« Dialogues for a New Millennium

Interview with Francesca von Habsburg

Francesca van Habsburg with the installation Frío Estudio del Desastre, 2005, by Los Carpinteros, cinder blocks, concrete, fishing nylon, dimensions site-specific.

Francesca van Habsburg with the installation Frío Estudio del Desastre, 2005, by Los Carpinteros, cinder blocks, concrete, fishing nylon, dimensions site-specific.

“Passages. Travels in Hyperspace,” an exhibition drawn from the collection of Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (T-B A21), is showing at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial in Gijón, Spain, until February, 2011. We spoke to Francesca von Habsburg, founder and chairman of T-B A21, about collecting, producing, and exhibiting contemporary art.

By Paco Barragán

Paco Barragán- As a means of introduction, maybe we could recall your beginnings and how you got involved in collecting. We all know about the fantastic collection assembled by your father, which is exhibited at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. So can we say that it was in the family, in a way?

Francesca von Habsburg- Well, let’s just start at the beginning. My great-grandfather started collecting contemporary art by acquiring six great masterpieces by Rodin, straight from the artist’s studio. My grandfather was a great collector of Renaissance and Dutch masterpieces. He was also quite fascinated with French old masters. My father went on to acquire modern art while at the same time devoting himself to filling some gaps in the collection of his father and grandfather, and this led him to bring to the collection its greatest originality and signature. It is without a shadow of a doubt the greatest chronological survey of Western art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. I am merely occupying myself in continuing this tradition and maintaining this history of art into the present. One should not forget that everything was contemporary once!

P.B.- You studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London and always had a close connection to contemporary art. Nevertheless, being surrounded by such impressive classic works-Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens, and so on-didn’t encourage you to continue the path initiated by your father in terms of enlarging his collection?

F.v.H.- My father was an innovator of great courage. So am I. That is more than enough. I don’t have to collect what he collected to make my mark-quite to the contrary. He made a difference using the language of art when he organized an extraordinary exchange with the Soviet museums in the early 1980s. This really left a strong impression on me, and it is something that I also try to achieve with special commissions of politically and socially informed projects that I hope will also make a difference.

Haluk Akakçe, Illusion of the First Time, 2002, 3-channel video installation, 6 min 29 sec, colour, sound. Sound composed by Dan Donavan in collaboration with the artist.

Haluk Akakçe, Illusion of the First Time, 2002, 3-channel video installation, 6 min 29 sec, colour, sound. Sound composed by Dan Donavan in collaboration with the artist.

P.B.- Can you give me an example?

F.v.H.- Well, I recently organized an exhibition called “A Question of Evidence,” which deals with human rights issues. This is a theme that runs through T-B A21’s program. We are commissioning our third project with the artist Amar Kanwar. The first, called “The Lightning Testimonies,” was about the sexual violence against women on the Indian subcontinent; it premiered at the last documenta. That was followed by “The Torn Fist Pages,” a 19-channel video installation on the struggle for democracy of the Burmese people and Aung San Suu Kyi, and the next work is “The Orissa Project,” which is more ecologically informed and deals with the massive amount of toxic waste generated by bauxite mines in the Indian province of Orissa. It has recently become extremely topical since the massive spill in Hungary. We have also commissioned projects with Walid Raad, Ai Weiwei, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, Kutlug Ataman, and a number of other artists that deal with problems of identity among the hundreds of minorities in Turkey and Eastern Europe. And the list goes on.


P.B.- Most contemporary collectors-such as the Rubells, Saatchi, or Pinault-are still chasing objects. In your case, you always stress the importance of the “creative process,” and in this sense you clearly connect with collectors like the Dutch Han Nefkens or the Brazilian Bernardo Paz. This engagement, which is less materialistic in a way, connects with the early Renaissance Maecenas as well as the Church and the kings who supported artists and appointed court painters like Rembrandt, Velázquez, or Goya. How do you envision it?

F.v.H.- I hate comparing myself with anyone. The trick is to stay ahead of the game, because then you can set your own rules. Everyone has a clear personal style, and that is very much true for me, too. My idea was simply to start a small and modest institution, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (T-B A21), with a dedicated professional team that concentrates on great projects. The chief curator, Daniela Zyman, is fantastic, and we really built this up together with a few other women who have been with us from the beginning. She is in a different category than all those “art advisers” that collectors consult about what to buy. She helped me define a very strong institution with a very personalized identity, which manages all the special commissions and the exhibition program, as well as producing a few publications a year. We are a great team, and complement one another’s talents extremely well. Together, we have established a good position over the past few years and we were recently recognized for that effort. It’s about the content. It’s all about the art and not so much about me personally. That makes all the difference.

P.B.- I find that especially in the United States, collecting has always had a very utilitarian background because of the particular interpretation of Calvinism in America and also because collectors want to have more and more to say and dominate the boards of many museums. You have traveled a lot and seen many collections. What is your opinion on this, and also do you experience that there is a difference between, let’s say, the European way of collecting and the American way?

F.v.H.- I have absolutely no idea! But what I do begin to realize is that T-B A21 has started a little trend along with a few like-minded organizations like Artangel in London and others that like to commission art. We have established a niche in the art world by being generous to artists who need to be given opportunities beyond the art market to express themselves and develop their careers. This also leads to new creative narratives and expression. It can develop careers while at the same time filling a niche that is slowly dying out-the one of true art patronage. Our ministries keep cutting our museums’ budgets, while at the same time people like to give art not money. Generating content is a noble and necessary commitment that more and more people are making. It’s becoming outdated to accumulate warehouses of artworks that nobody can afford to present to the public. To accumulate and accumulate is simply a thing of the past. It’s driven by greed and ego. It’s not very contemporary thinking.

P.B.- As we mentioned before, the “creative process” is important in many of the works and perspectives engaged by your foundation, T-B A21. How do you think we can encourage the participation of the public, given that today most exhibitions are still demanding “interpassive” audiences as opposed to an active, intelligent, interactive audience?

F.v.H.- Simply by sharing the excitement that it generates! Also, I have learned so much through this process; I can only recommend it highly. People are afraid to get into commissioning primarily because they are afraid of the possibility of not liking the final result. So far that has never happened to me: I have loved the projects even more at the end. I stopped only one project in its tracks simply because the budget spun out of control and I could feel that the artist did not have a realistic perspective. Having an exit strategy in which everyone has a way out without losing face is essential. There is no reason to hurt anyone’s feelings. Being practical and, most importantly, courageous and supportive is an excellent way to see a project through. One should not meddle with the creative process at all. One must be respectful of that. But finding solutions, having a critical eye on the process as well as total faith and commitment, that’s the way to get the best results. Absolute generosity, without foolishness . . .


P.B.- This may serve as a point of departure to discuss the current exhibition “Passages: Travels in Hyperspace” at LABoral in Gijón, Spain. Gijón is not yet one of the mainstream capitals of art, like London, New York, or Paris. Was having an audience that is not so trained in contemporary art practices one of the advantages of exhibiting the collection here?

F.v.H.- Let’s use the word “experienced,” not “trained.” Now New York is passé, London is xenophobic, and Paris is blasé. Berlin is the only happening place right now, along with São Paulo and Istanbul. Reykjavik is about to explode (again). So judging Gijón in such a negative way seems rather cliché. I like being able to make an impact and show the collection to its best advantage, and LABoral is an exceptional space, so generous. It also has a great curator, Benjamin Weil, who is an old friend, and that counts for a lot in my book! On another level, one can compare Gijón with the Ruhr Valley, the industrial center of Germany, where there are many festivals and exhibitions, which have transformed the cultural landscape and changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people from these areas, who are fascinated by and grateful for the opportunities. It’s a new horizon for them that is much appreciated. I have a lot of time for places like that. I get rather bored in places where self-interest is the order of the day.

P.B.- Most of the installations exhibited at LABoral-like those by Carsten Höller, Ai Weiwei, Doug Aitken, Los Carpinteros, and Ernesto Neto-are practically site-specific. LABoral is a huge but also difficult space. How was the interaction between the works and the space?

F.v.H.- Well, we left it all wide-open. From one spot I could see works by Ernesto Neto, Los Carpinteros, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Haluk Akakçe, Ai Weiwei, Doug Aitken, Carsten Höller, Carsten Nicolai, and Sergio Prego. A great sight! And it all came together magnificently. I should mention that between Benjamin Weil and Daniela Zyman and our respective teams, they managed to install a very gutsy exhibition. They broke just about all the rules, and I am so proud of them! The show at LABoral looks better than I could have dreamt. I am happy that it has been such a success. It’s a very precise exhibition, very beautiful!

P.B.- Could we sum up the exhibition as a narrative walk through perception?

F.v.H- That’s exactly what it is: a walk though perception, a threshold of our mind, which art helps us to transgress. We all need to learn to look at things differently all the time. The day we stop, we die, or at least we should. Art is simply the most important thing in the world. It is there to help us overcome our limitations, which in today’s society are numerous.

P.B.- “Passages” brings together a good mix of midcareer artists who are part of the international circuit. Is this the focus of T-B A21, or can we also expect some more unknown, emerging artists in the future?

F.v.H.- Well, when I bought most of them, they were emerging or unknown. I was really happy when I finally met Sergio Prego; he told me that the video in the exhibition was the first sale that he ever made. I saw it in an off-site show focusing on Latin American art at Art Basel Miami Beach eight years ago. Imagine that! Amar Kanwar is rapidly becoming a very renowned artist, so are Walid Raad, Simon Starling, and Hans Schabus-all artists that we feel close to at the moment. I can’t help it if they move as fast as they do. We recently did an exhibition of great Turkish artists, many of whom are young and unknown. It was very exciting work, looking at the art scene in Turkey over the last two years. I would love to show these works in Spain, actually. It’s a very fresh and dynamic exhibition, which is a bit of an eye-opener. And it’s important to recognize that the accession of Turkey into Europe is an essential part of Europe’s future. I know that this is not a popular idea right now, but it’s true, and this exhibition goes quite far in making us realize that it’s not a nation of unskilled workers. On the contrary . . .

P.B.- Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary is based in Vienna. Do you organize exhibitions there as well as colonizing art venues around the world? What future do you see for yourself there?

F.v.H.- Vienna is where I have spent the last 10 years or so, and every decade that flies by gives me the urge to move on, but until my children, whom I adore and am devoted to, leave home, that’s where I will remain. And as I have resigned myself to this fact, I realize that quality of life has become more and more important for me. So it’s better to change the place than to change where you live! Next year we will inaugurate a new exhibition space called (CON)TEMPORARY. It’s a temporary space that is quite generous in size and will give us the opportunity to premiere our exhibitions at home base instead of having to offer them to biennials abroad and other institutions that have more space than we do. We have finally grown out of our old space on Himmelpfortgasse, which is like a large apartment in a palace in the first district of Vienna. But still this is a laboratory of ideas. An experiment of sorts and quite temporary. . . I hate anything permanent. Permanence is the last thing before complete saturation and, subsequently, death. I just want to continue to explore the limits of my understanding of art and its changing relevance in the ever-changing world of today. I am constantly challenging myself with new ideas and collaborations. I am curious by nature, and Vienna is a wonderful place to try to make a difference.

Ernesto Neto, Esqueleto Glóbulos, 2001, Polyamide tulle, styrofoam pellets, sand, 177” x 185” x 48’

Ernesto Neto, Esqueleto Glóbulos, 2001, Polyamide tulle, styrofoam pellets, sand, 177” x 185” x 48’


P.B.- Art fairs have assumed some of the roles of biennials. For example, Frieze Projects, part of the Frieze Art Fair, has a significant budget for site-specific works. How do you evaluate this, and what is the importance of art fairs? Are they places to see art, or just to see people or good promotion platforms?

F.v.H.- Art fairs have not replaced biennials. The fact that a lot of newcomers to the scene tend to confuse them is another matter entirely! Just for the record, art fairs tend to be safe and very commercial, while biennials tend to push the envelope and take some bigger risks. I take them as they come. I think that they are both valuable networking platforms, and some tell a story better than others, but all in all, I tend to avoid them. They are too saturated, and I like keeping my head clean and not filling it up with too much stuff. I lose my own creative instincts if it’s all there in front of me, waiting to be consumed! However, I have been known to contribute quite a few great projects to biennials and even the odd art fair. We should also note that there are some important performance festivals, like Performa in New York. They gather many interesting performance art events, without which our lives would be decidedly dull!

P.B.- By the way, you will be presenting with T-B A21 the latest publication on Los Carpinteros at Art Basel Miami Beach.

F.v.H.- Yes, we will. I look at the Miami fair as a window to South America and Latin American art. It’s a great platform for such a launch. We also have produced a special edition of the book, which has a pair of white flip-flops on the cover. Where else can you wear flip-flops in December? After the launch with about 200 books, we will host a wild Cuban party at the fair. I think I will turn it into a wig party. Miami is a great place to find crazy wigs! We have worked closely with the artists on this publication, as we have done in the past with some other artists, like Janet Cardiff, whose publication we also launched in Miami a few years ago. It’s becoming a bit of a tradition.

P.B.- I always considered the 1990s to be the “age of the biennial” and these last ten years the “age of the art fair.” Nevertheless, biennials keep growing and growing. Do you think the biennial as mega-exhibition is still appropriate to define our present moment?

F.v.H.- Someone told me the other day that there are approximately 300 biennials and art fairs every year. That’s almost one every day. It’s definitely not a thing of the past!

P.B.- In recent years many new collectors have arrived on the scene, attracted by the “social element” and “social prestige” of the art world. In this sense, do you think that the biennial as artistic platform is still an articulated discourse for the idea of progress and utopia or just a branding tool that brings in high-end tourism?

F.v.H.- Well, I think that this is not a new phenomenon at all. It’s been the case since the Middle Ages! Except that then it was more the Church that was trying to make itself feel important!

P.B.- Lastly, Walter Benjamin stated that collecting was a way of facing death. How would you describe it?

F.v.H.- How morbid! I think it’s the only way to face life. It is what gets me up in the morning!

* All images are views from “Passages. Travels in Hyperspace. Works from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection” at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial, Gijón, 2010. Photos Enrique Cárdenas.