curatorial lens vol. 3/ hemma schmutz

Hemma Schmutz photographed by Violetta Wakolbinger. Image courtesy Lentos Kunstmuseum.

Hemma Schmutz (born 1966) is a Linz- based museum director. Prior to her appointment as the director of the Lentos Kunstmuseum and the Nordico Stadtmuseum, Schmutz worked as a curator at Klagenfurt’s Kunstraum Lakeside. From 2005 to 2013 Schmutz led the Salzburger Kunstverein. She also worked in the educational sector through her positon at the Vienna’s University of Applied Arts (die angewandte) as well as in private art sector as the curator at Generali Foundation, an art association, founded by fellow curator Sabine Breitwieser. 

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: You took over the Lentos Kunstmuseum and the Nordico Stadtmuseum in 2017, succeeding Stella Rollig who became the artistic director of Vienna’s Belvedere Museum. The Lentos is a relatively new museum and its identity is still being explored. What has been and is your vision for the institution? How are you and have you been expanding the museum’s international network? What are the challenges of the role? 

HEMMA SCHMUTZ: When the building on the southern bank of the Danube opened in 2003, the institution, formerly known as “Neue Galerie. Wolfgang Gurlitt Museum”, was given its new name, the Lentos. This shift introduced a new and internationally more open approach to our collection and exhibition programming. When I took up my new position in 2017, my idea was, on the one hand, to connect with the history of the institution and on the other, to strengthen the potential of our museum and address contemporary issues like diversity, the position of the museum in the digital age and ecological questions.

LŠ: How does the Lentos navigate the presentation of the museum’s extensive collection with works of art from the nineteenth-century to the present day? 

HS: Together with the team of curators working for the Museums of the City of Linz we launched an extended presentation of the museum’s collection in 2018. We provided an introduction to the collection dealing with the history of the museum, especially with the role of Wolfgang Gurlitt during WW II and the restitutions of works of our collection after 2000. Generally speaking, the presentation of the collection follows a historical timeline, offering the possibility to learn art history in the local museum.

LŠ: Which exhibitions presented at the Lentos since your arrival in 2017 are you most excited by? And why?

HS: Difficult question. As you may imagine, I’m proud of all the shows we have presented at the Lentos since my takeover in 2017. My idea has been to focus on the connection of regional potential linked to international discussions at the centre of contemporary art. The history of Linz is still connected to the legacy of the Nazi era. So, our focus, not only at the Lentos, but at the Nordico, which is part of the Museums of the City of Linz, is on contemporary history. A recent show, Transformation and Recurrence. Reflections on Radical Nationalism in Contemporary Art, which received a great deal of attention, dealt with takes on totalitarian and extreme right-wing developments by contemporary artists. In addition, we try to strengthen the position of female artists in our exhibition programming. Monographic shows by Ines Doujak, Nilbar Güres and Iris Andraschek or group shows such as Feminist Avant-Garde from the Verbund Collection are important contributions to this overall goal.

Lentos Director photographed by Violetta Wakolbinger. Image courtesy Lentos Kunstmuseum.

LŠ: The Lentos recently acquired the archive of renowned Linz-born artist VALIE EXPORT – which contributed to the expansion of the museum as a research centre. How do you see the role of education as the expansion of curatorial practice? 

HS: VALIE EXPORT’s standing as the most important contemporary Austrian artist and her connection to Linz gives us the possibility to strengthen our position and foster international research in the fields of performance, media art, and conceptual art. The Vorlass of VALIE EXPORT was purchased by the City of Linz in 2015. Since then, the Lentos has collaborated with the Art University of Linz in establishing a center which aims to host an international network of academics interested in the work of VALIE EXPORT. In addition to the research we had the pleasure to host two exhibitions dedicated to the artist, presenting the archive and newly discovered works by VALIE EXPORT.

LŠ: What are your future plans for the Lentos Museum? What other exhibitions would you like to realize at the museum?

HS: In 2024, the Salzkammergut will be one of the European Capitals of Culture. For this occasion, we are preparing a show dealing with the purchase and looting of art for the museum Hitler planned in Linz. During WW2, these works were stored mainly in salt mines in the Salzkammergut. In addition to this show, which focusses on historical events, we are working on an international art show on art looting and restitution in general.

LŠ: You previously led the Salzburger Kunstverein – how did that position differ from your current role and what are the crossovers? 

HS: It was my good fortune to work with many international artists during my time in Salzburg such as Mircea Cantor, Ines Doujak, Manfred Pernice, to name only a few. Most of the curatorial work for the Salzburger Kunstverein I did myself. Here in Linz as the Artistic Director of the institution my role is different. The focus is on developing and communicating guidelines for the collection and exhibition programming, on building a professional team for our goals and on dealing with finances and politics.

LŠ: How did your work in the educational field through your position at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts contribute to your curatorial practice and interests? 

HS: At the University of Applied Arts, I could work with young artists in the class of Brigitte Kowanz. For example, we worked on the issue of gentrification in a certain area of the second district, the Stuwerviertel. The young artists developed proposals for installations and interventions which we then presented on site in collaboration with a regional cultural institution and bar, the fluc. The work with my colleagues and the students was inspiring and instructive.

LŠ: You also worked as a curator for the private collection, Generali Foundation, an art association established by the founding director and curator Sabine Breitwieser. How do you identify your curatorial perspective in connection with various institutional  formations – from private non- for- profit art foundations to state museums? 

HS: Working for the Generali Foundation has had a profound influence on me as an art historian and curator. During our work for the insurance company the focus was on building up an international museum and collection with a very specific orientation rather than on attracting as many people to the house as possible. Institutional critique, conceptual art, feminism, and new media art from the 1960s and 1970s were at the centre of our attention. It’s still amazing for me to remember the impact we had on the Austrian art scene and the position we came to occupy in a short time also at an international level. On the other hand, the support for art institutions in the private sector is often linked to individuals who understand and support investment in art. Once the leading person leaves, the institution often comes under threat, and one of the consequences is the reduction of resources. I would say that public institutions are more stable, but it is also more difficult to change the identity of the institution and establish a contemporary approach to programming and collecting.

LŠ: How do you see the changing role of museums in the digital age? 

HS: The digital age brings a lot of possibilities in terms of communication and art education, both as regards our program and our collection. The Lentos was one of the first museums in Austria to present its whole collection on its homepage. This has been a great help specially for our colleagues in other institutions working on exhibitions.

Artists have always worked with the newest media available. We purchase and present these artworks in our exhibitions together with more traditional artworks such as drawings, paintings, and sculptures. In the end and the more we learn about media art, those works will survive that convince with their artistic quality and complexity.