Business & Career: Behind the Gallery Walls

In staging their signature shows, Vienna’s art exhibitors navigate an opaque world filled with secretive collectors, oligarchs and layers of fancy lawyers

Vienna is a city of exhibitions. Big exhibitions. Expensive exhibitions – with dozens of masterpieces worth €10,000,000-plus each, and insurance bills that can soar to over half a million euros. The journey of a masterpiece from the auction block via a private collection to an institution in Vienna often has all the transparency of London fog – a deal hidden behind powers of attorney, elusive intermediaries, complicated families and numbered custodial accounts.

One September afternoon in 2014, Evelyn Benesch, the deputy-director of the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien, passed another nail-biting hour in her bookshelf-lined office. The Laundress, an 1886 painting sold to an anonymous buyer for a record-setting €18.6 million by Christie’s in 2005, was to be the centerpiece of a major Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition in just four weeks. The deal to obtain the painting on loan from a private Swiss collector was still in tiring negotiations. Benesch, who also curated the show, had chased after the painting for several years, but it seemed at the last minute that her dream to present the painting to the Viennese public would be thwarted. The Laundress was absent from the printed catalog and the designated wall space empty.

A week before the exhibition opened, thanks to an English dealer, the painting arrived on time. “A late guest,” laughed Benesch. The printers added a loose leaf to the catalog.

It had been similar with a monumental Kandinsky in 2004. Hours before an exclusive opening, the painting still had not arrived. So as the guests milled around the galleries, employees placed hooks into the wall where the Kandinsky would hang, and the guests were able to witness it going up onto the wall.

The attraction of a masterpiece lies partly in a visitor’s individual relationship to a famous artist’s work, and partly in the impressive value of the works – both in cultural terms, and in euros. Recently, a long line of visitors waited patiently in a cold drizzle to see the Albertina Museum’s Munch, and Monet to Picasso shows. An hour-long wait to enter was no deterrent. There is an undeniable thrill in standing in front of a canvas that has sold for millions. And it didn’t hurt that the posters had been hanging all over town.

Master exhibitions take two to four years to produce. The Balthus exhibition at the Kunstforum, opening February 23rd, 2016, took over four years.

Convincing the owners

“Balthus has been extremely difficult to put together,” confirmed Benesch. Half the works are in private hands. The show has involved years of tracing and convincing owners to lend their works on terms that are not always easy to satisfy. It benefits all sides to insure low but value high, which contributes to the murkiness of art world transactions.

“When you begin you have no idea where to find things,” Benesch smiled. The layout for the new Balthus exhibition catalog awaited her urgent attention. She showed me her Lautrec catalog.

“At the front are two important lists – the one thanking sponsors etc., and the one for the heads of the involved institutions and collectors. The second one is where I start.” She laughed. “That’s the detective part.”

It’s all about Connections

Curators have become critical lynchpins, providing research for art critics as well as acting as mediators between those who produce art and those who buy it. “It’s all about connections”, She
remarked, “And of course, knowing the languages.” For the Balthus show, a French collector facilitated Benesch’s dealings with the Agnelli and Elkann families, who own many of the relevent works. For the popular 2013 Warhol-Basquiat paintings show, the collector Bischofsberger helped source works hidden in Switzerland.

The Kunstforum also dealt closely with the Warhol Foundation in New York, which places stringent restrictions on reproduction rights, an important ancillary revenue stream.

A team of Benesch, Director Ingried Brugger, and invited curators meet to discuss a potential show. “Someone says I would love to have so-and-so and then we have to consider factors other than how we make a show interesting to the public, or if we are presenting a new idea or shining a new light on a well-known artist.”

The most important considerations are often financial ones. Unlike a larger institution like the Albertina, the Kunstforum does not hold or buy works, and so cannot take advantage of revenue from trading art. Since its opening in 1989, Bank Austria has set the budget for each project, and Benesch’s team has to leverage every option to ensure the show will be somewhat profitable. In reality, the Kunstforum serves the bank’s PR needs more than its coffers. Many shows may only see a return of 30% through sales.

Costs for an individual masterpiece can top 20,000 euros. Commissioning climate-controlled crates tailored to a masterpiece for several thousand euros is just one issue.

Traveling first class

“Where will the works come from? If it’s all in Japan or the West Coast, shipping will be too much,” noted Benesch. Unlike public institutions, the Kunstforum has to pay for insurance. When shipping by plane, a museum may insist on a courier who travels business or even first class. Sometimes a painting only gets to Frankfurt and must travel the rest of the 715km to Vienna by a specialist art transporter such as Kunsttrans. A Spanish museum can insist on a police guard. A particularly tricky Miró in a Russian negotiation didn’t get export papers until a day after the show opened. The registrar on Benesch’s team handles these headaches once the deals have been struck.

Given the rather conservative Viennese public, museums are forced to rely on blockbusters. The Kunstforum’s Frida Kahlo retrospective in 2010 had more than 400,000 visitors over three months, boosted by two Hollywood films that came out around the same time. Last year’s Stanley Kubrick photography exhibition, “Eyes Wide Open,” also helped broaden the visitor base. The music, film and graffiti evenings produced for the Warhol-Basquiat show by communications director Wolfgang Lamprecht are now essential to reach a younger audience.

For Benesch, art can’t just be about money. “For a show to work, there has to be a story, a narrative. It has to capture you somehow.” Regardless, shows that break even, like Cezanne in 2000, and Botero in 2011, are extremely rare.  Benesch was disappointed by the attendance rate for their current show “Love in the Time of Revolution” (ending January 31st, 2016). The show represents works by artist couples around 1917, during the Russian Revolution. Benesch was passionate about this creative time, which showcased growing female rights. But, she noted wistfully, “You have to find the right balance.”

When negotiations stall on a particular painting, Benesch’s team must scramble to come up with creative solutions. Collectors have asked museums to create an exact copy of the painting they are loaning, at a cost of several thousand euros. Or, as a quid pro quo, to have an original masterpiece delivered as a temporary replacement on their wall. Hosting a dinner party next to a well-known masterpiece could buy a great deal of good will for future negotiations, or the all-important leads to other collectors in a particular private circle.

Exhausting as these negotiations are, Benesch comes alive when discussing the work. “Balthus’ The Patience has many different connotations. You see a young girl playing a game of patience by a piano. In Rome they put it in the children’s section of their catalog, “but I think she is at the point where she is not a child anymore. She is frozen in time.” Benesch traced her finger over the image. “If you consider when the painting was made – 1943 – the game could be about the future of France.”

The Balthus show will run from February 23rd to June 19, 2016.


Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien

Freyung 8, 1010 Vienna

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