Kunsthalle Wien’s Director Will Resign Due to Austria’s Nationalist ‘Resurgence’

"The reach, impact and the possibilities of institutions such as Kunsthalle Wien seem to be put into question," the outgoing director Nicolaus Schafhausen said.

Nicolaus Schafhausen. Courtesy of the Kunsthalle Wien.

Nicolaus Schafhausen, the director of Vienna’s Kunsthalle Wien, announced on Wednesday his plans to step down from the institution in March 2019. The German curator reached a mutual agreement with the city allowing him to void his contract, which wasn’t set to expire until 2022.

In a public letter released by the museum, Schafhausen cited the rise of nationalist politics in Austria as the primary reason for his departure.

“Due to the current resurgence of nationalist politics in Austria, and the situation occurring across Europe, the reach, impact and the possibilities of institutions such as Kunsthalle Wien seem to be put into question,” Schafhausen said in the statement. “Cultural institutions that engage with complex societal and artistic challenges will require substantially stronger political backing in the future. I have therefore decided to leave on a high note and not continue as before.” A representative for the museum did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Exterior view of the Kunsthalle Wien in Vienna, Austria. Courtesy of the Kunsthalle Wien.

Schafhausen, who was born in Dusseldorf in 1965, has been at the helm of the Kunsthalle Wien since 2012. Under his tutelage, the museum mounted more than 40 exhibitions and gained a reputation for its progressive program. In his letter, Schafhausen pointed to two recent exhibitions in particular that symbolized the institution’s political position: “Political Populism” in 2015–16, and “How To Live Together,” a show about the “individual and social dimensions” of cohabitation that took place in 2017.

In December, the head of the far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, was elected vice-chancellor of the country’s new coalition government, making Austria the only country in Western Europe to have a far-right representative in government.

“Kunsthalle Wien is an institution that is at the center of controversial debate that has manifestly hit a sore spot in the self-image and self-realization of Vienna’s cultural landscape,” Schafhausen said.

Over the next 10 months, Schafhausen will guide the institution through the transition to new leadership. He has not yet announced what he plans to do after that time.

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