“Retirement is not an option”
Peter Noever, the uncompromising director since 1986 of the MAK, Vienna’s museum of applied art, on the end of his era
By Julia Michalska. Museums, Issue 222, March 2011
Published online: 01 March 2011
VIENNA. “Art, Not Compromise” was the theme of Peter Noever’s press conference at the Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art (MAK) in Vienna last month, the final annual conference prior to his departure as director at the end of this year. As Austria’s longest-serving museum director, Noever, 69, has had a considerable and controversial impact on the Viennese art scene.
Noever’s unwillingness to compromise, showing “art that answers to nothing and nobody”, as he says, was a driving force behind the transformation of the museum into an institution now known for contemporary art as much as historic design. He was also instrumental in opening the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles in 1994, housed in a building designed by Rudolph Schindler.
Noever’s management style led to a parliamentary inquiry at the end of last year, shortly before the Austrian minister for culture was due to announce whether his contract would be extended. Politicians in Austria’s Green Party demanded an independent audit following allegations that he had mismanaged resources. At issue were the birthday parties held for his mother on museum premises; his expenses; and alleged misuse of museum funds for private purposes, such as building his personal website. At the end of January, Noever was cleared of all charges apart from those related to the birthday expenses, which he has pledged to refund. “With hindsight, these may have been a bad idea,” he told The Art Newspaper. But he says: “[The parties] acted as a social platform and were thereby advantageous to MAK,” adding, “thanks to them, we managed to secure a major sponsor.”
The media coverage that followed the allegations cast a shadow over a two-decade career at the museum. Noever believes his critics were really aiming at the institution and its level of ambition. “[It was] an attempt to discipline and to domesticate MAK. Under such circumstances one can lose the courage to do something different.”
In 1986 when Noever became director, he says he found it “bleak in every respect”. Founded in 1864, the decorative art museum was modelled on the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “I tried to transform a dead body into a lively place of art,” he says, with the emphasis on contemporary art.
His first step at the museum was to invite leading international artists to exhibit there. “I wanted to increase the museum’s profile, which was a difficult task since Vienna wasn’t exactly a bastion of contemporary art, particularly not at the time,” he says. “There was a great uproar when I brought in contemporary art; it was considered a betrayal of the museum.” Unperturbed, he then commissioned 13 contemporary artists to co-curate the museum’s galleries. Each was entrusted a room to redesign. The US minimalist Donald Judd reworked the baroque room while Jenny Holzer added LED signage to its Biedermeier space. “A museum must radically question its own status quo to avoid the risk of ending up as an obsolete jumble of antiquities, a mausoleum of possibilities, ” he says.
Noever has often been accused of devoting himself almost entirely to contemporary art, and neglecting the museum’s large collection of applied art. Noever is unrepentant. “When the worlds of contemporary and applied art collide, things become visible that may otherwise have been concealed. A collection that is only shown in a historical context may have an educational purpose, but it gives no new insights.”
Another criticism levelled at MAK is that little has changed since its radical reinstallation 20 years ago. “I believe it can remain in its present form for the next 500 years,” he declares. “One must not be afraid of being traditional, but subscribing only to the traditional makes little sense. Our permanent exhibition remains unspent and exuberant. There is absolutely no reason, aside from fashion, to change the exhibition.”
While the permanent exhibition remained untouchable, Noever’s MAK continued to make headlines with exhibitions including a survey of Stalinist art, a retrospective of convicted sex offender Otto Muehl, and North Korean propaganda art last year. “MAK shows art in its most direct, most radical form.” He has frequently criticised what he calls the “commercialisation” of museums and the pursuit of high visitor numbers.“It always leads to the commonplace,” he says.
Appreciation of Noever came in the form of a surprise job offer from Thomas Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim, who publicly invited Noever to organise exhibitions for a contemporary art centre in Beijing, located in a temple complex adjacent to the Forbidden City that Krens is working on. The centre’s interplay between old and new, art and architecture, seem tailor-made for Noever’s approach. He is in ongoing talks with Krens, he says. “Retirement is not an option.”
Noever’s final exhibition at MAK will be the first major solo show devoted to fashion designer Helmut Lang. Rather than the fashion designs that made Lang famous, the exhibition will feature Lang’s sculptural works and large-scale installations. Noever respects Lang’s single mindedness.
He calls Lang “the most uncompromising of fashion designers,” and respects the way “he has always been unimpressed by the market and the dictates of the industry.” Viennese-born Lang, who has a strained relationship with his home city, is refusing to go back even to attend the show’s opening in December. And it seems wherever Noever continues his career, a similarly uncompromising attitude will be guaranteed.
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