In March this year, with days to go before Vienna’s new museum of modern art, Albertina Modern, was due to welcome its first visitors, the Covid-19 pandemic escalated in Europe. Cultural institutions across the continent began shutting their doors. Plans that had been years in the planning were shelved overnight and the new museum went into a two-month hibernation.
The institution used its time under lockdown to entirely restructure its budget and public programming, and to think again about its permanent displays. It has weathered the crisis, but like other museums, it has emerged into a different world. Some of its departments, such as events and hire, have not recovered yet.
The Albertina Modern is a satellite of the Albertina Museum, one of Austria’s great art institutions, which was running out of room to display its growing collection of modern and contemporary art. The new site has more than 2,500m sq of floor space. It is located in the Künstlerhaus building, a model of “historicist” architecture that was presented as a gift to the city’s artists in 1865 by Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph.
It's a building with a chequered history. In the late 1930s it was one of the venues to host the Nazis’ notorious touring exhibition, Degenerate Art. It fell into disrepair in recent years as its occupants, the Society of Austrian Artists, struggled with the cost of maintaining the building. Now, thanks to a public-private partnership between the Austrian state and the art collector and industrialist Hans Peter Haselsteine, the Künstlerhaus has been fully renovated and modernised.
The Albertina Modern shares its home with the artists' society, whose roots date back to the building’s original 19th-century occupants. It opened its the doors at the end of May, when visitors were finally able see its first exhibition, The Beginning, Art in Austria 1945-1980.
Klaus Albrecht Schrӧder is the director general of the Albertina museums
What was it like to open a new museum in the midst of a pandemic?
Albrecht Schrӧder: We had to cancel the long-prepared opening of our new museum at short notice, which was naturally bitter. We are now facing major financial losses and, without tourism, we will also have to accept major visitor losses in the coming months and even years, as around 60% of our visitors are foreign, and even more in the summer. Nevertheless, we are looking ahead and we were pleased to finally present our opening exhibition.
What measures did you put in place in order to safely welcome the public when you open?
The government’s rules for museum visits are: 10 square meters per person; visitors need to wear a mask and need to keep at least one metre distance from people who don’t live with them; 550 visitors are allowed in the Albertina and 265 in Albertina Modern at a time, which has worked out very well. We provide disinfectant and take increased care that not too many people are present at pinch points.
What impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on programming for future exhibitions and events?
Over the next few years, we will increasingly be staging exhibitions from our own holdings. The Modigliani retrospective, postponed by one year, will take place in autumn 2021, and we are also planning an extensive Munch show.
Do you think the pandemic will change public attitudes to museums?
In the short term, museums will receive a lot of attention because they are currently the only cultural offering that is not digital. I also think that many people have only learned to appreciate the value of a well-done cultural offering in its absence. We had to do without a lot of things during the lockdown and our visitors were looking forward to experiencing art again. In the long run, we have to wait and see whether the trend towards local offerings will be a short-term one.
What are some of the highlights of the museum's collection?
We present art after 1945 at a high level. It is very important to us not to work for an aloof circle of specialists. Just as in the Albertina, we are interested in presenting an art historical canon that places the pioneers of the art world in context and makes them understandable and tangible.
A major emphasis of our collections is Austrian art; we have extensive and important holdings of artworks by Arnulf Rainer, Maria Lassnig, Franz West, Erwin Wurm, and Valie Export. Some outstanding features in our international collections are the large bodies of works by the German artists Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lüpertz, Jörg Immendorff, and Günther Förg. And some of the most important works in our American art holdings are by Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and Michael Heizer, among others.
Can you tell us about the architecture of the building?
The past three years have seen this prestigious historicist building restored to its original appearance both inside and out. The original wall paintings and decorations from that era have been recreated, as has the original terrazzo flooring. At the same time, the Künstlerhaus has been adapted to comply with today’s standards, including barrier-free accessibility of all galleries and the construction of two new fire escape stairwells.
The 150-year-old exhibition building has also been modernised according to the Albertina Museum’s museological requirements in terms of security, lighting, and climate control, as well as expanding both its lower and upper levels.
How will the new venue work with the existing Albertina Museum?
At the Albertina Museum, we will continue to focus on large-scale retrospectives and to bring 500 years of art history to life in one visit. We are very pleased that it is now possible to permanently relocate our extensive collections of contemporary art with 60,000 works by 5,000 artists to the Albertina Modern and make them accessible to a local and international public in changing exhibitions.