Heather Jones: You have a long history as an art historian, critic, curator and you are currently serving as the director of the SAMMLUNG VERBUND collection in Vienna, which you founded in 2004. What prompted you to found the collection?
Gabriele Schor: Actually the collection was founded by VERBUND’s CEO back in 2004. VERBUND is Austria’s leading electricity company. From the very beginning, the CEO had the generosity to give me free reign on the art historical and curatorial decisions. I was lucky that the CEO provided me with an annual acquisition budget that was quite high in the beginning and consisted of one million Euros. When the art collection was founded in 2004, we first had to analyze other corporate and museum collections and what they were collecting. That means in the beginning I did a lot of research. At that time it was a kind of fashion to acquire huge photographs for example by Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, a group of photographers who studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under the influential photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. I did not want to copy this approach for our collection. Rather, I thought it would be better to take a step back in time and explore the pioneering days of Bernd and Hilla Becher, hence the 1970s. The first works we acquired for the collection were early pieces by the artists Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Gordon Matta-Clark and Fred Sandback. The collection grew relatively fast and after only two and a half years we had our first huge exhibition at MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art) in Vienna in 2007. We were able to present two major topics the ‘Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s’ and the ‘Perception of Spaces and Places’.
HJ: What principles guide your curatorial decisions for the collection?
GS: I wanted the collection to be unique and have a specific identity. If you look back on the collection after 20 years, it should stand for this identity and be recognizable. You only get this result if you consistently pursue a strategy and if you also have an art-historical and political claim.
HJ: Why did you decide to focus the collection around feminist art?
GS: In Vienna the collection of the mumok (Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien) has a very strong focus on the four male artists of the Viennese Actionism. But unfortunately the museum has failed to collect any art by women from the 1970s, especially feminist art. That is why the mumok has joined our tour of the Feminist Avant-Garde last summer. It is so important that the young generation of today gets to know the history of feminist art. I was quite surprised to learn that also other major museums in Europe, as well as in the United States neglected to collect feminist art from this active period. Although there were of course major shows on feminist art such as MAGNA. Feminism, Art and Creativity curated by VALIE EXPORT in 1975 in Vienna or Lucy Lippard’s exhibition tour c. 7,500, the first women only show started in 1973, or the Amsterdam-based institution de appel that was very open to feminist art, video art and performances. The reason why I decided to focus one part of the collection around feminist art is because no other collection did it to this extent. During my 14 years of research the collection acquired over 600 artworks from the 1970s by 62 feminist artists from all over the world. As you go through the Feminist Avant-Garde exhibition, you realize the presence of urgency and radicalism within the art works. For me personally it is a great honor to provide an art historical context to these remarkable artworks and to raise a general awareness of feminist art from the 1970s.
HJ: You have been credited with coining the term “Feminist Avant-Garde”, combining the two previous terms into one, and published the extensive catalogue Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s. How do you define the parameters of the Feminist Avant-Garde?
GS: The hot period of feminist art was during the 1970s. I would define art as feminist art when the feminist subject matter is made visible through the artwork itself, such as the one-dimensional role as mother, wife and house wife, liberation of female sexuality, female emancipation, locked-up – breaking-out, role-play, the dictate of beauty, violence against women, against the cult of the male genius, using the female body as a code or a shift. To sum it up, these works show a radical revaluation of values in society. The reason why I call the feminist art from the 1970s an avant-garde is to underline the pioneering position they had at that time. It was a paradigm shift that these women artists showed with their art, especially the fact that personal concerns have a political dimension.
HJ: Is there feminist artwork that is not considered avant-garde?
GS: Yes, the generation that comes after the Feminist Avant-Garde – I would say from the mid eighties on. I would not call them avant-garde, because all the pioneering work, including the way they used new media in art was achieved by the generation that worked during the 1970s.
HJ: The exhibition KVINNE 1970-tallets feministiske avant-garde (WOMAN. The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s) is on view at Stavanger Kunstmuseum through October 14. With over 600 works in the collection, how did you choose what to include in this exhibition?
GS: The selection of the works was made in collaboration with the Curator Vibece Salthe and the Director Hanne Beate Ueland of the Stavanger Art Museum and the team of the SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Theresa Dann, Julia Hürner and myself. Together, we have selected the works according to five groups and also in regard to the spatial situation in the museum. The five sections are: the reduction of women to their roles as housewife, mother and wife; role-play; the dictate of beauty; locked-up / breaking-out; and female sexuality. It is important to us that every artist is presented with at least one or two pieces, and some artists are represented by a group of works.