You always have to believe in it!

Ingried Brugger on the future of museums

Ingried Brugger heads the successful Kunstforum Wien. She believes that positive thinking is what the art and cultural businesses need right now. 

An interview by Diana Fehr / June 30th, 2020

Dr. Ingried Brugger is known as the arts partisan, a fighter who makes the impossible possible. Since the year 2000 she has been the director of Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien, Austria’s most successful exhibition center. For art lovers, this exhibition is the first point of contact when it comes to classical modernism and the avant-garde of the post-war period in painting. In order to create attractive temporary exhibitions, she initiates extensive solo exhibitions, where major museums as well as private collectors present their works. 


Museo: Mrs. Brugger, the pandemic has changed the activities of museums around the world, threatening their financial stability and the livelihood for thousands of museum professionals. According to a recent ICOM survey (International Council of Museum), almost 95% of 1,600 museums worldwide had to close in April. 13% of these fear that they will never be able to open their doors again. How is your museum dealing with this situation?


Brugger: Yes! Everything happened very quickly. We closed from one day to the next and my team and I moved immediately to home office. It was not really comprehensible, it was not tangible, it was scary too, or better, it is still scary. But there is also an alternative way of thinking, a kind of positive thinking, so to speak, and I believe that art and cultural activities need that right now.

We were one of the first museums in Vienna to reopen about 4 weeks ago, of course, in compliance with all the requirements that were necessary. At the moment we have a great Cindy Sherman exhibition which wasn’t open very long before the pandemic, but we have now been able to extend it. I also didn’t reduce the working hours of my staff, simply because I am someone who believes that something will work again. An important sign, not only for the audience, but also for the employees, so that all can see that it will go on. 

Museo: You have managed to give the visitors the security back of being able to visit your museum without any worries. 


Brugger: Yes, there were very clear guidelines for museums and exhibition halls and we met all of them. We were ready for the reopening from the moment it was possible. 

In addition, this year the Kunstforum celebrates its 30th anniversary, for which we have prepared an incredible Block Buster exhibition – the first major Gerhard Richter exhibition in Austria. Of course we put a lot of effort into this and will, if possible, not postpone this exhibition which is planned to open in autumn. Here, too, we have a unique selling point in the Vienna as all other large museums have, for now, postponed their autumn exhibitions for many months. 


Museo: During the lockdown, many museums have specifically improved their digital activities, ramping them up in order to stay in touch with their visitors. How did you address the topic? 


Brugger: Of course we also activated the topic and the acceptance from the audience is phenomenal. Ultimately, all museums did something similar, offering virtual exhibitions and special tours, and of course strengthening our activities on social media. We used the entire team to work on this, even those who don’t usually have much to do with the internet. The possibilities for art and culture are of course massive in today’s digital world, but on the other side, an exhibition cannot be replaced by these online-visits. 


Museo: Both digitalisation and the pandemic have changed the way we deal with art. Do we not become more alienated, since communication and the relationship between the viewer and the artwork can no longer take place in the intended three-dimensional space? 


Brugger: There is the so-called ‘aura of the original’ and this relationship simply does not take place in the digital space. It just works differently in virtual space – I would say completely differently! 

Museo: Perhaps you can look at it from a different perspective. Can the virtual space be used to lower the visitor’s engagement barrier which allows them to find an easier access to art and the exhibition space? 


Brugger: Of course, we have been working on this for a long time, for as long as this possibility has been accessible. We have always addressed target groups through social media who normally never think about going to the museum. You always have to work on that, you always have to believe in it. Vienna is not really a city for fine arts, you can see that from the structure of the visitors statistics. Popular museums such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Albertina or the Belvedere have a tourist share of 70% – 85%. For us it is the other way round. Depending on the exhibition we have 70% – 80% Viennese guests who keep coming back and you have to take care of them. So it is very important that you address the local audience and here our success proves me right. 

Museo: The Kunstforum is certainly not one of the 13% of museums that may never be able to open its gates to visitors again, but do you see this problem for other museums in Austria? 


Brugger: As far as the federal and state museums are concerned, the effects of the pandemic may only led to financial bottlenecks. But of course, every private initiative in the cultural sector runs the risk of being swallowed by this crisis. The Kunstforum, however, is the most important privately financed institution and unique in this form. Ultimately, it is a huge success of the sponsors who have invested over many years to make this possible and to whom the Kunstforum has grown dear. What I am experiencing at the moment is a complete understanding of the situation from their side, allowing us to implement our program as planned – I think that’s great! 


Museo: Before the pandemic, you could count on around 250,000 visitors annually, putting you in the top 5% of exhibitions that can achieve such high visitor numbers at all. But how can you proceed if low visitor numbers and less income become the norm? 


Brugger: Of course I have to think economically and in reality I work under the pressure from a large corporation. Even if we are very efficient with our sponsorship funds, I have to consider where I could reduce costs if we were to generate too little or no income. But that cannot happen at the expense of quality. Then I will do an exhibition that does not cost too much, but still fulfills the expectations of showing new interesting perspectives and allowing new discussions. That would be the balance to look for! No one will be able to afford all the big, expensive exhibitions in this density, except for a few institutions. But in reality this transition has already taken place in recent years. Ultimately, it is also a question of sustainability, where we have to avoid sending works of art from one side of the planet to the other side. 


Museo: How do you see the role of museums in the future? 


Brugger: I think it is necessary to reflect a lot on this. A museum is not just an institution to  see beautiful paintings. It would certainly also be an institution that could connect many divers areas of society and culture, such as the intermeshing of different media in art is done. Museums are also places where a wide variety of the arts can be experienced together, making them more exciting. I think there is a future here. 


Museo: In doing so, you can set new triggers and address a wide variety of visitor groups. 


Brugger: Yes, taking new approaches. That is also what contemporary art offers and through which it creates a discourse. I believe this is also an opportunity to open up completely new paths. 

Museo: What do you wish for the Kunstforum in the future? 


Brugger: On the one hand, I hope that the Kunstforum will continue to develop at a high level, just as it has done in the past. On the other hand, of course, I would like to continue to cultivate international cooperations, for example, in one of our current projects we are preparing a David Hockney exhibition together with the Tate Modern. But I also would like to satisfy my employees, and, of course, lots of beautiful paintings. I hope that private companies will be more committed, not only in the field of art, but in general in the field of culture, and that they will give something back [to society], even if doing so becomes increasingly difficult. And then I would hope that society will understand more clearly that investing in art and culture is something sustainable – something you can be proud of. So, I am hoping for many intelligent sponsors. 


Museo: Ms. Brugger, thank you for the interview. 

Images: Leisure Communications, Nilo Klotz.

Surveys and data: ICOM