A City Program offers Contemporary Austrian Painting and Graphics - for the Price of a Coffee
Around the bend of Schönlaterngasse hidden deep in Vienna’s 1st District, the glass door of the small cellar gallery opened and closed silently behind a curious newcomer.
The white space of the "Alte Schmiede" seemed cool and airy despite the low ceiling. At first glance, no one would think that the rooms behind played permanent host to 1,240 graphics and paintings, representing some of the best of Austrian art of the past 50 years. Since 1979 the Cultural Ministry of the City of Vienna has been offering this collection through ARTothek for the public to lease and take home.
In the first room, a young man dressed casually in jeans and pullover stood beside an older, discretely dressed woman, both of them staring at the opposite wall with tilted heads and compressed eyes, where two paintings– one smaller and one larger, both abstract, the canvases filled with different shades of red- were leaning against it.
"What do you think?" the woman turned to the newcomer, who already felt like an intruder and was relieved to join the conversation.
"I like the bigger one better," she responded.
"No, actually…" Now it was the young man’s turn to speak. "We are trying to figure out whether they go together or not - I want to take two or three with me today and have to decide which ones." Out of the corner of her eyes the newcomer could see the woman smiling.
"But this time, you have to return them on time," she chided. One was already reserved for later in the month. The front door opened again and the woman stepped away to see who had come in.
"So, your first time here?" the young man asked. The newcomer nodded silently, curious. "I come here all the time. Since one of my friends told me about this place, I have turned into an ARTothek addict."
Which is just what’s intended. Well, not addiction, perhaps, but getting people involved with Austrian contemporary art is what the ART-othek is all about. From experience, the organizers know that people who are in direct, personal contact with art are much better able to appreciate what may seem difficult to grasp. With rentals for as little as €2,50 per month per picture, ARTothek is credited with generating new interest in the work of current Austrian artists and significantly increasing sales in the art market.
A couple in their fifties walked past, carrying two huge, wrapped paintings. They passed through the narrow aisle into the adjacent room filled with stacks of canvases and drawings of all sizes. As the couple shuffled frames, they began arguing in loud voices over what to rent next, and the curator offered the newcomer a tour through the gallery.
"Excuse the mess," she apologized, gesturing toward the mess of huge packing boxes covering the floor. These were the preparations for a move to a new ‘Museum auf Abruf,’ to open in early June in a open-air space next to the Rathaus, larger and better equipped for the volume of work the gallery now handles.
"Thanks to this new museum, the 17,500 piece collection is finally going to be adequately presented and accessible to the public," announced Vienna Culture Minister Andreas Mailath- Pokorny, at a press conference in Oct. 2005. And, he hoped, help revive the art scene in the area around City Hall. Apart from the ARTothek, the new building will contain a large gallery space hanging four topical exhibitions per year with the pieces of the collection, as well as lectures, concerts and dance performances.
Back at the ‘old’ space in Schönlaterngasse, the newcomer, who was also in the process of moving, thought of all the empty walls in her new flat and how she too might wander around the rooms of the ARTothek, selecting high quality art as easily as truffles in a chocolaterie.
"But what if something breaks?" she turned around suddenly to ask her guide? But she had disappeared.
"Nothing happens," the young man said. "The €2,50 fee includes insurance." He was lounging in a chair, with a tea mug in his hand and seemed to just have settled in for the afternoon.
"Anyway we have only had two accidents in all those years," the curator said, reappearing from around the corner, and holding out a second mug of tea. "Is a black breakfast tea alright?" Was this woman really psychic? The newcomer wondered, taking the mug. But she had already turned away, heading back to the couple still deep in debate over the two reddish paintings leaning against the far wall.