As a New Yorker, one of the most striking differences in visiting museums abroad is how sparsely populated they can be. On any given day at MoMA it is rare for a visitor to find herself alone in a gallery. During my two-week stay in Vienna and Berlin I happily found myself alone, or in the company of very few, in every museum. Even the streets were emptier, quieter; 14 days with an abundance of space so rare in New York made me reflect on the power of space, how it transforms our interactions with artwork and our relationship to it.
I began in Vienna, in opulent palaces once home to monarchs and royal collections reserved for an elite few, now democratized, at least in their exhibitions and admissions. The decadent chandeliers, icing-pink walls, and red carpets of the Albertina remain, but lead to galleries exhibiting somber photographs of protest and revolution in 1970s Japan and the dark, disorienting world of Anselm Kiefer’s woodcuts. The juxtaposition forces one to consider the histories of these museums and, in turn, accentuates the artwork’s impact.
Vienna is also home to more modest, though equally impressive, galleries like the Vereinigung bildende Künstlerinnen Österreichs (VBKÖ, or the Austrian Association of Women Artists). Housed in a beautiful but sparse prewar loft in the center of Vienna’s first district, the association has evolved from its founding in 1910 by wealthy baronesses advocating for women artists into a project space with activist programming focused on contemporary queer and feminist artistic production.
My last stop in Vienna was hidden away in the offices of one of Austria’s largest electric companies. Sammlung Verbund is a corporate art collection, but collection director Gabriele Schor has been granted free rein. While the actual exhibition space is not ideal, divided among seven staircase landings and elevator lobbies on each floor, corporate financial support without institutional barriers has enabled Sammlung Verbund to amass an impressive collection with a focus on the feminist avant-garde, including works by Renate Bertlmann, Brigit Jürgenssen, and Francesca Woodman.
The unique locations and unusual programming of VBKÖ and Sammlung Verbund prompted me to think about the relationship between spaces and exhibitions. What are the limits and extremes of spaces? How does space dictate programming and curatorial practice? Answers to these questions became clearer in Berlin.
More than any other city, Berlin recycles and repurposes existing architecture no matter how difficult the history. Galleries are not just galleries, they are a former church, printing press, hospital, mosque, or tram repair workshop. One is even situated in the back of a bookstore. Despite having previously lived in Berlin, I encountered familiar places anew in light of these questions.
Earlier, the city’s architectural repurposing was, for the most part, in service of the cool factor: Public bathhouse turned club? Cool. Nazi bunker turned contemporary art collection? Cool. But when I dug a little deeper on this trip, I noticed a startlingly direct relationship between the degree to which a space for art is “untraditional” and the degree to which the exhibitions or programming encouraged new, alternative, and/or progressive narratives or thinking.
It is a question of semiotics: MoMA is a network of galleries organized with the purpose of exhibiting art; for a visitor, all signs point to “museum.” In Berlin, there are often few, if any, familiar indicators designating a space as one intended for the display of art; so many of the museums and galleries almost entirely obliterate the relationship between form and function.
Yet it seems that it is precisely this disregard for convention and tradition that allows Berlin and Vienna’s institutions to produce intriguing, original exhibitions. Perhaps their success lies in the disparate histories of our cities, or simply in lower rents. Or, perhaps, it is instead dependent on a city’s attitude toward (re)building: that it should be done not with high-end developers and shiny new skyscrapers, but with innovative, creative minds and a regard for history.