Art & People / Future / People

“It is Very Interesting to Look at a Space Where Artists are Chosen by Artists” – Sylvie Liska

Today, the Secession is one of the world’s oldest independent artist associations devoted entirely to exhibitions of contemporary art. I met Sylvie Liska, who is the president of the “Friends of the Secession” for 25 years to find out how the institution functions and asked her opinion on the contemporary art scene in Vienna, collecting and much more. 

Kristina Kulakova: What made you come to Vienna?
Sylvie Liska:  When I was 19 I studied in NY, fell in love with a Viennese. We were both very young when we moved here.

KK: After finishing your studies in USA you came to Vienna. How did you end up at the Secession?
SL: I continued my art-history studies with a postgraduate course in Cultural Management. It was called IKM – Institut für Kulturelles Management, one of the first courses of this kind in Austria.  From there I went directly to the Secession

The Vienna Secession, 2006

KK: Going back to 1986, what were the premises that led you to found the “Friends of the Secession”?
SL: In 1986 Vienna was very different. Everything was pretty much gray in gray and Vienna was better known as a city for music and theatre, for contemporary art there was very little understanding. When I went to school in New York I had already become very interested in contemporary art, I had part time jobs as guide I the city and in art institutions. Edelbert Köb approached me from the Secession in 1986, it was just being renovated. He asked me to establish a link between the artists and interested members of society. All the other museums belonged to the state and never needed to form  Friends Associations back then. If they made money they had to give it back to the government, so they had no incentive for fundraising. As a private and independant institution, we were dependant on sponsorship and thus formed the first Friends Association for a museum in Vienna. We organized the first fundraising dinner at the time, which people in Vienna had not experienced before in an art context. I remember one of the journalists  from the ORF leaving our dinner in dismay, stating  that it is a sacrilege to eat somewhere where  art is shown. Art should be admired with veneration, but you should not abuse it for other purposes. This also was the time I met ambassador Ronald S. Lauder who had partially financed the guiding of the Secessions’ dome,  and his wife Jo Carole Lauder who became my mentor. Our first big fundraising project was to finance the exhibition “Jasper Johns: A Print Retrospective“. The legendary MoMA curator Riva Castleman was the curator of the show. This is really how I first learned about fund-raising the American way practically speaking. Generally speaking however my mission really was about building up a group of people who are interested in contemporary art.

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KK: Was it difficult to approach the Viennese?
SL: No, but it initially was a very select, small circle. We were young people, we travelled all around the world for inspiration. Contemporary art wasn’t as present yet as in other cities. At the time I remember that we had an exhibition with Arnulf Rainer and some visitors exclaimed: “Why is this art? My little son can do that, too.” This was often the level of conversation around 1987–1988.

KK: Who defines the value of the art?
SL: At the moment, I observe that there are several art worlds. I think that there is an art industry and there is an art world. The art industry works a little bit like a hedge fund or an investment paper; people invest in it, sell it – a new phenomena is that people buy art only for financial reasons, basically only in order to make a quick profit. This is a world I am well aware of, but I’m not interested in so much. And then, there is the art world.

KK: How does one know what to buy? How are prices established?
SL: You ask a very interesting question. I used to be responsible for acquisitions. I was on the board of the friends of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and for four years together with the director and an art-historian we acquired contemporary work for the Nationalgalerie consisting of 5 museums. There we had to articulate answers to these questions: What does a museum collect? What is the context? What is the historical canon want to propose? These are important questions. I think when you collect, you collect within a context. What is the value of art? Factually speaking, when two people are willing to compete and want the same thing, then the value of art is being established.
Now, if you are an artist working alone in your studio, you think, okay, I have to put a price on this painting. There are artists who go by square centimeter, and they often have indices to follow. You try it out, you trust your gallerist. There is, of course, the production costs you put into it, which is a factor – i.e. you use marble or if you use stone, or film, or paint, or canvas etc…. It is for example very expensive to produce video and film works. There are now more collectors and institutions  who buy films, but there are different formats of collecting them. For example, three institutions bought “The Clock” by Christian Marklay together, and they can all show it, which is interesting – do they all have a copy? Is there a master copy? Is it traveling back and forth? Can they show it at the same time? These are interesting new questions when you collect video or film.

“The Clock” is a 24-hour single channel video that includes thousands of scenes from film and television (silent era to the very recent) that reference the time, each minute that passes on screen in the same minute passing for us in the audience.

KK: What is the role of the museum in the art market?
SL: The public is the judge of an artwork in a way and it is the public recognition which is capital for any artist exhibiting. I am very critical of the act of giving, as a private person, a loan to a museum for time and then taking it back, because as soon as a work is in a museum it has increased in value. I think public space should be more treated with respect. For example when a private collector places his work into a museum collection, in my opinion, he or she must leave at least half as a gift to the museum behind. The work is often worth more after having been exhibited in a public space like a museum.  We simply can not judge how the reception of art can change with time. Velasquez painted for the king and was the biggest master in his time. Then he was put in the basement and was forgotten for almost 200 years and he was not rediscovered until Goya and Manet started looking at him again. So the reception of art with time passing is something that is very difficult to predict. We’ve seen, even in our lifetime, things that are extremely expensive and popular. The work of Damien Hirst is a very interesting phenomena, and we will see in 20 to 30 years if his strategy, which is quite critical of the market, is something that worked out. With Jeff Koons we see, for the time being, that it did work out. If it worked out because he is a supreme artist, or if it worked out because there are a lot of investors keeping the price up, I don’t know. But I do think that Jeff Koons is an interesting artist.

KK: Who defines art history?
SL: I think it is the museum people, the art historians, the critics and the experts who work in the field, and this is more interesting than the market. Above all, however, it is the respect and opinion an artist receives from his colleagues which is very indicative for the work. This is why I find the Secession so very interesting: because we are not a Kunsthalle or a collecting institution directed exclusively by art professionals. The Secession is an artist association, and for me, the ultimate arbiters in taste are always the artists in the end.
I also think the more complex the context an artwork is placed in, the higher its value – and here I mean a value not measured in material dimensions.

KK: How does the Secession function?
SL: Since its founding in 1898 by Gustav Klimt and other artists, the Secession has been an artist-run space, exclusively run by artists. There are almost 300 elected members. They elect a board of 12 artists serving on the board for a period of two years. These practicing artists sit together and vote about the exhibition program. Then they present the program, and it is the job of the Friends of the Secession to help finance the artistic vision of the artists and help them to remain as independent as possible in their decisions. Of course, there are other means of financing it as well: Our partners are die Erste Bank and the City of Vienna and also the Federal Ministries of Culture. But we really do mainly earn our own budget, we are a private institution. Being an architectural landmark and working since 100 years in the forefront of the arts gives us more than 100.000 visitors a year. I think it is very interesting for the public to look at a space where artists are chosen by artists. They know who is working honestly and who has interesting works. I don’t think that you are isolated when you produce art, you are in a community of colleagues and critics. I believe that one should speak to artists in order to find out what is interesting right now. I really trust the artists more in the end than I trust the market. When they respect another position, they know. That’s why I find the Secession so very outstanding. Very often I don’t even know the work of the artists they select. I meet new positions which interest me. Artist look at art all the time. For them it is existential.  At the Secession a board member has to defend his/her suggestions to the other colleagues and the majority of the board has to approve these positions. There are twelve artists who are curators here, and if one is more into video art, one is more into concept art, the other one is more of an activist artist, the other a formalist one. This makes the program at the Secession very multifaceted and diverse.

Group portrait of the members of the Secession taken on the occasion of XIV. exhibition 1902 From left to right: Anton Stark, Gustav Klimt (seated in chair). Kolo Moser (with hat in front of Klimt), Adolf Böhm, Maximilian Lenz (lying), Ernst Stöhr (with hat), Wilhelm List, Emil Orlik (sitting), Maximilian Kurzweil (with cap), Leopold Stolba, Carl Moll (lying), Rudolf Bacher. Photo: Pictorial Archives of the Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek, Moriz Nähr

KK: What do you think about the Viennese art scene now? Some say that Vienna is the next Berlin in a way.
SL: I think Vienna since the early 90ties has been very interesting in terms of contemporary art. People visiting are always amazed by how many institutions we have here. Very often when there is a big show, a Biennale or documenta happening somewhere in the world, I say, oh, we showed this position ten years ago! Which really is the truth! Brice Marden had his first exhibition in Europe at the Secession prior to a big museum exhibition in America. Christopher Williams, who now has his opening at the Art Institute in Chicago, the Tate and at MoMA, had his exhibition here at the Secession ten years ago. Cindy Sherman, who now is one of the most expensive artists working in photography, had a show at the Secession in the year 1989. This has changed a little bit. I think that now, as art has become such a fashionable commodity and there is such a big art industry and such a big demand for the “next new and hip artist”, that sometimes artists are pushed on to the market before they are really ready to meet its expectations. In this aspect the art market has become very accelerated. I can use Wade Guyton as an example. He had one of his first international exhibition participations in a group show at the Secession. The price of a work on paper was a few hundred Euros. We looked at his work and we thought it was very interesting – interesting to follow up and watch. Only some years later his paintings were already selling for millions. This racey development is something I find a bit frightening. I by no means think that Guyton is not a great artist, but I believe that he may have been surprised himself by the tremendous financial success he has had. I often call the big sums that are being spent on very young artists or relatively young artists “funny money”. It seems so removed from any normal economic reality.

KK: Do you collect yourself?
SL: I’m not sure if I would call myself a collector, but we do live with art, yes.
For me, if you really collecting art it already requires having some kind of system, that you want to focus on certain things, go into depth in certain positions, which I don’t want to do. What we decide to buy is something very subjective and personal, a way of surrounding ourselves with things that my husband and I respond to and which interest us..

KK: What do you think makes people collect?
SL: I think there are many different incentives and many kinds of collectors. There are the ones who simply want to put something on the wall, surround themselves with objects which make them happy. Or where you create an associative environment for yourself, which like your books, furniture or your clothes defines you. And another kind of collecting is when it becomes so passionate that it is almost a kind of psychosis, some kind of bug, when you have to have something – when it becomes existential to own it. These are people, who want to have the most important work or want to have 100th piece by a very specific artist. Susan Sontag describes it very nicely in her book the “Volcano Lover”. Collecting is about ownership, it is about showing who you are through what you have – but when you are a compulsive collector, when you collect more than you even have the money for, then this is a sort of mental deformation. I am so grateful that there are these deformed people – we all benefit from them. They give us these wonderful collections which ultimately serve and educate the public in the museums.

KK: Tell us about the annual gifts (Jahresgaben) at the Secession?  
SL: Every Kunstverein has a “Jahresgabe” – at the Secession it is different. You cannot buy any of these editions, you have to be a member of the friends to claim one. In the beginning I said that we are going to make a Jahresgabe in order to raise people’s interest and knowledge in contemporary art. With these Jahresgaben we don’t only give a gift but we also try to educate our audience. We try to bring the public closer to the art by the artists that are practicing here.
Each year we pick one artist where our collaboration was especially harmonious and fruitful. We ask him or her for one gift of an edition where we cover the expenses for production. One set of editions covering 25 years we have given to the Academy of Fine Arts. They are close to us, they educate the future generations of artists and they have a collection. We are not a museum, we don’t collect

KK: Do you have a different way otherwise to work with the public in terms of education?
SL: We also organize lectures and artist talks for this purpose. We, as an institution, really have a certain idealism about our work. We believe that by looking at contemporary art you develop greater understanding about society and also about yourself. Our eyes become trained to see and perceive situations in a critical way. Looking at art also provides insights which are useful for other professions. Surrounding yourself with art, collecting it, is like listening to music or reading books, it makes your mind work. You get more out of life. You don’t only go to the gym and go to work; you also start thinking and feeling on other levels. You  learn how to look at other nationalities, at other worlds, and in the process you become a person with a broader horizon.

KK: What is good art for you, personally?
SL: Art that I don’t understand at first.

KK: Why should people come to Vienna? What is so outstanding about Vienna?
SL: Vienna was always extremely interesting in terms of history, architecture and of course music. With institutions like the Secession, the mumok, the Generali Foundation, the Kunsthalle, the TBA21, the MAK and also the Belvedere, the main Austrian product for export is culture and art. I think the government realized this and invested in this commodity very early on. People are always amazed when they come to Vienna by how many interesting exhibitions and art venues there are and by the high standard. I think that Vienna is one of “the” cities in Europe, equal to Paris, London and Berlin. When you come to Vienna, you really can get an incredible art education on a very high level, which you can take home with you in a few days. Therefore, I think that today Vienna is one of the most interesting places to visit in Europe.

Sylvie Liska is the president of “Friends of the Secession”. She is also a member of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art and a member of the Kuratorium in the National Gallery in Berlin.

The Vienna Secession Exhibition Program 2014:

February 13 – March 30, 2014
Lisl Ponger
Ibon Aranberri
Ulrik Heltoft

April 11 – June 8, 2014
Heinrich Dunst
Little Warsaw
Kerstin von Gabain

June 26 – August 24, 2014
Group Exhibition – Curated by Pablo Lafuente

Mid September – early November 2014
Diana Al-Hadid
Utopian Pulse – Flares in the Darkroom
Cinthia Marcelle

Mid November 2014 – mid February 2015
Chto Delat?
Renata Lucas
Peter Bartoš

Permanent Exhibition
Gustav Klimt: The Beethoven Frieze

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10.00 a.m. – 6.00 p.m.
Guided tours: Saturdays at 3.00 p.m. and Sundays at 11.00 a.m

Wiener Secession, Association of Visual Artists
Friedrichstraße 12, A-1010 Vienna

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