VIENNA — Formed in 1999, shortly after the war of independence of Croatia, the What, How & for Whom (WHW) art collective of Zagreb has served as director of Vienna’s Kunsthalle since 2019. Now, following the City Council of Vienna’s announcement that WHW’s contract at the contemporary art institution will not be renewed after it ends in June 2024, its members find themselves caught up in a bloodless conflict — one that involves bureaucracy, culture, and possibly a clash of worldviews in the capital of an Empire that no longer exists, except in its artistic and architectural grandeur.

A new call for applications has been issued after Vienna’s government rejected all 20 applicants for the role of director at Kunsthalle Wien, including WHW. (After a five-year period, an open call for applicants is required by law.) The decision, made in December by a six-person panel, was met with dismay by leading figures in the art establishment of the city, leading a Kunsthalle supervisory board member to resign in protest. “The deselection of the leading curator collective violates my concept of cultural-political ethics,” said Boris Marte, CEO of the ERSTE Foundation, when he resigned. He had been “thrilled” by the 2019 appointment of WHW members Nataša Ilić, Ivet Ćurlin, and Sabina Sabolović to the leadership of Kunsthalle Wien; Vienna, he added, “should make up geopolitically for what this city has failed to do at least since the fall of the Iron Curtain out of arrogance and ignorance.”

At Kunsthalle Wien, the collective attempted to shuffle perspectives from the hallowed setting of Museumsquartier across from the Maria-Theresien-Platz, with its display of imperial splendor that includes the Naturhistorische Museum and the Kunsthistorisches Museum that flank it. The Albertina and the Weltmuseum are also comprised in this radius that is said to constitute one of the largest concentrations of fine art in the world.

A recent view of the Kunsthalle Wien (photo Avedis Hadjian/Hyperallergic)

After seeing an exquisite series of Bruegels at the Kunsthistorisches Museum or the Monets and Picassos at the Albertina, magnificently aged with all the rough edges of violent eras washed away, a visit to Kunsthalle Wien on a rainy January day brings with it a breeze of fresh air and a return to the real world of most mortals. Here, Berlin-based American artist Rajkamal Kahlon serves us a look at the dark side of modern history, part of which some of us are old enough to remember, in an explosion of color that take us back to the Indian subcontinent and the violence of colonialism expressed in disturbingly beautiful portraits. In Works of Heart (1974–2022), Croatian artist Sanja Iveković of the Nova umjetnička praksa, or New Art Practice, a current that began in 1968 in then-Yugoslavia, offers some of the earliest manifestations of feminist art in the socialist bloc at the time.

Ivet Ćurlin and Nataša Ilić of the all-women collective said they did not have a clear idea about the reasons behind the contract’s nonrenewal. “We can only speculate here, we never got any explanation,” they said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “As we see it, it involves some kind of repositioning by the city administration of what the Kunsthalle should be.”

There was some pressure surrounding ticket sales and visitors, targets likely affected by the fact that Vienna went into lockdown four days after WHW’s first opening at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “One of the criticisms was that there was not enough audience, but we barely had two months without COVID,” WHW’s members said. “Restrictions on the number of people in closed spaces were in place in Austria well into the spring of 2022; we didn’t have a chance to increase the numbers of visitors over 2019, though we did double the figures from 2021 to 2022.”

But beyond these concerns, “there is a certain generation or a group of people that actually don’t seem to like our programs,” they said. “They seem to want a 21st-century Kunsthalle to maintain the old idea of the avant-garde but as a popular, even populist, thing.” 

Entrance to Kunsthalle Wien (photo Avedis Hadjian/Hyperallergic)

“We were trying to look beyond the Western canon as the only idea of what art is and we were also thinking about whom to address,” WHW continued, adding that 42% of the city’s population has an immigrant background. “We wanted Kunsthalle Wien to address multiple Viennas, not just the old established one.”

Vienna is a cosmopolitan city, WHW said. “It was not so for decades, but it became cosmopolitan again.”

Has this cosmopolitanism been reflected in its art scene?

“Not at all,” they responded. “It is changing, but not to the extent to reflect a population that may be 50 percent of migrant origin.”

And was this perhaps an instance of a metropolis, which used to rule over much of what was the former Yugoslavia, reverting to imperial nostalgia?

“It was never spelled out like that, but we feel there is an element of that for sure,” WHW said. “People from the former Yugoslavia are the largest minority in Vienna, and they are accepted to a certain extent, but there is of course a limit for the social mobility of people of immigrant origin.”

WHW’s members believe this is not a uniquely Viennese problem. “There is no imperial center that gives up being an imperial center, and Vienna is doing the same,” they said.

“There is a Vienna of the cultural establishment and a Vienna of the political establishment,” they added. “But there is also the Vienna of the arts scene, which is so much more generous, so much more interesting, so much more diverse and open, and we, as a mainstream institution, wanted to reflect some of this richness that does exist in our programs … We believe that our program is exactly what Vienna needs and we are not surprised that there is resistance to this.”

“There was never an empire that said, ‘Yes, just demolish me,’” they concluded. “Of course not.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, Veronica Kaup-Hasler, Vienna’s executive councilor for Cultural Affairs and Science, said the decision not to renew WHW’s term was “not a rejection of specific curatorial theming.” The Austrian capital, she said, pursues a cultural policy that is “committed to diversity and we want migrant, queer and non-Western perspectives in art to continue to be seen at the Kunsthalle.” 

This commitment to diversity, she added, “can be clearly seen in Vienna’s cultural policy of recent years,” citing the “growing number of curators of migrant origin” at the Wiener Kultursommer festival and the recent appointment of Sithara Pathirana, who will co-direct the Vienna Climate Biennale together with Claudius Schulze.

Johan Hartle, rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, was baffled by the refusal to continue the contract with WHW. In an interview with Hyperallergic, he hinted that it was an instance of a bureaucratic process gone awry rather than a move based on deeper ideological reasons, yet the cultural consequences of the decision do not escape him. 

“Vienna is well positioned, and, at the same time, it’s not well positioned,” he said. “Vienna is extremely wealthy in terms of its institutions. If you walk from Karlsplatz to Museum Quarter you virtually pass by twenty museums and some of them are the most important in the world, including Secession, the Academy Museum, the Weltmuseum.”

In his view, a historical and political dimension was missing in the city’s museum landscape. Rising real-estate prices and an economy that may not work to the advantage of artists may also compromise Vienna’s art scene, he feared.

“Next to this representation of wealth, there wasn’t much of a political intervention, an institutionalized decolonial practice, and in that sense, [with the departure of WHW] it’s going to be missing,” Hartle said. “We don’t only need the Klimts, the Boschs, and the Caravaggios, but we also need a steady, current and lively scene, which is going to be much harder in the future, because rents are going up and expenses are increasing, so it’s becoming harder and harder to make a living as an artist.”

View of Sanja Iveković’s Ženska kuća (Women’s House) series (1998–ongoing) (photo Avedis Hadjian/Hyperallergic)

The new call for applications opened in December and the closing date is February 15. “We are not permitted to provide any information about potential applicants in ongoing selection processes,” Kaup-Hasler told Hyperallergic. With respect to the reasons for WHW’s contract nonrenewal, she said, “the jury concluded that none of the submitted concepts were sufficiently convincing for a further term of office.”

Kaup-Hasler also said that she has “a long and appreciative relationship” with Ćurlin, Ilić, and Sabolović, referencing “multiple collaborations” with the collective in her former role as artistic director of the Steirischer Herbst Festival and the fact that WHW was selected out of three candidates short-listed by an independent jury in 2018 for the Kunsthalle role. “Their critical and feminist view of art from Central and Eastern Europe, the focus on diversity, have been of key importance — I have always expressed this appreciation clearly and I am also sure that we will see even more exciting exhibitions in the next year and a half,” she said.

In response to a request for comments, Marte, the former Kunsthalle board member who quit in protest over the non-renewal of WHW’s contract, blamed lack of vision rather than ideology, echoing Hartle’s suspicions.

“I see neither a general conservative backlash nor an overarching colonial attitude,” Marte told Hyperallergic. “What I see is a missing conceptual thinking about Kunsthalle, no aim and courage to support new identities in the arts, and no sign of respect and trust in WHW, which they deserve so much.”

But it is difficult not to see a historical perspective in Marte’s protest letter after it became known that WHW would not continue at Kunsthalle. “Finally, Vienna should position itself again as a metropolis in this special part of Europe. And make an original contribution to what only Vienna can do or rather, what Vienna could do.” (Italics are mine.)

Editor’s note 1/24/23 12:20pm EST: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the Kunsthalle Wien’s architecture as Brutalist; the article has been corrected.

Avedis Hadjian is a journalist and writer based in Venice. He is the author of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey. His work as a correspondent has taken him to Eastern Europe, the former Soviet...