Francesca von Habsburg and T-B A21

Francesca von Habsburg and T-B A21(Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Space in Progress)

Art collecting has throughout history been an exclusive pastime for aristocrats and the wealthy. After World War II in Austria, the new social democratic government took over this role, creating a climate of relative liberalism in which most art projects were supported by the federal government. Since the takeover of the conservative-right wing coalition in 2000 and the forces of the free market which accompanied this, an increasing number of museums and public galleries have complained of being starved of funding.

In this situation it appears to have been a logical move for Francesca von Habsburg, wife of the grandson of the last Austro-Hungarian monarch Franz Joseph II, to have chosen Vienna once again as a location of aristocratic collecting. To paraphrase Hans Christian Andersen, the empress got a new dress, and it’s name was T-B A21. The heritage of art collecting in Francesca von Habsburg’s family begun with the legacy of her grandfather Heinrich Thyssen, an ardent collector of 17th and 18th century old masters and her father Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, a Forbes list billionaire, who built up the world’s second largest private art collection, which is now installed in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.

Francesca von Habsburg is now expanding on this family tradition, utilizing qualities that are scarce in a scene dominated by the interests of politics and the free market: audacity, taste, and, of course, means. Unlike her ancestors though, she follows a distinctively more contemporary style. Located on the prestigious Himmelpfortgasse, near Seilerstatte in the city center, an area tightly packed with government administrative offices and home to several well-established Viennese commercial galleries, at a first glance T-B A21 exudes an air of understatement considering its collection of some 400 contemporary art works by dozens of international artists.

“I have come from an extremely traditional view on collecting based on the generations before me and what my father achieved,” Habsburg states. For her and the Thyssen family before her, an art collection is about the collector’s vision, not just about individual art works. She collects works by both established and emerging artists whom she values as those that will stand the test of time and testimony for many years to come. In order to achieve that, she commissions new works or projects in the context of TB-A21-organized exhibitions rather than buying individual works that have been already widely publicized.

T-B A21 is now arguably the most noteworthy private collections with a contemporary and conceptual focus in Austria, comparable only to the insurance-owned Generali Foundation and the BAWAG Foundation, which is run by one of the largest banks in the country. Also, in Vienna most public art institutions and projects are government funded, and thus are heavily influenced by their policies. T-B A21 however has clearly set out to be an important private patron with a bureaucratic upper hand. For example, the spectacular installations comprised of heaps of rubbish and construction materials by John Bock and Christoph Schlingensief which were displayed last summer, had they been in normal museums or commercial galleries, could have had faced with much difficulty convincing Austria’s notoriously rigid Building Regulation Authority (known as the Baupolizei) for safety reasons.

On the 20th of April, 2004, T-B A21 launched its official opening with an audio-based installation exhibition by Canadian, Berlin-based multi-media artist Janet Cardiff. Since then, it has mounted some of the most experimental contemporary art shows in Vienna. Puppets were a familiar sight last summer with Dan Graham, Tony Oursler and Rodney Graham’s puppet rock-opera Don’t Trust Anyone over Thirty (2005) which was commissioned by T-B A21 and presented at the annual Vienna Festival. The accompanying show at T-B A21, ‘Puppets and Heavenly Creatures,’ exhibited works by these artists as well as Paul McCarthy, John Bock and Jason Rhoades. Recently in Deseos Fluidos – Brazilian and Cuban Perspectives between Reality and Fantasy Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto showed his Humanoídes (2001), figurine sculptures made of Lycra and Styrofoam that visitors were invited to inhabit and explore. Deseos Fluidos was a colorful and creative potpourri with a distinctively sun-drenched and ironic quality, providing a much needed artistic antidepressant, especially during Vienna’s dreary winter days. While Brazilian Rivane Neuenschwander showed an unpretentious installation with colored tape and balls, perhaps the most outstanding and humourous piece was Portaviones (2005), a swimming pool which had been converted into a battleship (or maybe vice versa), by Cuban artist group Los Carpinteros.

Art in T-B A21 is also tailor-made on imperial order as the gallery likes to commission works from hip artists. For example, in March last year, Germany’s rising star Jonathan Meese staged a multi-tech opera performance at the Unter den Linden State Opera House in Berlin. Christoph Schlingensief also showed the spooky installation Animatograph (2005) and will move his blankets and slide projectors to both Neuhadenberg and Namibia. Olafur Eliasson presented his conceptual installation Your Black Horizon (2005) at the temporary pavilion designed by David Adjaye at the Venice Biennale and in December Candice Breitz exhibited her homage to Bob Marley. From April to July this year Kutlug Ataman will present his 40 channel video installation Küba (2005-6), on an artistic river cruise from Istanbul to Vienna, certainly a timely piece considering that Vienna last summer was full of right-wing election propaganda and slogans such as ‘Vienna must not become Istanbul.’

T-B A21 labels itself as a space for the contemporary. But the new today is old news tomorrow, and some of the better pieces in Francesca’s collection might well manage to join the family collection in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemizsa in Madrid.  ‘Look at the Emperor’s new clothes. They’re beautiful!’ people clamored in Andersen’s tale. Francesca’s gallery is really beautiful, and colorful at that.

* This article originally appeared in Contemporary 21 Special Issue on Collections no.80 in 2006.’

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