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60 Years mumok | Yesterday and Today: A Short Overview of a Long Development

mumok insider

When you enter mumok – Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig today and move around the bright and generously designed exhibition galleries, you are also moving around the culmination of an eventful history. Sixty years ago, on September 21, 1962, the Museum of the 20th Century was officially opened in Vienna’s Schweizergarten. The building was originally designed by Karl Schwanzer for the Austrian Expo Pavillon 1958 in Brussels. It has since been renovated and today is known as Belvedere 21, as part of the Belvedere Museum. In the late 1970s, it was complemented by the Gartenpalais Liechtenstein in the city’s 9th district. The 20er Haus, as it had become known, had become too small to accommodate all the gifts and loans of major works of Pop Art and American photorealism that had been given by the collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig, and the museum had also purchased Wolfgang Hahn’s Fluxus collection. Thereafter the two venues became the one Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, but perception of them as one institution was made difficult by them being two very different buildings in distant parts of the city. Ultimately, these were two temporary solutions that had gained a permanent status—up to the day, on September 14, 2001, that the new gray basalt building designed by Ortner & Ortner was opened in the MuseumsQuartier.  

The relationship of official Austria to modernism and contemporary art was a difficult one, which is shown by history before mumok. Around 1900 there were a number of significant exhibitions of modernist art, initiated by the Vienna Secession, but nearly none of the works shown entered into state collections. It was thanks to the founding director Werner Hofmann that when the 20er Haus opened it did have a notable and internationally relevant collection. Hofmann very intentionally did not seek the major works that were out of the museum’s reach and he did not aspire to an art history based on highlights, but he aimed instead to present the characteristic art movements of the twentieth century using works by lesser known artists. Hofmann had the courage to leave gaps too, but this was countered from the late 1970s by the gifts and loans from the Ludwigs. Masterpieces of pop art by Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol, and major Fluxus works by Yoko Ono and Nam June Paik catapulted the museum into a different league and better positioned the collection within international competition for loans and cooperation projects. This has become an indispensable advantage today, which at the time Hofmann, who criticized the contract between the Republic of Austria and Peter and Irene Ludwig in a Club 2 program, either did not see or did not want to see. Hofmann considered this contract a “deal” based on cultural imperialism, intended to gloss over the cultural passivity of the state. But the state then did itself move through the gears—with a proactive financial agreement. The Austrian Ludwig Foundation for Art and Science that was established in the course of accepting gifts and loans from the Ludwig Collection ensured and ensures to this day that the museum is able to integrate capital-intensive works into its collection, which would simply not be affordable from the ordinary budget alone. In addition there have been gifts from many supporters of the museum, such as the collectors Gertraud and Dieter Bogner, who gave the museum key works of constructivist abstraction.

Hofmann had long been head-hunted to become director of Kunsthalle Hamburg when his active and energetic successor, Alfred Schmeller, who created a forum for unconventional and future-looking museum work with exhibitions on space travel or children’s art, was next followed by Dieter Ronte. He had been the head of the collections of graphic arts at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, and in numerous interviews he also made no secret of his critical view of the sluggish state and obsolete cultural bureaucracy.

The early 1990s demonstrated just how far political visions and running a museum interact, when, in the course of what was denoted the opening of eastern and of a not really all that new new ideology of central Europe, minister Erhard Busek appointed the Hungarian Lóránd Hegyi as director of the museum. Under his tenure, regions that had been hitherto classed as peripheral, such as the countries of eastern and southern Europe, gained a greater presence. To this day it is a fundamental task of the museum to perform this bridging function between east, west, and south in the center of Europe.

It was when the museum moved to the MuseumsQuartier that the short name mumok was coined. The new museum, the first ever public building to be built in Austria specifically for art since modernism, was intended to be larger and to also include a reading tower. Both of these plans were sacrificed to political horse trading and the pressure exerted by the gutter press. When the museum opened three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center official interest was of course somewhat muted. But this new building represented a quantum leap in comparison to previous conditions. The museum had come from two contradictory locations on the periphery to the city center, and, now under the directorship of Edelbert Köb, it had new opportunities for presentations, collecting, research, and education. It was not only the new building, as all the other parameters had shifted too. With its new location the museum had also been given a new legal status with greater economic independence, as had the other Austrian national museums. Köb’s tenure was shaped by a debate on museum politics, whereby mumok attempted to convince politicians that fulfilling its mission would suffer if the other national museums no longer stuck to their core business and were instead increasingly presenting contemporary art. In fact this situation had not least come about because the old structures were no longer permitting the other museums—such as the Albertina and the Österreichische Galerie (Belvedere)—to do justice to their own defined tasks. Politicians and museum directors alike had little time for Köb’s push for structural reform for the national museums, and this would then come to concern future generations.

In 2011, Karola Kraus kicked off her tenure with the Museum of Desires, and then addressed new challenges with energetic public relations work, several improvements to the building, active expansion of the collection, and a number of new thematic focuses. These included the increased presence of women’s positions in the art movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which had been seen as entirely male-dominated, and also of younger artists in a global perspective. This meant that a discourse on art and its social relevance remained crucial, as the academic programs accompanying exhibitions and also their public educational programs showed. This was also witnessed by the mumok cinema that Kraus initiated and Heimo Zobernig designed together with the architect Michael Wallraff, which now sustainably presents the significance of film for art. The collection exhibition Enjoy – the mumok Collection in Change successfully presented a kind of summary of exhibition and collecting activities of the past ten years, in the course of which historical inventory has been reconsidered from a critical perspective.

A prerequisite for the optimal presentation of all the museum’s different programmatic activities is a digitalization offensive that meets today’s standards for a virtually networked society. The pandemic showed just how essential this presence in virtual space is in order to be able to operate in times of restricted social contacts. Together with the climate crisis and the consequences of Russian’s war of aggression against Ukraine, this summarizes the present crisis situation in which cultural and art institutions need to reconsider and redefine their roles.

In recent decades, and for economic reasons, museums have increasingly addressed tourists, and this certainly is justified, but it also runs the risk of commercializing the museums and neglecting their educational mission. Educational policy has always been a high-profile part of mumok’s work, and it continues to be the foundation of our exploration of modern and contemporary art. Particularly in times of social polarization and threats to dismantle democratic values, art and the museums devoted to it can demonstrate their enlightenment and thus also eminently democratic and political purpose.


Rainer Fuchs is chief curator and deputy general director of mumok. He was a member of the team that implemented the move from the 20er Haus and Palais Liechtenstein to mumok in the MuseumsQuartier.