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COVID-19 is changing our lives, but not the old masters

An interview with Prof. Dr. Klaus Albrecht Schröder, the long serving director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna. Interviewers: Bartosz Panek and Jarosław Kociszewski.

July 19, 2021 - Bartosz Panek Jarosław Kociszewski Klaus Albrecht Schröder - Interviews

Klaus Albrecht Schröder Photo: Private

BARTOSZ PANEK AND JAROSŁAW KOCISZEWSKI: Every major crisis results in change and is reflected in art. For instance, Gustav Klimt repainted his Death and Life during the First World War. Now we have another major crisis that is affecting the lives of all of us. Do you think that it might also affect future art?

KLAUS ALBRECHT SCHRÖDER: No I do not think so. The pandemic didn’t change the art world. And just painting figures with a mask is superficial and really irrelevant. Society and the art world have changed over the course of the last ten to 15 years due to globalisation and a new appreciation for the diversity of our societies, as well as a new understanding of equality and justice. These changes have also been influenced by the digitisation of our society. The pandemic wasn’t the change, but only a short interruption. In a couple of years when we look back at the pandemic, we will talk about it like it was just here for about a second, and not more than that.

I am really convinced that the pandemic helped us by speeding up digitisation. But the major changes happened earlier than that. They happened with the invention of cell phones. It is interesting that we speak of it as a cell phone, and yet we hardly use it as a phone. Instead, most of our time is spent using it in various different ways: as a camera, as a computer, to find our way from here to there, and not as a portable phone. So this changed our lives and how we communicate. It made us much faster and much more distracted in our lives. It made us much more fixed on what’s happening today. Yesterday is now simply the past, the days before that are the Middle Ages and last year is the Paleolithic period.

That means that if you are not the Louvre, the Uffizi or the Prado, then your audience will be getting smaller and smaller. If you look at the opera houses, they play more or less the same opera from 1718 to 1910. It’s Mozart to Strauss, Berg, Schoenberg, and that’s it. And the audience gets older each year. We are talking about an average age in the opera houses and concert halls of more than 65 years old. Meanwhile, our audiences get younger and younger. When I started the main exhibition about 19th century art we had 200,000 visitors. Ten years later on the same exhibition had around 100,000 and now we have only 50,000. However, I recently organised a huge exhibition about William Cendrige, Georg Baselitz and Robert Longo that has seen 150,000 visitors. At the start, this exhibition only had around 50,000. So there is a complete switch from Austria being the centre of the musical world to a place dominated by contemporary art. It is our role to reflect these changes. And so we have to change our museum policy, and I am very glad that I can once again reinvent the Albertina museum.

But surely the pandemic affected the Albertina museum.

It hit us enormously in every imaginable way. First of all, I think the Albertina was the first museum in the world that had to shut down before its opening. It was our plan to open the Albertina Modern, our second venue, on March 13th 2020, but the day before we had to close the museum. There was no opening, no press conferences and no opening exhibition. That is a really hard hit, because you only really get one chance to say the first sentence, make the first set and have the opening.

There is no easy way to compensate for missing the opening of a new museum. But we are doing our best, and this autumn we will have a huge exhibition about 80s art. Next spring, we will also have an exhibition about Ai Weiwei. This will be the first retrospective on Weiwei’s work in Central Europe, and this might be seen as a kind of new opening for the Albertina Modern.

Like every major museum in the world, we were also hit by enormous financial losses due to the travel restrictions. We lost 13 million euros in 2020 and the same amount of money this year, so 26 million euros. Only a fraction of that was covered by the state via the so-called “short work”, which covered 2.9 million euros. The loss was terrific but it was my goal from the beginning to keep our staff and not to let them go. 

So where did you find the savings?

We found the savings by protecting our programme, cancelling projects, making major cuts to our budget and losing our reserves. The museum has been very successful over the last two decades so it was possible to stay stable.

Of course it’s impossible for a museum such as the Albertina to go bankrupt. It’s simply unthinkable. We’ll survive every crisis as we survived every crisis before. In the 18th century it was the French Revolution, as we were founded in 1776. In the 19th century it was the Napoleonic Wars, and the Revolutions of 1848. We survived the First World War and the collapse of the monarchy. We also survived the Austrian dictatorship, the Third Reich and the Second World War. We changed during those times and we will change again during this pandemic. 

Are you really comparing the pandemic, from your perspective, to the World Wars?

Not at all. I just wanted to make it clear that it is impossible for a museum like the Albertina to go bankrupt. That is what I wanted to underline. Even if our losses couldn’t be compensated for with our own strategies, the state would save us. And that gives us a very comfortable situation. Because when you are in danger you may have to cut your personal costs, but nothing would happen regarding the existence of the museum. I wouldn’t dare to compare the pandemic itself to the World Wars, especially with the loss of millions of people and the near extermination of our Jewish community. Just to be clear, despite the Third Reich and even the thefts that occurred during the Napoleonic Wars, the museum has survived. That’s important to know. And when you know that, when you see the wider picture, the pandemic becomes just another moment in your life. It’s hard for me personally, but it’s ridiculous to say “I wanted to travel, but I couldn’t”. I think a lot of people in this century and in the last hoped that they wouldn’t have greater problems than the fact that they can’t travel to New York.

We are a state museum. We experienced major losses as we were closed during the lockdown. It was hard and painful, but nothing too bad would happen because the state would always save a world museum like the Albertina. And that is important, since if you look at the United States, the situation there is different. When you look at the accessioning policies there, they had to sell major works from their own collections. This was not done to acquire other works but just to cover the general costs. We were never in a situation like these museums. Some of the British museums had to be closed and are now closed forever.

In this highly privileged situation, do you feel somewhat responsible for the suffering of Vienna’s art world?

I do not think that it is our duty to support art. It’s not our responsibility to support galleries either, or the commercial art market. It is our duty to serve the art world in a very different way by presenting the art. There are ways for the state finance ministry to help the galleries.

Usually a crisis is an impetus for change and you have already mentioned the digital world. How do the changes affect you?

The digital turn increased its speed enormously during the pandemic. That starts by the simple fact that we couldn’t travel, so we had Zoom conferences with my friends all over the world.

Secondly, we learnt step by step that we could increase our audience. We can now reach out to clients who are not here and will never come to Vienna. We did our digital openings in a conventional manner but then we learnt that a digital unveiling should be a specific event that is different to a real opening. Apart from the official opening, you make your speech and you illustrate works that are not in the exhibition. You essentially make a virtual tour.

So step by step we learnt that it needs a different approach to simply making a digital version of a traditional museum. It’s not just about filming what is going on in the physical world. Instead, it needs a new production for the physical world. We are still in the process of learning and at the same time we all face the same problem as the newspapers and magazines: how can we make money out of our digital activities? It’s easy to produce an exhibition at a cost of one or two million euros, which people can see on their tablet or cellphone. But what if they cannot pay, or they simply do not want to pay the same entry fee as they would here. Who is going to be financing these exhibitions?

And that’s why we thought of creating a specific format for teasing upcoming projects. This is much like in Hollywood, where teasers are made by a different director than the actual movie. It would be great to develop a strategy that allowed us to show five to seven major works and spark the feeling of “I want to see more! Not only this, but also that one!” But you can’t. If you want to see the next sculpture, the next painting, the next drawing, you really need come to Vienna. It is still our main goal to let people engage with real artwork, which shouldn’t be replaced by a digital experience.

The digital experience should be limited to digital works. That may raise questions regarding whether or not we should show NFTs, so-called non-fungible tokens. For now, however, we have no plans to acquire NFTs. But our physical artworks, such as our Micheal Angelos, Rubens, paintings by Picasso, Matisse, sculptures by Arp, should be experienced in the best possible way. That way is by visiting the Albertina museum.

I am confident that within the next few weeks or months we will return to a world similar to that before the pandemic. It might not be quite as it was in 2019, because we won’t have any visitors from the Far East. We won’t have our Chinese, Indian or Japanese visitors, but 80 per cent of our visitors here are from the European Union, and especially from our neighbours.
You need to realise that Vienna was not only the capital of the Habsburg monarchy, but the heart of Central and Eastern Europe. So our Czech, Slovak, Polish, Hungarian and Croatian visitors are valued just as much as the Germans, Swiss and Italians. That makes me think very positively about the near future.

So in general, the pandemic changed your attitude towards the visitors, rather than the core of what the Albertina is, and what it should be. 

The core of the Albertina is its collection and the expanded, renovated and modernised museum. We started refurbishing the museum in 1999 and the next step was the opening of the Albertina Modern. You cannot change a collection with 1.1 million works of art and no pandemic in the world will change that. We have 180 Dürers, many Michael Angelos, Leonardos, 60 Rafaels, hundreds of Rembrandts and 15 paintings by Picasso. We also have several sculptures by Picasso. So our way of seeing the art world through the eyes of the collection cannot be changed. Our programme is still the same. We have reduced the outcome of our programme, so instead of showing four to five huge exhibitions and a dozen smaller ones, we show two major exhibitions at the moment.

Now little by little we are returning to the old path. Not immediately, since that would be a financial risk. I still don’t expect more than 200,000 visitors to Modigiliani’s exhibition. In 2019 I would have expected 400,000 visitors. But there are still people who are either not vaccinated or they don’t want to be tested just to visit a museum. Some could be anxious or nervous or perhaps the vaccination doesn’t work with them. So we still don’t have the same numbers. I will be happy if this year we manage to reach 350,000 to 400,000 visitors, and next year maybe 500,000 to 600,000.

It means that we have to reduce our exhibition programme, but not the content of the programme. Classical, modern art, old masters, and contemporary art cover 600 years of artistic history, and that is still the profile of the Albertina.

The interview was conducted in cooperation with European Network Remembrance and Solidarity

Prof. dr Klaus Albrecht Schröder is an Austrian art historian. He has been a director of Albertina Museum in Vienna since 1999. He has modernised Albertina and in the past he coordinated construction of the famous Leopold Foundation Museum. Following delays caused by lockdowns, Schröder opened the new Albertina Modern museum in may 2020. 
 
Bartosz Panek is a radio feature documentary maker and reporter with over 20 years’ experience. Recipient of Polish and international awards, including the Prix Italia for best radio documentary. His work has been highlighted in competitions in Italy, France and Croatia. His first book – on the Polish Tatars – was published by Czarne in summer 2020.
 
Jarosław Kociszewski is a broadcast and print journalist. Long-term Polish media corresponent in the Middle East and formerly of Polish Radio. He works with NGOs with a special focus on the Middle East and East Africa. Currently he is the editor of the Nowa Europa Wschodnia portal and an expert for Security and Development Foundation Stratpoints.


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