Karola Kraus (born 1961) is a Vienna-based art historian, museum director and curator. In 1970, her parents and prominent art collectors—Anna and Dieter Grässlin, established the Grässlin Collection. The latter is centered on German Informel art. Kraus grew up surrounded by art and artists who visited her family in Sankt Georgen im Schwarzwald. With educational background in Art History, German Literature and Classical Architecture, Kraus started her career directing K-raum Daxer, a non-for-profit exhibition space. She worked as an advisor for Johannes and Louise Daxer Collection as well as Deutsche Bank. From 1999, Kraus directed the Kunstverein Braunschweig until her appointment as director of Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in 2006. Since 2010, she has led Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig (mumok).
LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: You were born into a prominent family of art collectors—the artworks in the Grässlin Collection span from informel to contemporary production and you were introduced to contemporary arts from a very young age. Could you tell us more of the formation of your family’s collection?
KAROLA KRAUS: The roots of the Grässlin Collection go back to the 1970s, when my parents Dieter and Anna Grässlin began to collect works of the German informel movement. In 1981, my siblings and I began to collect artworks from the 1980s, and like our parents we were interested in very contemporary art, which was an expression of our faith in the power of this art and at the same time of our own wish to explore the new. This was a risky undertaking, as the art of the 1980s that we decided upon was in no way comfortable and was certainly not uncontroversial. Rather, works by Werner Büttner, Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Markus Oehlen, as well as the sculptural works by Günther Förg, Georg Herold, Hubert Kiecol, Meuser, Reinhard Mucha, and Franz West were seen to be difficult, cynical or even arrogant. These were positions that used irony and disavowal to contradict the bourgeois understanding of contemporary art.
From the early 1990s, the collection was expanded with international positions of the next generation, with works by Kai Althoff, Michael Beutler, Cosima von Bonin, Tom Burr, Clegg & Guttmann, Mark Dion, Michael Krebber, Kalin Lindena, Christian Philipp Müller, Stefan Müller, Tobias Rehberger, Christopher Williams, and Heimo Zobernig. In the 2000s, this was continued with more recent positions such as Julian Turner, Alicia Viebrock, and Rachel von Morgenstern.
The concept of our collection is characterized by a focus on selected artists of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, with works from all the important creative phases of these artists. Often these are large-scale blocks of works that would be better suited to a museum context than a private collection. This means that the establishment of the KUNSTRAUM GRÄSSLIN in 2006 was all the more important, as a way to make the collection accessible.
LŠ: Your family’s home was an important meeting place for artists and some even produced their works there. Whose visit remains the most memorable?
KK: When my parents began to collect works by artists of the German informel, many artists visited us frequently. For me, meeting Martin Kippenberger, who lived in the Black Forest in 1980 and 1981 and again from 1991 to 1993, was particularly important, as he introduced me to the world of contemporary art.
LŠ: To what extent did your family’s involvement in collecting contemporary art contribute to your curatorial interests?
KK: My parents were able to pass their own enthusiasm and excitement about art to my siblings and myself. Even before I began to study art history, I met a large number of artists and these encounters were certainly one reason I made art my profession.
LŠ: You studied art history, literature and archeology. How and to what extent have your studies defined your curatorial work?
KK: I took a close interest in contemporary art during my studies and my professor at the time, Uwe M. Schneede, held seminars on contemporary art. I completed my studies with a Master’s thesis about Wols. And during my studies, I spent a lot of time in the canteen of the Academy in Munich, where I had lots of contact with artists.
LŠ: You have been leading mumok since 2010 and you also contribute to the leadership of the family collection. How do you navigate the two roles?
KK: We have staff to look after the daily business of the family collection, but the exhibitions we plan together.
LŠ: What (art) direction were you keen on contributing to the functioning of mumok? How have you expanded the mission and vision of the institution? What have been the challenges of the role?
KK: The important pillars of the museum are the collection and special exhibitions and an appropriate art education program for each of the projects. The central program lines for the special exhibitions include presentations of outstanding and pioneering single positions since modernism, alongside thematic exhibitions that present themes that cut across works and art in innovative ways. In addition to showing internationally established artists, I see the recognition of current positions not just as a core task of a museum with an explicitly educational mission, but also as part of the profile of a museum of contemporary art.
During my tenure at mumok my team and I have succeeded in creating a productive interaction between discursive concepts that have high social significance today and an exhibition policy that has attracted a large audience. The mumok cinema is one of the exemplary initiatives in this context, which in a very short time became established as meeting point for national and international cooperation and an experimental platform for new artistic approaches and discourses.
In recent years mumok became a competence center for matters of cultural education. Our art education program is a key pillar of museum operations, thanks to the use of state-of-the-art methods of participative communication with people from many different spheres of life and with many different origins.
LŠ: Which projects and exhibitions staged at mumok since your arrival in 2010 are you most happy with? And why?
KK: All the exhibition projects are important for me and I do not wish to emphasize a single one. But I am proud that our large retrospective of Claes Oldenburg was also shown at Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and finally at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
An art education project that is close to my heart is the Scratch Lab. mumok is the first museum worldwide that offers scratch courses. Using a programming language developed by MIT, children can learn computer programming in very playful ways.
LŠ: How are you expanding mumok’s collection? What are the focuses in acquisitions?
KK: With my inaugural exhibition, the Museum of Desires, my team and I signaled offensive collecting, as we see collecting, conserving, exhibiting, and disseminating art as the core tasks of our museum, in spite of ever dwindling acquisition budgets. The challenge is not only in determining the content and new directions for the collection, but also in securing or generating the necessary funds. As state contributions are nowhere near sufficient, right from the beginning it was my aim to work more intensively than before on cooperation with patrons and sponsors.
My team and I worked out specific emphases for expanding the collection. One of these was based on the political aim to more strongly integrate works by women into the male-dominated art movements and collection focuses, from pop art to painting of the 1970s to contemporary art. Given the geopolitical location of Vienna in the center of Europe and its bridging function between West and East, we also aimed to include more works by Eastern European artists from the 1960s to the present in the collection. We were also concerned to increase the focus on painting, as my predecessor Edelbert Köb had concentrated strongly on collecting photography and new media. In recent years we have also been able to increasingly include non-European and non-Western positions. It is above all thanks to the commitment of private collectors, artists, and our Board that we have been able to continually expand the collection. The collection has also been enriched with the estates of Heimrad Bäcker, Kurt Kren, Ernst Schmidt Jr., and Ingeborg Strobl and with the archive of “museum in progress.”
LŠ: mumok also holds a portion of the Ludwig Collection, and you actively work with the Austrian Ludwig Foundation, part of the Peter und Irene Ludwig Foundation. The latter is the umbrella organization of a prominent art collection that was established by the two art collectors, who played a significant role in presenting works of US pop art in Europe, through donations and loans to numerous museums. In what capacity do you work with the extensive network of institutions associated with the Ludwig Collection, such as Museum Ludwig in Cologne or Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, in Budapest?
KK: The Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation and the Austrian Ludwig Foundation are a key basis for our museum to this day. We frequently undertake shared projects with our partner museums, such as the Claes Oldenburg retrospective I have already mentioned, the exhibitions Hyper Real, Ludwig Goes Pop, Art into Life! Collector Wolfgang Hahn and the 60s, and Pattern & Decoration. Ornament as Promise. In these exhibitions, we were able to bring together wonderful works from the Peter and Irene Ludwig Collection.
LŠ: What are your future plans for mumok?
KK: The corona crisis and its economic consequences and accompanying social and political problems will mean great challenges for society and the art institutions in the coming years. Nonetheless, this situation is also a big chance to strengthen and stress the educational and enlightenment function of the arts. This was also a prerequisite of our museum combined with ambitions for the highest artistic quality. In our exhibition, collection, and education program, we emphasize the social, analytical, experimental, and philosophical function of art.
LŠ: You have also curated the Austrian pavilion’s exhibition Invitation of the Soft Machine and Her Angry Body Parts by fantastic Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl at La Biennale di Venezia 2022. How and when did you first become aware of their respective and mutual artistic practices? What excites you about their work and what particular aspect of their work did you wish to emphasize through the exhibition?
KK: In 2017, Jakob Lena Knebl was responsible for a new presentation of the collection of modern and contemporary art at mumok, which she undertook together with her own new works and with the courage to be eccentric. The key reason I decided to invite Jakob Lena Knebl and Ashley Hans Scheirl to create the contribution for the Austrian Pavilion was their brilliant installation at the Lyon Biennial, their first joint presentation. I see the rooms of the Austrian Pavilion as predestined to show artists in duo. Knebl and Scheirl pick up the given symmetrical architecture of the pavilion, which is divided by a colonnade and yet also both parts are linked. Each part bears the signature of one of the artists, so that their individual positions are visible but still remain in dialogue with each other, so as to remind us that this is two artists working together.
My decision for these two artists was also based on the topicality and great relevance of their themes, which they treat with great style and humor and accessibility. Their works are shaped by diverse interplays between art, performance, design, fashion, and architecture, and they address current discourse that are internationally received.