Summer 2005, ARTnews

A Rebel with a Cause: Francesca von Habsburg

Having grown up with a world class trove of Old Masters, she carves out her own niche as a major collector of edgy contemporary art

For the first time since the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918, a leading member of the Habsburg dynasty has taken up residence in Vienna, using the former imperial capital as the base for a 21st century empire of her own — a world-wide network of contemporary art museums.

Francesca von Habsburg is following in the path of her late father, German steel magnate and art collector Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. Three years ago, she moved into a Baroque palace just a 10-minute walk away from the Hofburg palace from which the ancestors of her husband, Karl von Habsburg — grandson of Austria’s last emperor — once ruled much of Europe.

While her father, grandfather and great-grandfather assembled one of the world’s most important private collection of Old Masters, von Habsburg is focusing on what she calls “hard-core contemporary” artworks; primarily new media installations and sculpture. A vivacious redhead dressed in low-rise jeans and a knit top, she eagerly expounds about the pieces on view this spring in the palace where she rents offices, a gallery and maintains a rambling, art-filled apartment.

Showing a visitor around the gallery, she enthuses about one of her favorite artists, Janet Cardiff, whose installation involves having gallery goers pick up a telephone receiver to hear Cardiff converse with a physicist about temporal experience. In another work, by Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans, text from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s mysterious novel Petrolio is transcribed into Morse code and projected on the wall.

All of this is a long way from the magnificent Titians and Rembrandts that she grew up with in the Villa Favorita in Lugano. But 47-year-old von Habsburg is in a hurry to carve out her own niche as a collector. She says her father collected art that was new for its time, and she faces a challenge in living up to his memory. This involves working to create what she calls the very “antithesis” of the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza that he founded in Madrid and housing some 800 works. She serves as a trustee of that institution but sees it as “a mausoleum.”

Von Habsburg wants to create something far more alive and up-to-date, yet no less ambitious — her own global chain of small-scale museums. Inspired in feeling by the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and the Rothko Chapel in Houston, she calls them “collection pavilions.” Up to a dozen are planned in as many different countries, all in relatively remote areas of great natural beauty. “Cosmopolitan centers are already crowded with contemporary art,” she says. “If the project and the concept are good, people will travel any length to get there.”

The first, designed by the British architect David Adjaye, is planned to open by 2007 on an island off Dubrovnik, in Croatia, known as Lopud. Von Habsburg is also looking for a venue in Iceland, and considering another in Lebanon, a monument to peace in the Middle East involving artist James Turrell. “I admitted to Tom Krens that I was pinching his idea but doing it on an absolutely reasonable scale,” she says of the Guggenheim director’s bid to ring the globe with his own museum franchises housed in attention-grabbing architectural designs. By contrast, von Habsburg describes her plans as “very minimal and very discrete.”

While she won’t say just how much she’s spending, von Habsburg doesn’t shy away from bold purchases, confirming that she last year bought a $67,000 sound installation by a little known Icelandic artist, Finnbogi Peturrsson, from a Reykjavik gallery. She has now assembled over 200 works for her foundation, but says she prefers collaborations with artists to enable them to pursue new projects. “I’d rather work with four or five artists a year than go to auctions and art fairs and buy 20 or 30 works by different artists.”

In addition to planning the chain of pavilions, she’s busy bankrolling projects by artists like Christoph Schlingensief and Olaf Nicolai. She’s also begun staging performance pieces at the Berlin Staatsoper warehouse in the German capital, and plans to transport an award-winning video installation on a barge along the length of the Danube River this summer and fall. The 40-monitor installation, titled “Küba” by Kutlug Ataman, features interviews with impoverished Turks about their own lives. It will travel from Romania to Vienna and by setting down anchor at ports along the way, von Habsburg hopes it can attract a large public that normally does not frequent galleries.

Since starting her foundation in 2002, known as T-B A21 for Thyssen-Bornemisza art of the 21st century, she’s outgrown her current Vienna exhibition space and is looking for larger premises. Her move to the former imperial capital has already attracted considerable curiosity since the Habsburgs were long legally barred from returning to Austria, and her cultural activities are resurrecting the family’s profile in their one-time home. “The last member of the family who has really contributed to the art world would be Empress Maria Theresa,” she says.

Von Habsburg describes her in-laws, Archduke Otto von Habsburg and his wife, Princess Regina von Sachsen-Meiningen, who reside in Germany, as supportive but as having little passion for the works she promotes. “I don’t think they understand them,” she says. Her personal life has been fodder for Viennese tabloids, which frequently speculate about her marriage since she and her husband spend much of their time apart. The couple wed in 1993 after Karl asked for her hand in the Capucine Crypt where the Habsburg emperors lie entombed. “How would you like to be buried here?” she quotes him as saying. “It was a very unromantic proposal, unusual though.”

Karl von Habsburg, a former member of the European Parliament, praises her work. “She’s making a fantastic contribution,” he says, while declining comment on the art itself. Before marrying, von Habsburg acquired notoriety as a party girl in 1980s London where she caroused with Iggy Pop and other rock stars. This past April, she hosted a post-concert, midnight supper in her home for the band Queen when it performed in Vienna. But her foundation work has earned her more serious recognition within the art world. “It’s a great achievement,” says Albertina Museum director Klaus Albrecht Schroeder. “I’ve always admired her. One would have expected her to be far more traditional, but she’s had the personal strength to bear witness to the contemporary.”

Can one live among the cutting-edge works she collects in the same way her father did surrounded by his treasures at the Villa Favorita? In response to that query, she invites a visitor up to her apartment one floor above her office. The entry opens directly onto a mod, brightly colored kitchen and dining area, decorated by Cuban-American artist Jorge Pardo with hanging lamps and a floor of dazzling orange and red tiles. An adjacent salon is hung with a series of photos by Catherine Sullivan.

The most conventional works are the Lucian Freud portrait of her father and a Mapplethorpe photograph (both subjects are clothed). In the hallway just outside her three young children’s bedrooms, she switches on a rattling film projector that comprises a 1972 performance piece by Dennis Hopper. The reel shows the cult artist/actor in the nude as he encircles himself with dynamite and then ignites it. Her seven-year-old son Ferdinand and five-year-old daughter Gloria scamper by, seemingly oblivious to the explosive images flickering on the wall. “People who come from very classical families, classical traditions,” she says of her collecting activities, “are the ones who go way off the deep end.”