Power Grab at the Secession

History Repeats Itself as a Venerable Institution Relives The Rift Between Conservatism and Innovation in the Viennese Art World.

News | Alexandra Ruths | September 2007

Barbara Holub was elected president of the Vienna Seccession in May 2006, ready to embark on a programme of innovation worthy of the institution's long heritage. So why, just 14 months later, is the Secession board falling apart?

When Barbara Holub was elected president of the Wiener Secession in May 2006, she was ready to embark on a new era for the century-old artists’ cooperative. So how has it happened that just 14 months later the Secession’s board is falling apart, demanding new elections, and work on the Secession’s new programme has ground to a halt?

Critics – notably, former Secession presidents Edelbert Köb, Werner Würtinger and Adolf Krischanitz, and resigned board members Eva Schlegel and Werner Reiterer – have attacked Holub in personal terms, accusing her of having "an overly authoritarian leadership style," while also dismissing her as "not looking the part," a figurehead with no significant voice.

All together eight members of the board of 14 have left over the summer and calls for new elections this month are hanging in the air, splitting the board in two, and leaving both members and artists speculating about the Secession’s future.

"I wanted to turn the Secession into an innovative and alive place," Holub told The Vienna Review, "and to come out of the isolation of the white cube." Innovative programs were already in the works, like one satellite project for flexible work space set up in an evolving part of Vienna.

Their artists could experiment, as a way of starting discussion, about how artistic institutions can and do shape the silhouette of a city. Holub, elected by a resounding 2/3 majority, also wanted a new focus on art projects co-operating with other fields such as literature or religion, to keep pace with developments on the international scene.

The new programme was meant to bring fresh air into the famous Jugendstil building, designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich at Karlsplatz. Bringing an open mind, she had been confident she would be able to evolve a clear, cohesive profile for the Secession, drawing together the diffuse elements in a shared vision –"a new programme that was agreed on in unison," emphasized Nita Tandon, cashier at the Secession.

Not one that was divisive.

"It is a choice between innovation or restoration at the Secession," Holub said, "implementing the agreed upon, more experimental programme, or a change of the presidency and policy, reversing the new direction originally planned to last until May 2008."

Founded in 1897 by Gustav Klimt in protest against the conservative values of the Wiener Künstlerverein, the Secession today seems to be trapped in a repetition of the struggle that brought it into being – only in reverse, as traditionalists withdraw from the board and call for new elections.

There were warning signs from the start. After Holub had accepted the position in 2006, the programme already seemed to be tainted, when several members of the former board along with the former president, Matthias Hermann, left the organisation in protest against the election results. Hermann went on to a professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts, taking several of his supporters with him.

Edelbert Köb, member of the opposing party, was one of the strongest voices demanding Holub’s resignation. Köb said through his press office that, having been a previous president of the Secession, "he was convinced only new elections would return peace and quiet to the chaos that, in his opinion, had reigned" during Holub’s tenure.

Holub finds this argument specious. Change always causes a stir.

"We were accused of being a bunch of chaotic leaders, but now the opposition itself is causing minor chaos by interrupting the programme, members dropping out and making wild accusations," Holub said.

More important, the insistence on the requirement for  new elections is not consistent with the Secession’s bi-laws, made available to The Vienna Review. The bi-laws provide for the replacement of board members through a general meeting – a much less stringent, and less disruptive standard.

"According to the new statutes, new elections are not necessary but simply require tat replacement members be appointed to the board," wrote Ayre Wachsmuth, artist and member of the Secession, in a guest commentary in derStandard on Aug. 24.

With the withdrawal of the first three members in June and early July, Holub immediately called a general meeting for September 12th, to fill the vacancies. Over the summer, the withdrawals of five other members brought the total to eight empty seats.

Conducting new elections would take up another two months, as new candidates would need to present their programmes and intentions for the future. In the normal course of events, official elections would next take place in May 2008, "to give everyone a chance to see the program develop and then draw conclusions about its effectiveness," said cashier Tandon.

Secession members report being pressured to change sides.

"Artists who are hoping for sales feel under pressure not to declare themselves against MOMUK Director Köb," Wachsmuth said.

Martin Fritz, curator and manager of the "Festival der Regionen" and experienced analyst of cultural organizations, has been observing the Secession’s activities for many years.

"I have seen the Secession – with its autonomy and self management – as the most organizsd and legitimate of art institutions; the current situation puts this structure to a test." To mitigate this tension, "new elections seem inevitable," he concluded. However, like others interviewed for this article, he found poor communication clouded rumour and facts.

Holub too criticised the lack of communication from the opposing members – led by Edelbert Köb, director of the MUMOK, architect Adolf Krischanitz, and sculptor Werner Würtinger.

"In early July, when the first demands for my resignation came up, there was no discussion," Holub remembered. "I asked about alternatives, about feedback and suggestions for a consensus that would enable the Secession to continue smoothly. But my questions were simply not answered." Holub would like to hold a public discussion to air the disagreements.

"Open talks are better than dead silence," she is convinced.

The demands that she should resign, however, Holub felt she could not honour.

"From the moment I was elected into this office, I took on the responsibility to act for the well being of the Secession and to solve problems," she said. "I do not want to run away, but stay to work hard on finding a consensus."

On Aug. 9, the Austrian daily Der Standard reported accusations from Holub’s critics of "an undemocratic and authoritarian management style," justifying new elections. Other members find this description "absurd."

Ayre Wachsmuth, artist and member of the Secession, said that if anything, Holub may have erred on the side of too much shared decision-making.

"Holub even might have got herself into trouble because she was too democratic," he suggested. Part of the new team’s efforts was to establish bi-laws to enable clearer and more democratic elections and decision-making procedures.

"People are still learning how to live with this new system," he said, which, ironically may have undermined her authority in the eyes of some members." It is inevitable, he said, that time would be needed to work this out.

What may be true is that the opposition never expected Holub to be as strong a leader as she turned out to be, say Secession board members Martin Walder, Flora Neuwirth and Rita Vitorelli. Having attended a board meeting on Aug. 1, with Holub not present, they reported former vice president Werner Reiterer commenting.

"Barbara Holub is only a puppet, a shadow figure anyway, she will not have a say at all," Reiterer said. Witnesses reported being left speechless, not being sure whether to take him seriously or not. Other criticism has been deeply personal, including Eve Schlegel’s comment in an open meeting that Holub "did not look the part of a Secession president."

"The opposition likes to see itself in the position of coming to the rescue," Holub commented, "and I am called stubborn and irrational and overly authoritative for not stepping aside or immediately retreating back into the shadows."

Wachsmuth wonders aloud whether the call for re-elections might serve the personal interests of a few rather than the well being of the organisation.

"The Secession is in danger of being turned from an artist-led cooperative association (KünstlerInnenvereinigung) into an art society (Kunstverein)," Wachsmuth told The Vienna Review, a move he feels would signal the Secession’s decline.

"An art society would not be governed by the artists themselves any more, but influenced by people in management positions, and financial people, sponsors and collectors," Wachsmuth said. "Being a practicing artist would no longer be a requisite for membership. This is a total change of philosophy."

And in fact, a week later, Köb admitted as much, telling Der Standard on August 30 that he thought "the taking on of patrons and sponsors, and the conversion of the Secession into a Kunstverein, would lead where we need to go."

Without taking sides, Tandon is disturbed by the polarisation.

"This conflict is creating a negative atmosphere," Tandon said, "splitting apart entire circles of artists and friends. We should be trying to solve problems together, not embarrassing ourselves by making destructive accusations which will prevent a positive and constructive working relationship."

Most of all, Holub would like to see some of the new ideas flourish.

"The danger is that there will be no renewal at the Secession but a restoration of the old guard which will suffocate all efforts of the institution to step out with a more experimental programme into an internationally recognised and innovative artists’ community," she said.

"As President of the Secession, Köb was the one who fiercely fought for innovative ideas and did a great job," Holub remembered, "but now he is fighting fiercely against the very same new directions he used to champion.

"My job is to help the Secession take some big steps forward."

And so history seems to be repeating itself.

"A hundred years ago, the Secession artists formally seceded from certain positions; now we have to do the same thing internally," Wachsmuth said.

"The artists do not want to be governed by a neo-liberal philosophy."

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