Meet Karola Kraus, the German Directing Vienna’s Mumok

She sets her sights on educating audiences and widening the platform for women in the Austrian art world. In some ways, being German helped.

This is a love story. A love story between a woman and a city. A love story between Karola Kraus and Vienna. And with the art that is essential to them both. Because art belongs just as much to Karola Kraus as it does to Vienna. If you wander down through the lively 7th district, you will inevitably come to the MuseumsQuartier (MQ) and a large, dark building dramatically different from anything you know here: modern instead of traditional, simple instead of ornate, steel gray instead of gold. And it is precisely those characteristics that break through, unobtrusively, and draw attention to it. Just like its director: Karola Kraus.

For 10 years now, Kraus (61) has been director of the renowned Museum of Modern Art (Mumok), and much to be proud of, including a million tickets sold since 2018, (in spite of the pandemic) and awards like the viennaART in 2017. Having directed exhibitions in Munich, at the Venice Biennale, in Berlin, Moscow and Athens. Her vision for the Mumok is to guarantee a mix of established and young artists, both Austrian and international.

Born in 1961 in St. Georgen, Germany, to two art collectors, she was literally born into the arts. Through her parents’ art collection, she was already in contact with artists as a teenager, while an encounter with German artist Martin Kippenberger became the trigger to turn her hobby into a profession. Since 2010, the evolving step by step, from a one-woman business to running the largest museum for modern and contemporary art in Central Europe.

This year, the special exhibitions about Andy Warhol, Ingeborg Strobl and Hugo Canoilas were extended. On March 26, the Mumok’s Grand Jubilee Exhibition is set to start./(C) Niko Havranek

Which hasn’t been easy, as she came here with two strikes against her: She is a woman and a German, aiming for a leading role in the Viennese cultural scene. Almost audacious. Between mastering Viennese Schmäh and complicated coffee orders, there was also a negative attitude towards Germans, and well … toward women. But were they really disadvantages? “I felt it was an advantage that I came from the outside and therefore first had to approach the Viennese cultural landscape. After initial mistrust, I was welcomed into the art scene and Viennese society. I enjoy contributing to the cultural life of this wonderful city.”

Still, even if Germany and Austria share many things, there are defining differences emerging in the art scene. For a start, the social events, which are of far more importance here than in Germany: “All the cultural institutions [here] organize glamorous fundraising dinners to raise money,” she noted. The balls, too, contributed to her being quickly integrated into Viennese society. Another key difference is that unlike other countries, contemporary art did not really find its footing in Austria until the 1970s: “This could be explained by the fact that contemporary art often appears awkward and more difficult to convey than the old masters,” Kraus admits. “That is why we at Mumok attach great importance to educating people – of all ages and all backgrounds – about contemporary art, with programs both for a specialist audience and a broader public.”

She sees her central task in developing concepts together with her team that make their vision real. Other challenges are simply characteristic of the times, in which the international art business has been swept up in an almost irreversible growth spiral, locked into undisguised economic paradigms: “Putting on a purely commercial, blockbuster program has never been our concern. We are preparing for a future in which the tabloidization of museums is called into question.”

Apart from that, museums have the opportunity to recognize those who have been marginalized and give them a proactive platform, which she considers “a vital part of the innovative profile of a museum for contemporary art.” Indeed, their current collection policy emphasizes works by non-Western artists, while programming to reflect the burning questions of our time.

The year 2020 presented numerous unexpected challenges. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated closings of the house, the Mumok’s success story was put on hold. A difficult time, since art is something that lives from the encounter, from immediacy, from direct contact. Bridging social and physical distance using virtuality, will strongly influence future art production. Under the catchphrase “The digital museum of the future,” the Mumok is working on a holistic digital strategy to better connect art with digital media.

Despite rolling lockdowns, Karola Kraus (right) and Cornelia Lamprechter (left) look confidently to 2021. Last year, their contracts were extended for another five years./(C) Niko Havranek

Kraus shares Mumok management with Cornelia Lamprechter, dual female leadership that stands out in a patriarchal society, although women have made huge strides in recent years: “Today, there are many internationally recognized female artists, gallery owners, curators and museum directors,” she reported. “In Vienna, five out of eight federal museums are now run by women” – although she cautioned that it will take far longer for it to become “a matter of course.”

Now in a position where she can shine a spotlight on female artists, she has also insisted that gender equality be integrated into all aspects of the Mumok, equalizing the salaries of women and men, and increasing the number of women in management. They have also succeeded in integrating women curators in the collections of the 1960s, which were originally dominated by men.

Women no longer merely dream of top careers, they pursue them. No more male pseudonyms, like George Eliot, George Sand or the Brontë sisters, in order to enjoy recognition from behind a veil. Nevertheless, despite awareness-raising measures, women and men are still not equally represented throughout the worldwide art industry: Kraus applauds Vienna as an important positive example that women indeed find their places in leadership roles. Still, it is important not to forget how different it looks elsewhere, where women remain woefully underrepresented.

Karola Kraus has set her sights on supporting women in the field – to see more women in high positions, certainly, but also to rethink how we see them: namely not only as a German, or as a woman, but rather as a leader who helps define the arts of our time.

Lena Pfeiffer
Lena Pfeiffer is a freelance journalist, student, intersectional feminist, daughter, sister, friend and dog lover. Leonard Cohen always whispering in her ear, she always misses Vienna whenever she’s not near. For example, when she’s studying political communication in Amsterdam, drinking coffee in the German Rhineland instead of Viennese coffee houses or writing lyrical pieces of nothing for no one but herself. For her, Vienna is a feeling. Sometimes a pretty barren landscape too. But it‘s the world of ink & coffee, and isn‘t that a beautiful world to live in?

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