international art scene, as sternly expressed in the company’s mission statement. By investing in contemporary art Francesca Habsburg attempts to modernize the traditional approach of her ancestors to collecting art. Works by Candice Breitz, Christoph Schlingensief, Dan Graham und others have been financed in previous projects - often with a spectacular focus.

The overall active role of the financiers in the composition of the Küba-Project is part of a general unpleasant trend: At a time when public funding for the arts is increasingly waning, making space for alleged private sponsoring, and while in the Eastern- and South- Eastern European countries any cultural political development appears to be stuck between the old fear of instrumentalisation by the regime and unopposed market-ideology, art foundations such as T-B A21, Siemens Arts Program and even non-corporative bodies as in the case of the European Cultural Foundation increasingly turn from grant giving organizations into active players in cultural co-operation. Their new funding policies envisage them no longer in the role of a supporting body that provides the means for independent artistic creation, but integrates them systematically in the spectacular productions and concepts created by themselves – for which they sometimes claim public support, as well. Everywhere these institutions co-operate, co-curate, co-govern and intervene. The Austrian law for private foundations basically protects big private wealth from appropriate tax collection. The share of non-commercial private foundations is tiny, not least due to missing legal provisions in that direction. Apparently the few existing sponsorship activities of these foundations, which already enjoy tax relief, are to be highly subsidised with tax money. There is no evidence of a consultative committee decision concerning the funding of T-B A21 by state secretary Morak. The money, which could have been spent for independent and self-determined arts projects, is being given freehandedly to private curators working in the interest of corporate representation.


The state secretary’s Central Europe

Morak’s interest in this ‘co-operation’ obviously is fed by two contexts: On the one hand there is his plan to increase the role of private funding for the arts. In our present case this plan leads to a surprising consequence, that is the mobilization of public money for private sponsors. On the other hand there is the obsession with Central Europa and the so-called “Danube area” as it is cultivated in conservative circles, a lurking nostalgia for the Habsburg empire, the imago of Austria as paternalistic patronage, as a model for and eventual beneficiary of its Eastern neighbouring countries. The journey along the Danube fits seamlessly into this concept, as it is staged by today’s heir of the imperial past, intended to reflect upon a conservative idea of “identity”, while at the same time it is supposed to “trace the Turkish occupation of Europe to the gates of Vienna” (as stated in a press-release about the project). Morak: “This is about the question of identity. It is a beautiful project with world-class artists.” We recall: The Central Europe-imago already determined his concept for the reform of Austrian film festival “Diagonale”, which he had foreseen as the main meeting point for commercial film trade in “the region” of Central and Eastern Europe, and which was eventually cancelled due to the resistance of the Austrian film community.


Cultural Credit(s)

And further, there is the Erste Bank with relations to the conservative party in Austria (ÖVP) and its project Tranzit, which has been active in supporting advanced artistic and cultural projects in Eastern Europe. Its co-operation network assembles a number of critical actors in the cultural field such as the magazine Springerin, dedicated to the theory and critique of contemporary art and culture. This helped the bank to distinguish itself as outstanding sponsor and mediator in Eastern European art. Erste Bank und its Tranzit-project surely can be seen as central bearers of Western interest in Eastern European or ‘Balkan-art’ and culture. Artistic production in these regions is in the first place being made possible with Western money, invitations and presentation platforms. As recently aptly analysed by the cultural philosopher Boris Buden, this artistic production earns interest on the Western art market not for its specific works, but due to its function to bear witness for some imaginary alien Balkan identity. Eastern European art received excessive attention in the course of the enlargement of the EU. Almost exclusively, however, in the framework of exhibitions and events which use the artists as exchangeable examples for the exotisation of a region and “its” culture, as artists Petja Dimitrova, Vasilena Gankovska and Kamen Stoyanov critically discussed in the catalogue of the pertinent exhibition „play Sofia“ at the Project Space of Kunsthalle Wien. By constructing an alien Other to be integrated in the Western System, the latter underlines and manifests itself and its universal claim to power and superiority, while additionally producing an exotic commodity for its own pleasure. In the case of Austrian finance institutions such as Erste Bank, which achieve fantastically high profit margins in Eastern Europe mending a lately rather modest  business situation in Austria, this is joined by tough business corporate considerations. Art and culture funding in South Eastern Europe represent the attempt to insure economic expansion and profit deduction against the critique of the local intelligentsia.



In “Küba”, the foundation, the state secretary and the bank co-operate in a project full of critical art, which is being put into a context that can only be described as buying-in of artworks on institutional critique for a spectacle free of consequences beyond pure self-representation. The often proclaimed aim  “to put something up for discussion” remains an empty phrase without impact.  The event calls upon "all of us” to reflect upon the dark sides in our societies and to subject to self-criticism the minority hostile aspects that we “all have in us”. The underlying political and economic asymmetries between project financiers and their countries in relation to the perambulated countries, however, remain completely concealed. The organisers stage a spectacle of reflection and concern, which obfuscates their privileged position as much as it shields them from any consequences of this reflection process for themselves.

There would be enough concrete points of intervention in terms of a self-reflection process of the participants: On top of all that has been said earlier, the Nestroyhof Theatre was chosen as exhibition space in Vienna for this project so well endowed with private and public money. The Nestroyhof Theatre, which was aryanized by the Nazis, has been the object of debate for several years, since attempts for its reestablishment as a Jewish Theatre have been unsuccessful due to lack of political will to support the project with public money.

In a text on the T-B A21 Website on Dan Grahams „Don’t trust anyone over thirty“, supported by Habsburg at the Vienna Festival 2005, Diedrich Diederichsen speaks about how the cultural industries have reduced counter-cultural critique to a mere sign, decontextualising it in order to then let it circulate free of consequences in a public sphere generated by the market. Exactly that has not only happened to Diedrichsen’s text.

Beat Weber


Therese Kaufmann