CONTEMPORARY, CONTEMPORARY, CONTEMPORARY
A Conversation with Christine Moser, Director of the ACFNY
By Katrin Egger
Architectural historian Kenneth Frampton once called the Austrian Cultural Forum the most spectacular modern structure built in New York since the Seagram Building and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. How would you characterize the building’s given authority as a landmark?
Raimund Abraham himself was very much aware of his “radical intervention” into the urban landscape. His building was designed to be a landmark. The limits of the space called for such a radical and very obvious architectural statement in order to gain visibility amongst the much taller buildings and skyscrapers in Midtown.
If you want to stick out, you have to be provocative. In any case, it is an astonishing and unique architectural monument, which can be interpreted in plenty of different ways. The building is contemporary, modern, made out of steel and glass, in different shades of Manhattan grey. The building’s cutting-edge shape has provoked many analogies. One could probably fill a dictionary with them. I personally like to see it as Austria’s most Western modern alpine hut.
Does the outstanding location in midtown Manhattan, just around the corner of MoMA off 5th Avenue, as well as the special appearance of the ACFNY present an asset for the cultural mission of the Forum?
In a metaphorical sense, the building’s specific character also defines our mission. As Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz recalled at the opening of our current show “Vienna Design Week,” we present contemporary art and we support young artists – and not the clichés and better-known Austrian cultural traditions.
We put artists on stage who might become the Mozarts of tomorrow. In this mission, the building’s outstanding character helps us being “edgy.” In other words, our landmark authority is a product of our structure and content working hand in hand as Gesamtkunstwerk.
Of course, location always matters. But content matters even more. It is certainly an asset to be in the vicinity of world-famous cultural institutions and we partner with many of them. At the same time, if the content is not competitive, provocative and interesting enough, the most exciting location won’t help. The competition in New York City is also a challenge, perhaps more than in other big cities, so we have to continuously reach out to our audience to fill our concert hall. Our proximity to Broadway, however, has helped us in establishing our theater as an “off-Broadway” stage, where we have been increasingly showing contemporary Austrian plays.
I would also like to stress that our contemporary program is by no means limited to activities in our building or to New York City. We proudly support as many cultural activities and events (ca. 100 per year) throughout the entire U.S. as we organize and host in our building. These include music groups, book promotion tours, and the participation of Austrian filmmakers in festivals including the Austrian American Short Film Festival in our own house.
The ACFNY is a tower 25 feet wide and 24 stories tall on a site less than 100 feet deep. However, these restrictive conditions certainly also present opportunities as unique features for a venue dedicated to showcase Austrian art, music, film, theater, and literature. How do you integrate these space challenges into your cultural program?
The building is certainly both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, the architecture is a huge magnet and attraction already from the outside. You do not even have to set a foot into the building to anticipate that there is something exciting happening inside. Once you are in the building, you will find out that on this extremely small place there is a concert hall, an art gallery, a library, offices, and apartments. All of these spaces are constantly used for our cultural program.
On the other hand, running the logistics for 100 events per year on such limited space becomes sometimes tricky, and it takes a bit to get to know the building and its “soul.” The gallery space, for instance, with lots of lights, edges, panels and architectural interventions is always a big challenge for curators and artists. Our gallery is certainly not a white cube. Our last show entitled “Dis-Play / Re-Play” dealt exactly with this phenomenon and challenge of anti-white cube space. Based on the findings by Brian O’ Doherty, the father of the white cube theory, most of the works that were on display in that show engaged in a dialogue with the architecture and the interior of our space including an installation by O’ Doherty himself. The result was completely stunning, with Abraham’s design highlighting the art on display and vice versa.
In other areas, “Moving Sounds,” for example, our annual contemporary festival of music, visual media and aesthetic dialogue, brings together different artists and composers to actively exchange and collaborate in particular within the parameters of our building. This year’s Moving Sounds Festival titled “Dame Electric,” was conceived by New York/ Austrian musician, educator, and curator Dorit Chrysler, and focused on pioneer female performers of analogue electronic music from Austria and the U.S.
The Austrian Cultural Forum provides visitors with the opportunity to tour the ACFNY’s building. What is your personal highlight of this guided tour?
We offer a free weekly tour to the general public all year around. In October, we usually team up with “Archtober,” New York City’s Architecture and Design Month, to present a special event dedicated to architecture as well as special tours on Saturdays.
A lot of Austrian tourists who come to New York City take advantage of our free tours where we also try to show our visitors some of the back-stage features and levels of our building. In addition, we give around 30 special tours every year for architects, art curators, and student groups. I personally very much enjoy taking all of our visitors through the building: from the roof terrace down to our current exhibition. We are also happy to host many members of the Austrian Government, politicians, CEOs, and celebrities. Those visitors are our ambassadors in Austria, where they can testify to the usefulness and, indeed, success of this flagship institution.
You have been at the helm of the Austrian Cultural Forum for three years, thus knowing the building like the back of your hand: What are your favorite spots?
That always depends on the time of the day, the season, our program, and the people I am with. The light obviously changes throughout the year and the day so the higher you move up, the brighter the space.
I like the theater a lot because it is the heart and soul of the building, our center stage, where most of our events take place and where memories are made on a weekly basis. And it is the home of cultural exchange between and among artists, between artists and our audience, and for networking across the Big Pond.
The gallery is very special to me. In 2014, we had a Franz West couch from the Sigmund Freud Museum exhibited and besides Placido Domingo, Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, and several Austrian politicians I very much enjoyed this contemplative spot myself. Finally, my office on the 7th floor, protruding over 52nd street, is very dear to me too. As with Art Nouveau floor plans, its perfectly symmetric proportions provide shelter from the lively midtown hum and allow for a serene and dynamic mindset to put together our “best of Austria” programs!
Christine Moser has been serving as director of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York since 2013. Her previous postings in the Austrian foreign service include Austrian ambassador to the Organization for Security and Development in Europe, deputy chief of mission of the Austrian embassy in Paris as well as assignments in the fields of European integration and human rights. She first got to know New York City and New England during her studies as a Fulbright scholar at Smith College, Massachusetts.
Ongoing exhibition at the ACFNY: 10 Years of Vienna Design Week. Featuring the City.
On display until January 16, 2017