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Why the Prince of Liechtenstein shut his museum

Vienna’s Summer Palace to open for groups and receptions only

The Liechtenstein Museum closes to the general public this month after the Prince of Liechtenstein’s decision to limit access at his art museum housed in Vienna’s Summer Palace. It will now only open to booked groups and those attending receptions.

Europe’s most ambitious museum in terms of acquisitions, Prince Hans-Adam II has spent tens of millions of euros buying art. He has decided, however, that the cost of subsidising full public access to the museum, which was open five days a week, is too high.

Founded in 1807, the Summer Palace is one of Vienna’s oldest museums. Closed since the second world war, it reopened in 2004 and attracted 168,000 visitors that year. However, last year only 45,000 people came, far below the 150,000 to 200,000 visitors a year originally anticipated.

The Prince of Liechtenstein owns what is arguably the world’s greatest private art collection and his museum is well presented. So what went wrong? “The disadvantage of the location was underestimated,” says a spokeswoman. The Summer Palace lies close to Vienna’s historic centre, but it is just outside the city’s Ringstrasse and this, it seems, has deterred tourists.

The spokeswoman also blames competition from Vienna’s major venues, which mount blockbuster shows. The Liechtenstein Museum’s exhibitions were high quality but they were usually based on the permanent collection. “Temporary exhibitions with real crowd-pleasers were beyond our means, and we did not have the resources for big marketing campaigns,” she says.

The admission charge to the museum was €12, which included access to the collection and temporary exhibitions, similar to the entrance price of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum and Albertina. This raised less than €500,000 last year. Subsidising the museum costs the prince several million euros a year, although many running costs will remain after its partial closure. The museum attracted little external sponsorship as most companies felt that supporting a museum owned by such a wealthy head of state was not the best use of their funds.

The prince could have continued to subsidise the Liechtenstein Museum, since his assets are worth over €3bn, much of it invested in the LGT Bank, which his family owns. Moreover, the museum provided good publicity for the Principality of Liechtenstein and its biggest company, the bank.

The prince is about to complete the renovation of his City Palace in Vienna, which will be a showcase for his Biedermeier collection. The €90m, five-year project is due to be completed in spring 2013. The prince has decided that the City Palace, like the Liechtenstein Museum, will only be open to groups and for receptions, with part of the building reserved for LGT Bank’s offices. When the prince revealed his plans for his museums, he said: “A point had come at which a decision had to be made.”

The management of the Liechtenstein Museum and the princely collections has now been divided. Erich Urban is in charge of Palais Liechtenstein, the company managing the two museums, while Johann Kräftner, the former director of the Liechtenstein Museum, remains head of the princely collections. Kräftner will continue to curate the collection, which is mostly kept in Vienna. Other works of art are kept in the prince’s private castle in Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein.

Kräftner is organising a touring exhibition of 140 works, due to go to Japan in October 2012. The museum’s closure could open the door for London’s Royal Academy of Arts to resurrect its Liechtenstein show, which had been planned for 2010. The London show was cancelled after a row over the prince’s efforts to secure a UK export licence for Alonso Coello’s Portrait of the Infante Don Diego, 1577 (The Art Newspaper, December 2009, pp1,3).

The prince is continuing to acquire works of art, says his spokeswoman. In 2010 he paid £10m for a Pierino da Vinci sculpted relief.