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20 Years of mumok in the MQ

enjoy insider

On September 15, when mumok opened as the first state museum planned and built specifically for the art of modernism, public interest was dominated by the terror attack on the World Trade Center that had taken place four days before. With almost 3.000 people dying in the attack, and given the significant shocks to global security, interest in events in the world of art was very muted. The international and local media were completely taken up by the immediate consequences of this act of terror, and there was almost a state of war, interrupting international air traffic and meaning that all the expected guests from overseas stayed away.

Even if under these circumstances the opening of an art museum can be seen as a marginal or rather luxurious gesture, it was nonetheless a bitterly needed and long overdue event that meant that the museum, which had hitherto been divided between two different buildings, would finally gain an appropriate location. In reality these two buildings—both the Palais Liechtenstein and the 20er Haus—were being used contrary to their original purposes and their shape and form were simply not suited to the presentation of contemporary art. The aristocratic palace that had been rented in the late 1970s in the course of the establishment of the Austrian Ludwig Foundation as took over numerous major works of Pop art and Fluxus from the Hahn Collection had no air conditioning and a Baroque interior design that overshadowed everything else. The 20er Haus, an adapted Expo pavilion built in 1958, was already in a serious state of decay and only later able to be “rescued” by a new building—today’s 21er Haus. Even up to the 1990s, the general public had no idea that these two buildings belonged to one institution named the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. This is no wonder, as the two museum buildings could hardly have been more different, and they also stood far apart. The transfer from these two decentral buildings into the MQ was an enormous logistical challenge that was somewhat eased thanks to the fact that a large part of the collection could be shown during the move at the Vienna Künstlerhaus, under the title Zwischenquartier (Intermediate Quarter). This made it possible for the museum to remain in the public eye while being able to take a more relaxed approach to transport and storage logistics.

Summing up: The new building in the MuseumsQuartier with its abbreviated name of mumok meant a quantum leap for the collection and its presentation, and for the public perception of modern and contemporary art. No more compromises with Baroque flourishes and late-modernist functionalism, and instead neutral spaces that could be adapted to the specific needs of different exhibitions. The fixed walls that had been built in under the transition-period director Lóránd Hegyi were gradually removed under his successor Edelbert Köb, making way for a more flexible interior design that continues to prove its worth today.
It should not be forgotten, however, that the mumok building was originally intended to be much larger, and that the former Vienna “Messepalast” was to make way for an exclusive new mumok building. A local mental distance to the avant-gardes and the tendency of Austrian politics to a strange mélange of horse-trading and party-political polarization, as well as the influence of the local popular press, all contributed to a significant reduction of the original mumok plan, and to the elimination of the intended reading tower. It is also no coincidence that the Essl Museum, the first museum in Austria to be devoted to newer art, was not built by the state but privately. It opened in 1999 and closed again in 2016.

All of these facets of cultural politics are also part of the history of mumok, which is now celebrating its first successful 20 years in the MQ. In this period, the museum has managed to gain an outstanding international reputation and to become the one local institution that enables a new, fresh, and experimental view on both the history of modernist art and contemporary developments. After the shock of Corona and the collapse of all the influx of tourists that had spoilt us with success, and in the light of climate change and the increasing global polarization between rich and poor with its accompanying migrations, many people apparently want to take recourse to what really matters and to what is really sustainable. For mumok these values, which in particular include the museum’s political mission to educate, have never been questioned. Not simply following the mainstream, but challenging it with the means of art has been and remains one of the museum’s secrets of success.

Rainer Fuchs