The Painting Behind The Minister

A visit to Artothek des Bundes, the Austrian art lending library at 21er Haus

Notburga Coronabless, Federica Martina, Andrea Kappes and Luzia Reinthaler (f. l. t. r.) Photo: Christian Wind

When government officials are photographed in their offices, it is very often in front of an impressive modern or contemporary artwork. These artworks are usually property of the Republic of Austria. They are managed by the Artothek des Bundes (Austria’s art lending library), which is located at 21er Haus and administratively affiliated with Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. The collection has more than 37,000 works in stock – a number that continues to rise.

Each year, works from around 100 Austrian artists are purchased with funds from the art department’s budget, where they are incorporated into the Artothek des Bundes and its digital image database (, which started in 2003. In step with contemporary art trends, the Artothek has increasingly been collecting not only traditional painting, graphic arts, sculpture and photography, but “new media” works as well. This comes with a conservation challenge because the many works acquired since 1945 call not only for management, but expert care as well. Notburga Coronabless, director of the Artothek, is responsible for both. Her small team includes an administrator who concentrates on the digitization and preservation of audio-visual media, and a restoration specialist.

The underground warehouse at 21er Haus – home to the lending library’s more than 1,000 square meters of storage, including a supply and workshop area – contains flat-file cabinet upon flat-file cabinet, ceiling-high sliding walls and wall-racks of paintings and sculptures, with monumental and installation works standing loose around the room. “Around 8,000 of the collection’s works are currently on display in government ministries, embassies and other federal agencies for representation purposes; some of them are on show in current exhibitions, but the storage already seems overstuffed anyway,” Coronabless notes, citing the lack of space. “700 works leave our facility every year, but about the same number come back from loans.” Is most of the demand for collection “highlights,” especially “big names”? "Of course we get requests for Lassnigs, Mikls and Rainers, but with good art consulting, we are also managing to get more and more younger, up-and-coming artists in prominent places. This is probably one of the nicest outcomes of my work as a curator.”

Text by Maria Christine Holter:

Maria Christine Holter lives and works as an art historian and curator in Vienna. She studied art history in Vienna and Berkeley, USA, and had an internship with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NYC. Her work includes in-situ and follow-up exhibition series; guest curatorships at museums, art halls, galleries and alternative spaces; consulting for exhibitions and collections; numerous publications on contemporary art.

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