How do we prepare for the future?


The opinion of Karola Kraus, the General Director of mumok museum in Vienna

In the last month, ‘cancelled’ and ‘postponed’ were the two primary words found in most public announcements issued by art institutions and structures. A little over four weeks ago, e-mails with those words began to arrive in inboxes from all over the world, at first creating uneasy feelings of confusion, sadness and futility. Yet time has come to show that life cannot be cancelled: despite the deserted city streets, despite the museums, galleries, and other art institutions closed to visitors, despite the unrealised projects and events that had been meticulously scheduled to take place in a specific physical space and time – the art organism continues to thrive. It is mobilising all of its internal energy reserves and launching new initiatives that have been adapted to this period of self-isolation. There is acute awareness that after this moment of confusion brought upon by the crisis, we all yearn for two things: the ability to act and the need to support one another. We must become partners who have moved beyond competition, leaving all rivalry in the past.

In this regard, turns to the heads and managers of art institutions and structures with the request to share their thoughts and ideas of how this time can be weathered while, at the same time, preparing for the future – a future which will most likely have a plot-line drastically different than that of the pre-pandemic world. In the following express-interview, Karola Kraus, the General Director of mumok museum in Vienna, shares her opinions.

How does mumok live and work in this time of crisis? What does it mean to be on lockdown for an art institution?

Before the lockdown, mumok was open every day. That means we were in direct contact with our visitors at least sixty-one hours a week. Then everything went pretty fast: On March 11 we had to close the museum for visitors. Shortly after, we vacated the offices. Since then the majority of our team has been working part-time, and some are working from home.

We established new communication channels within our teams and use social media to keep in touch with our virtual visitors and followers. Now it is very important to provide new digital content: We publish messages from artists reacting to the current situation on our blog Out of the Box. We offer insight into the mumok Collection, publish tips from our curators, and show DIY projects for kids. Moreover, you can access the mumok Collection digitally through our website, and our app lets you sneak a peek at our exhibitions currently in hibernation. Our Scratch Lab for kids – we were the first museum in the world to establish such a programme – is also being continued online.

We all notice how the digital world has grown increasingly important and how vital these means of communication have become. And yet the museum is a physically social place: The collective experience is always at centre stage. Atmosphere plays a big role, the architectural setting, the display, the light, the sound – these things are all hard to experience digitally.

What we are learning from the current crisis is just how important the ‘virtual’ realm has become as a basic reality of production and communication.

There is an opinion that the situation ‘after’ this all is going to be almost like the postwar scene. What will be the biggest challenge for the art institutions in the post-pandemic future?

It is problematic to compare the postwar scene with what may come after corona – much like it is problematic to compare the pandemic to a real wartime situation. The avant-garde and its protagonists fell victim to World War Two. Their history had to be revived in Europe after 1945. Society and art had to be rebuilt. Today we are faced with social and political problems very similar to the ones in the time before the war, unfortunately. There are big challenges on the post-pandemic horizon for societies and their art institutions because the pandemic and its economic consequences may fuel a new conservatism, much like the prewar situation did. Nationalism and xenophobia are a dangerous tandem that also threatens the freedom of art. Nevertheless, this situation is also a big opportunity to strengthen and emphasize the educational function of art. That this must go together with an ambition for the highest artistic quality has always been a basic requisite of our museum’s programme. In our exhibition, collection, and discourse programmes, we always put much emphasis on the social, analytical, experimental, and philosophical function of art. It has never been our intention to create a commercially oriented blockbuster programme, so we are well prepared for a future in which we call the increasing tabloidization of museums into question. What we are learning from the current crisis is just how important the ‘virtual’ realm has become as a basic reality of production and communication. We have already pushed for and practiced this philosophy for the past few years in our everyday work as a museum. Our work now culminates in our Out of the Box programme. Bridging the time of social and physical distancing with virtuality, which is what we are dealing with now, will continue to influence with increasing intensity the production and presentation of art. But it will also make encountering physical art in a real space even more interesting and exciting. Let’s not forget that virtuality and reality are not strictly separate or opposing worlds – virtuality is just a part of our reality.

Our job should be to remind politicians to support public interests with public money and not have their public museums cater only to the free market and the tourism industry.

We are currently expecting federal museums in Vienna to reopen soon. I look forward to this day because it means we are soon getting back into the normal swing of things, hopefully. At the same time, we know that for everything that comes after, we will have to redefine what ‘normal’ means. A museum visit after the re-opening will be different from a museum visit before March 11. We will have to rethink exhibition openings, guided tours, workshops, our art education studio, our entire work as we know it. I don’t see this as only a negative thing but also as an opportunity.

In a call to save the art world, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in London mentioned Roosevelt's Federal Art Project, while Manuel Borja-Villel, the Director of Museo Reina Sofia, has called for a ‘new’ Marshall Plan etc. What are tools that could help artists and the art world survive?

It is not by accident that such proposals for solidarity come from two people who’ve always worked as committed mediators between artists and the public sphere internationally. We can trust their ideas and efforts and should try to contribute to them. Proposals like these need to be supported by cultural politics. So, our job should be to remind politicians to support public interests with public money and not have their public museums cater only to the free market and the tourism industry. They are now confronted with the results of such politics and should learn from that. Furthermore, let’s not forget that art institutions are not merely working side by side but also competing in a capitalist system. In order to provide a better basis for the survival of artists and the arts, self-reflection about one’s own institutional paradigms is paramount. Artists should not be considered as guests in a museum or as its money-makers but as collaborators who help develop the institution’s identity. Solidarity and networking among institutions with similar goals will become even more important in the future, not only for their own sake but for the advancement of artists and art as a whole.

Global solidarity – which, of course, also means European solidarity – is a narrative that will gain new significance in the arts.

Do you have a vision of what the art scene will look like? What will be the main shifts and to which direction will they shift?

A precondition and catalyst for new visions is experiencing the fragility not only of our physical lives but also of existing political, economic, and art-institutional systems. An awareness that these systems are inextricably linked could and should prevent us from naively measuring the quality of art in terms of rates and commercial success. Such insight is nothing new; progressive artists have long recognized this. In our programme we have always given these artists a public platform. The virus makes us aware that globalization indeed concerns everybody. One doesn’t isolate oneself solely for one’s own protection – that concept doesn’t make much sense. Global solidarity – which, of course, also means European solidarity – is a narrative that will gain new significance in the arts. We are highly motivated to contribute to these challenges in our daily work and emphasize the most crucial aspects and perspectives of art, which this crises has once again highlighted for us: to create new ways of experiencing an increasingly complex reality and to be an intellectual, sensible force that counters simplified or populist notions of life, society, and art.

Photo: Andrea Kremper

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