Interview with the mumok Director Karola Kraus

Karola Kraus about collecting tradition in her family, her goals and mumok (Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art). 

Photo Elfie Semotan

Photo Elfie Semotan

Kristina Kulakova: What makes people collect? Why do you collect?
Karola Kraus: There are different motivations for why one starts to collect. My siblings and I were infected by our parents’ passion for collecting. They began compiling a collection of German Informal Art at the beginning of the 1970s. Direct contact with artists from their generation was important to them. Back then our living room would transform into a lively discussion forum with artists who visited.

Have you continued this “tradition” of having regular visits from artists?
In 1981 my siblings and I began bringing together artistic positions of the 1980s. As was the case with my parents, our focus was on the immediate here and now, which also encapsulated the belief in the power of this art but also the need to deal with the new.

Which artist influenced you the most? 
Meeting Martin Kippenberger in 1980 triggered my decision to make my hobby a profession.

Why did you decide to make your family collection publicly accessible?
The concept of our family collection is distinguished by our concentration on select artists from whom we have acquired works from in all important creative phases. Often it is extensive series of works, which are more suited in a museum context than in a private collection. Hence, it was all the more important to make the collection publicly accessible through the foundation of the Kunstraum Grässlin in 2006.

What was the first piece of artwork you purchased?
“Der Wattenläufer” by Albert Oehlen from 1981.

“Der Wattenläufer” by Albert Oehlen

“Der Wattenläufer” by Albert Oehlen

Does your collection follow a concept or a specific theme?
At the beginning of the 1980s I was interested in artistic positions that contradicted the bourgeois understanding of contemporary art through irony and disavow. The work of Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen, Günther Förg, or Georg Herold was seen as awkward, cynical, or even arrogant, as they addressed taboo subjects in society. In the early 1990s the collection was expanded with international positions that dealt with conceptual issues and site specificity.

What kind of art interests you? 
My aim is to promote artists whose works decisively change the approaches and thinking about art and artists who will later be received by other artists as phenomena of their time. For me, questioning existing aesthetic values in favor of new viewpoints and approaches is of vital importance.

What is your opinion of the Viennese art scene?
There are a great number of important artists, galleries, and off-spaces here. You can always discover new things in the Viennese art scene because it moves very quickly and is well networked beyond the city limits and internationally.

Could you make a comparison between the Austrian and the German contemporary art scene?
Vienna can compete even in comparison with larger metropolises like Berlin.

What is the role of the museum in the art market?
The museum is a neutral place that shouldn’t allow itself to be influenced by the art market. Albeit, a museum has influence on the art market to the extent that a solo exhibition in a renowned museum can raise an artist’s market value.

What was it like for you to come to mumok, having previous experience only in art galleries?
The main challenge for me was to take over a house with a high-quality collection from the classic modern to contemporary art. One of my declared goals is to further expand and bridge gaps in the collection despite the difficult times.

Describe the collection and exhibition strategy that you wanted to outline with your first large-scale presentation “Museum of Desires” at mumok.
The task for me and my team is not only to clearly define and reorient the content focus of the collection, moreover it is the generation and safeguarding of the necessary budgetary resources. As state funding is far from sufficient, initiating and carrying through cooperations with patrons and sponsors becomes more and more important. A first step in this direction was the strategic collecting concept of my initial exhibition “Museum of Desires”, which aimed to motivate friends and supporters of mumok to assist the museum with central works for the collection.

How many of the 37 works you selected to supplement the existing collection are already in possession of mumok?
27 of 37

One of the goals you set when you came to mumok was to fill the gaps in the museum’s collection, for example, regarding works from the Eastern European region. Are there any gaps that you still need to fill?
With our collection strategy we attempt, in particular, to fill in the gaps in our collection focuses but also in view of unheeded positions from the Eastern European realm and in relation to the role of female artists, the lacking presence of painting, and younger artistic positions as well.

How does mumok expand its collection?
Since I became director my team and I have succeeded in obtaining important gifts from private supporters and patrons of the arts, and we thereby enhanced and supplemented the collection with central works by young and renowned Austrian and international artists. Hence, the museum demonstrates own initiative in connection with social networking; however, it can only fulfill its full purpose when the political decision-makers also live up to their responsibility toward the public’s interest more strongly in the future.

What special programs have you prepared for the mumok’s audience? 
Besides presenting exceptional and pioneering individual positions since the modern, the central program lines for special exhibitions also comprise thematic exhibitions that convey topics that transcend the works and art forms in an innovative way. With regards to the collection, new interpretations of its main holdings are made in keeping with coordinated chronological and thematic aspects. In order to optimize the exhibition program in the spirit of an interdisciplinary, discursive, and intermedial art history, we have set up, among other things, our permanent film program with its own mumok cinema. With our ambitious, wide-ranging educational program for all age groups and different social backgrounds we enter into an intensive dialogue about modern and contemporary art with a large audience.

In your opinion, which regions in Eastern Europe are the most interesting in terms of contemporary art?
Poland, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, to name but a few.

Why should people come to Vienna? What is so outstanding about Vienna?
Vienna combines a broad spectrum of cultural activities with a high quality of life. You can find everything here – from electronic music, performance, and dance to contemporary fine art – everything that is characteristic of our time and of high quality at the same time.

Karola Kraus was born in 1961 in St. Georgen im Schwarzwald, the daughter of the collectors Anna and Dieter Grässlin. She studied art history, modern German literature and classical archeology in Stuttgart and Munich. From 1999 to 2006 Karola Kraus was the director of the Kunstverein Braunschweig, 2006 to 2010 she headed the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden. On 1 October 2010 Karola Kraus was appointed as a director of the Vienna’s Museum of Modern Art. 

The mumok collection today comprises around 10,000 works by c. 1,600 artists. In 1959, the first purchases were made for the newly founded Museum of the 20th Century, which held 90 works when officially opened in 1962.

A key impulse for the museum’s exhibition and collecting policy was provided by the Ludwig and Hahn Collections in the 1970s, which were shown from 1979 in a second building, the Palais Liechtenstein. The Hahn Collection was purchased by the Republic of Austria, whereas the loans by Peter and Irene Ludwig were permanently guaranteed for the museum by establishing the Austrian Ludwig Foundation. The Republic of Austria agreed in turn to provide a budget for the Foundation to expand its collection of key works of international modernist and contemporary art – to this day.

The mumok collection consists of several “blocks” that correspond to the different stages in the museum’s history. The period to after World War Two is covered by our holdings in classical modernism that were purchased by our founding director, Werner Hofmann. A further focus is the Ludwig and Hahn Collections, with their emphasis on the avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s. In the last 15 years a comprehensive collection of Vienna Actionism has been built up. mumok collects contemporary art with an emphasis on photography, video, and film, as well as painting, sculpture, and installations, works which have mainly been produced over the last two decades.

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