“For me, it’s the most exciting cultural post,” said Michael Haider, the new director of the Austrian Cultural Forum. “Cultural work is important – and gives me real pleasure.” Haider is a soft-spoken, eloquent man. Having grown up in Vienna, he studied history, sociology and political science, he seems almost tailor-made for the position. He saw the public tender for the position as a fantastic opportunity and began as active director in November.
This wasn’t his first trans-Atlantic project, though. Formerly in the Foreign Ministry, he was part of the negotiating team of the Austrian Special Envoy for Restitution, which resulted in the Washington Agreement of January 2001, in which victims of the Nazi persecution receive compensation for homes and businesses that had been dissolved by the Nazis. It was a “milestone in our coming to terms with a painful part of our past, as well as the beginning of a new Austrian self-perception,” creating a stronger sense of responsibility for the injustices suffered by Austrians who had been persecuted.
So, how fitting that he should find his way to the Austrian Cultural Forum, founded in 1942 by three exiled Austrians, who wanted to create a home for the intellectual and artistic culture that was all but obliterated under the Nazis. “They sought to keep the real Austria alive,” explained Haider. And in the process, “these émigrés from Austria enriched and shaped parts of American culture.” And the influences were profound, even though they came from Austrians who had initially come to America unwillingly. “Respecting that, doing our cultural work with this in mind, is our obligation to fulfill.”
His work for the Foreign Ministry has taken Haider around the world – to Belgrade, Prague and Tokyo, always with a concentration on cultural issues and public diplomacy. At the Forum, he’s not only responsible for Austrian cultural matters in the Big Apple, but across most of the United States. The Forum connects artists by helping Austrians find their way in artistic circles in America, but also understanding how the American cultural scene works. “We aim to see where the interests lie and what the exciting topics are at the moment.” To do this the Forum works with American partner institutions, from visual arts to music, performing arts, architecture, literature and fashion.
Haider is continually amazed that 16 years after it was opened, people are still surprised and fascinated by the architecture of the building just off 5th Avenue. A slender tower of glass and steel, the building designed by the Tyrolian Raimund Abraham has made its mark on the New York Skyline. Its diagonal steel braces are visible behind the glass and the boxlike center segment protrudes from within is the director’s office, where Haider spends his days.“You could call the house a flagship for Austrian culture.”
The exhibits rotate constantly and visitors keep returning knowing they will find something new. People experience Austrian culture as “a culture of diversity,” Haider says. “Just as the US is a country of immigrants, a melting pot where many elements came together to create something new, Austrian culture thrives on being part of a culture in the heart of central Europe, where so many things have come together and created something all its own.”
The Forum’s mandate is “a beautiful one,” says Haider. “These people who want to work with us are already open-minded.” There’s no need to preach Austrian culture or art as a genre. “It’s less about instructing people but more – for those who get involved – about gaining insight.”
Culture is certainly political, says Haider. “Take media art, for example; for decades artists have dealt with issues of identity and data protection. It’s that political? Probably. And it also carries the danger of being abused for political purposes.”
But culture can also transcend politics, Haider believes. “Particularly when people are intellectually curious and expose themselves to new things.” He recalls the year 1989 when dissident writers and artists were the ones we had to thank for toppling the communist regime. But when they are afraid of artists, “governments have no future.”
As our conversation came to a close, he joked, “Make sure to tell them to come to the Austrian Cultural Forum. With a good portion of Austrian humility, if people read this article and don’t realize that we’re a fascinating place to visit, dann kann ich ihnen auch nicht mehr helfen.” (then they’re beyond help).
Of all the Austrian culture you’ll see in New York, Michael Haider is about as authentic as it gets.