Founded in 1864 as the Imperial and Royal Austrian Museum of Art and Industry, the MAK has matured into a happening place of international stature for art and architecture with hubs in Vienna and Los Angeles, where the MAK Center resides in the Schindler House. Earlier this year amidst considerable controversy, Peter Noever departed as director, and on September 1, Christoph Thun-Hohenstein assumed the post. A former director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York (1999–2007) and director of departure, the city of Vienna’s funding agency for creative industries including architecture, design, fashion, and the art market, Thun-Hohenstein sat down with Liane Lefaivre to talk about the traditions and the future for the influential institution.
The MAK is the second oldest Museum of Applied Art in the world after the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. How do you see your mission with regard to this tradition?
Well, although I greatly respect this tradition, my mission is clearly to steer the museum into the 21st century. We have about four sections: applied art—though I am not very clear what it is—design, architecture, contemporary art, and intercreativity, that is interdisciplinary ideas and projects involving those fields. To me it is important that the MAK does not become solely a design museum or a museum for the decorative arts. All these things belong together.
What do you make of Peter Noever’s legacy?
I have inherited Peter Noever’s by now famous exhibition showcase rooms that occupy the first and second floor of the main building of the MAK. He has done a really great job with this and we will keep these rooms intact for the time being. My own emphasis will be on the huge special exhibition spaces that comprise a total of 3,000 square meters on two floors. We will be using them to present integrative exhibitions that work with the collections in new ways to address key topics involving several disciplines.
What will be special about such integrative exhibitions?
I am a huge fan of the thematic shows on new developments and interfaces at MoMA, especially what they do in the design department. Paola Antonelli has mounted some exceptional shows, like Design and the Elastic Mind, and there is the new show that explores communication between people and things in our digital era. These are examples of highly relevant topics the MAK also has to address. For me it is important to mount shows that bring different fields together, and to explore how applied art, design, architecture, fashion, and art can contribute to positive change in terms, most particularly, of ecological responsibility and social innovation. A museum of applied art should actually set the standard for these activities.
What are your plans for the MAK Center in Los Angeles? Is it going to be business as usual?
The MAK Center in Los Angeles is a very important part of the MAK’s international reputation. The United States is such a great generator of innovation and creativity that it is wonderful to have this link. The scholarship program in architecture and the visual arts is excellent and will certainly be continued, and some of the young architects and artists will be shown at the MAK in Vienna in the years to come. We will also showcase the most experimental Austrian architects in Los Angeles.
Any statement you would care to make about the architectural policy of the MAK?
It’s too early to go into specifics. I have a long list of ideas. But the focus in general will be on positive change, or, to be more precise, on the contributions architecture (as well as design, applied art, and contemporary art) can make to positive ecological, social, and cultural change. This involves architecture to a great extent. Architects are instrumental in providing new impulses between different generations, in responding to ecological sensibility, and promoting cultural innovation. These positions are underexplored at the moment. They need to be enhanced. Another area that needs to be revived is the legacy of Adolf Loos. His continuing impact on the contemporary world merits a closer examination, and we are exploring these possibilities with eminent scholars here and in the States. And, of course, the continuing relevance of Josef Hoffmann. The opposition between Loos and Hoffmann about the status of ornamentation sparked one of the debates that still resounds today in the digital age.
The MAK has tended to feature starchitecture recently. Will you continue in this direction?
I am not interested in star architecture per se. I am interested in architects who have a clear vision for the future and are dedicated to positive change. Some of these are star architects, others are not. We will also present lesser-known architects. What is important is how architects deal constructively with the problems of our civilization.