Renaissance Man

Lawyer, diplomat & art lover Christoph Thun-Hohenstein wants to reinvent the MAK and lead it into the 21st century

News | Laurence Doering | September 2011

The MAK’s new director Christoph Thun-Hohenstein at Café Prückel opposite the museum (Photo: David Reali)

New York, summer 2007. After eight years as director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, the government’s flagship for promoting Austrian contemporary art in America, Christoph Thun-Hohenstein had clearly won over the city’s cultural elite, not to mention his own staff. Observing him as a summer intern, it was easy to see why.

Unusual for an institution’s director, he had the mercurial tendency to pop up anywhere in the building, at any hour of the night or day, rolling up his sleeves to hang artwork in the exhibition space, showing up at the Forum’s electronic music nights, or helping with a sound-check in the minute, yet exquisite, blonde-wood concert hall.

As Thun-Hohenstein strides into the sun-soaked non-smokers’ lounge at the Café Prückel – directly opposite the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, or MAK, Vienna’s museum for applied arts which he heads from this month - I am instantly reminded of our chance encounters in the Forum’s corridors. His towering height, at 2 metres, is toned down by his calm demeanour and unexcited, yet impeccable, appearance: grey suit trousers, white shirt, grey chequered sports jacket. He is soft-spoken, yet intensely focused, leaning forward in his wicker chair and fixing me in his gaze as we speak. He has squeezed our conversation in between meetings at the museum, yet talks to me for over an hour. As in New York, he is everywhere at once, but also forcefully present.

A mood of departure

"There’s a fantastic climate," Thun-Hohenstein says of Vienna’s contemporary cultural scene. "Even compared to New York, I’m overwhelmed by the multitude and variety of exhibitions and events going on here." He points to Vienna’s high-profile scenes in fashion, visual design – especially the visualisation of music – as well as architecture. The city is enjoying an "Aufbruchstimmung", a mood of optimism and departure, he says, stressing the German word although we are speaking in English.

Well-managed public funding significantly contributed to the current upswing, Thun-Hohenstein believes: already in the 1990s, the City of Vienna started Unit F, a funding body for fashion design, followed by Departure in 2003, a broader funding and networking agency for the creative industries. Thun-Hohenstein successfully applied for the top job at Departure when he returned from New York in 2007.

"I sensed that this was an institution that allowed me to contribute to positive change, to develop the city in crucial areas such as fashion, visual arts, new media, and other disciplines."

Soft power

This sense of public service may have been honed by Thun-Hohenstein’s years in the Austrian foreign office, which he joined after studying law and politics, alongside history of art. After postings in Ivory Coast, Switzerland and Germany, he served as chief lawyer negotiating Austria’s EU membership. His book Europarecht – "European Law" - published in 2005, is now in its sixth edition and remains the standard Austrian text on the topic.

But Thun-Hohenstein’s love for the arts always accompanied his diplomatic work: "I decided to become a diplomat in order, sooner or later, to have a function in the field of culture," he told The New York Times in 2007. Already as a schoolboy at the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium in the 3rd District, he publicly recited his poetry. A passionate music lover, he today owns a CD collection of over 6,000 discs. His interest in the arts and diplomacy were finally reconciled with his appointment as director of the Austrian Cultural Forum.

Today, Thun-Hohenstein’s international experience conversely defines his approach to cultural work. "There’s a lot of competition in this world, and there are plenty of cities that put lots of efforts into [developing their creative industries]," he cautions. "You can never lean back and say ‘it’s been achieved’, because the world is moving faster than ever. You have to be open to new developments, exchange views, and give your very best." Accordingly, Thun-Hohenstein will continue working with the MAK Centre Los Angeles, the museum’s overseas outlet.

He also wants to "make Europe more visible as a cultural force, as this is very dear to me," he says, alluding to his work towards EU integration as a diplomat.

Living tradition

This global outlook is refreshing in a city like Vienna, known for resting on the laurels of a bygone grandeur. To Thun-Hohenstein, however, it is precisely the tension between tradition and modernity that "makes a formidable city."

"Aufbruchstimmung also means dealing with the cultural achievements of the past," he says, "but by looking towards the future and worldwide developments, and asking what we can contribute."

Reworking tradition in light of the present is how Thun-Hohenstein made a name for himself in New York, where he commissioned electronic artist Christian Fennesz to remix Mahler, or celebrated Freud’s 150th anniversary with an exhibition of New York cartoons on psychoanalysis.

Now he wants to bring this talent to the MAK, which houses the world’s largest collection of modernist furniture and the archive of the Wiener Werkstätte, the legendary Jugendstil design collective.

"To my knowledge there has never been an exhibition that has traced the antagonism between Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffman," he muses, "all the way from the origins, through their followers, to the present." It is living tradition that interests Thun-Hohenstein, in constant confrontation with the new.

The spirit of the times

But harnessing the MAK’s memory to examine the present is just one part of Thun-Hohenstein’s larger vision: "It’s a museum dealing with change," he says, taking a sip from a slender glass of water, having turned down coffee. "Bringing the MAK into the 21st century," therefore, means advancing trends in the applied arts through the museum’s "laboratory function," which includes its designer in residence programme, or the creation of a "lab series" showcasing work in progress, such as the evolution of intelligent or ecological fashion.

Above all, however, it means "asking what contemporary art and design can contribute to making a better society." This, after all, is what applied art is about today.

But wasn’t that the big idea of the last century, I interject, as figures such as Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius attempted – and failed - to save humanity through architecture? Thun-Hohenstein nods, but answers "we live in a different world. Today, designers can’t just impose their solutions on others. We live in a world of crowd-sourcing."

On cue, I ask him what he thinks of crowd-sourcing the museum’s exhibition programme. He emits a short, incredulous chuckle, but then surprises me with a well-developed reply: he will start off his directorship with a big, public brainstorming on the MAK’s future. To make sure everybody starts on the same page, an exhibition this autumn will succinctly document the genesis of the MAK’s collections. Additionally, there will be lunch-time panel discussions about the museum’s future direction. The public will be invited to attend and comment. "That is also a form of crowd-sourcing," Thun-Hohenstein points out. In February and March, the MAK leadership will present its preliminary mid- and long-term plans, and submit them to another round of public discussions. "Then we will have a much broader basis for our planning," Thun-Hohenstein concludes. "That is the spirit of the times."

But this new zeitgeist of transparency can’t quite be divorced from the MAK’s recent past: Thun-Hohenstein’s predecessor, Peter Noever, who had led the museum since 1986, was sacked in February after chartered accountants

revealed he had diverted €173,000 by hosting his mother’s birthday parties at the museum’s expense.

"I have a different style," Thun-Hohenstein comments dryly. "Peter Noever is a designer," which accounts for his determination to run the museum his way, while "I have always been a team player."

Judging by Thun-Hohenstein’s protean activities back in New York, and the way he invariably stopped to ask a lowly intern how he was doing, the MAK’s new director has the many talents needed to lead the museum out of its recent mire and into the 21st century.

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