Austria Makes Soaring Debut on the New York Arts Scene

Article excerpt

It's not enough that Austria boasts glorious classical composers or that Vienna jump-started the 20th century with avant-garde innovations in the arts. No matter how illustrious, no country wants to be known only for its past.

To shed its lederhosen image, Austria has opened a new outpost in the happening hub of world art: Manhattan.

With yesterday's inauguration of a new home for the Austrian Cultural Forum on East 52nd Street, in a radically unconventional building by Austrian-born New York architect Raimund Abraham, Austria has staked its claim as a player in the big leagues of world culture.

The forum, funded by Austria's Ministry for Foreign Affairs, promotes awareness of Austria's culture. In this tower, Austria will show off its homegrown traditional and contemporary arts, as well as nurture collaboration with American artists.

"Austria has always been associated with very traditional art forms," says Christoph Thun-Hohenstein, director of the forum. They date back to the Baroque period. "But ... we would like people to know there are other aspects, which make it a very contemporary, modern country."

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the cold war, Vienna went from being geographically isolated in Central Europe to being a nucleus for a united Europe.

"For the first time in 75 years, artists from Eastern Europe are coming to Vienna for art school," says Laura Heon, curator of a show on new Viennese art opening May 25 at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass. "There's this flourishing scene now after 100 years of languishing."

To update its identity, the forum is sponsoring a three-month festival, running through June, showcasing 100 Austrian artists in its new home.

The challenging schedule of vanguard music, film, literature, visual arts, architecture, and digital projects is free to the public. Austria is strong in new media, electronic music, and progressive architecture, often fused in a novel hybrid.The opening festival, "Transforming Modernity," spotlights such evolving, interdisciplinary art forms, which, according to Mr. Thun- Hohenstein, signal the future.

"I'm glad the programs here don't deal with Mozart, chocolates, Lippizaner horses, and the usual Austrian kitsch exports," says Stefan Sagmeister, an Austrian graphic designer who lives in New York. "The program is ambitious and specialized enough to actually add to the artistic vitality of the city."

Indeed, even the building itself makes a distinct mark on the cityscape. Architectural historian Kenneth Frampton of Columbia University calls it "one of the most precise and interesting, dynamically organized works built in New York in a long time."

The design is a triumph of freedom over a constricted space. Built on an incredibly narrow site - 25 feet wide and 81 feet deep - the structure soars 24 stories. On its facade, four planes of teal- colored glass slope like ski jumps, punctuated by zinc boxes cantilevering forward. …