The Austrian Cultural Forum New York: A Hidden Treasure near the MoMA

For the first time, I recently visited the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City’s midtown. Situated on 52nd Street and 5th Avenue, it is close to the MoMA and is a special cultural site in an area filled with mainly retail stores and corporate offices. If you are in the area shopping, visiting the MoMA, or the south side of Central Park, I would recommend stopping in at ACFNY.

ACFNY1

The ACFNY is a multi-faceted destination that offers many more than one reason to visit. First of all, the physical building stands at 24 stories and is a unique and known architectural achievement in the city. It is a very deep yet narrow building that soars high with walls of windows that provide a sweeping view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which will remain, because the air rights between the two structures are privately owned by a prominent New York family. To note, the building was originally a smaller, townhouse-style structure but was eventually re-done. Co-curator Prem Krishnamurthy of current ACFNY show “DIS – PLAY / RE – PLAY” comments,

“The ACFNY is a sliver of Austria inscribed within the complex real estate relations of Manhattan. The building is significant architecturally, as it negotiates a narrow 25-foot wide site and multi-tiered program. It’s the particularities of this architecture — both positive and challenging alike — that inspired the specific approach of the show I worked on there.”

Secondly, the ACFNY was founded in 1942 by Austrian Jewish families who fled Austria during World War II and were seeking to establish an institution to preserve Austrian culture in a place where it could flourish. In addition, there are a network of Austrian Cultural Forums globally, and the one in New York is a member of this group. I personally feel strongly about the survival of the arts during World War II, specifically the perseverance of Jewish artists who were persecuted or the recuperation of artworks seized by Nazis, like Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” which I mentioned in my previous article about Jewish Czech artist and concentration camp survivor Jan de Ruth, of whom I own a work titled “Daydream.”

ACFNY3

But, the ACFNY is anything but a cultural relic from the 1940s. The institute is currently showcasing two contemporary art exhibitions, including Ulrike Königshofer, “Sense and Record,” on view until 7/28, and the previously mentioned “DIS – PLAY / RE – PLAY” put together by internationally revered curators including Krishnamurthy (of P! and Project Projects) and Walter Seidl, on view through 9/5. And, believe it or not, the next concert being held in the ACFNY’s petite, clean and modern theater will be a house music performance in September.

ACFNY4

Additional features of the ACFNY institution include a full library filled with preserved Austrian literature (if you are a lover of “old book scent” like I am, this is the place for you!), and a friendly, engaging and passionate staff led by ACFNY Director Christine Moser. For a free guided tour of the space and current exhibits, stop by on a Wednesday at 4PM.

Advertisements

Jan De Ruth, An Unexpected Encounter

Recent releases of films like “Woman in Gold” (2015), which chronicles the righteous return of Gustav Klimt’s world famous eponymous painting to its rightful owner, and George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” (2013), which tells the story of a World War II platoon sent to Germany rescue stolen art from Nazi thieves, brought the topic of art and the Holocaust to mass attention through Hollywood. While these two films focus on the recovery of artwork once sequestered by the nazis, my attention was recently turned toward another aspect of the story about art in the Holocaust: the artists.

I had always wanted to go to an art auction, and a couple of months ago I spontaneously went for the first time, almost as a “bucket list” experience. I was not aiming to spend thousands of dollars on a painting, and this was not Christie’s or Sotheby’s. It was an estate sale auction in the Village. I went there with no expectations, hoping to possibly bid on a special piece of art if I ended up seeing one. The hours went by and nothing called out to me. Until I saw one limited edition lithograph print of a painting that I thought had beautiful energy. I connected with it.

When the auctioneer called out for bidders, I raised my card for $75, sure that someone would out-bid me. But, no one did, and as the beauty of auctions goes, if no one bids higher than you, the item is yours! So, to my surprise, I was now the owner of this lithograph. I had no idea who the artist was, or the real value of what I had acquired. Naturally, I turned to Google and found out that the artist was named Jan De Ruth, and the original painting was called “Daydream.” Who is Jan De Ruth?, I thought.

I kept researching, and learned that Jan de Ruth was a Czech artist who was moved through five different concentration camps during World War II and made four escape attempts, only succeeding on the fifth. He risked his life constantly to pursue art while in the camps, stealing, when he could, art materials including scraps of paper from a factory where he labored, a pencil, coffee, and often created his works on scraps of cloth torn from his clothing: the only possession he was permitted to have. Per Ro Gallery:

“Jan drew a mother and child on a scrap of paper he scrounged from the factory where he worked, filled it in with shadings of coffee in various strengths-his finger was his brush. He exchanged the sketch for a piece of bread from a camp guard, and in effect, sold his first painting.”

In 2008, Hilary Helstein created an award-winning documentary about the topic of artists in the Holocaust titled, “As Seen Through These Eyes,” narrated by Maya Angelou, which exposes the plight of artists like Jan De Ruth. While I wasn’t necessarily planning to purchase a painting at the auction that day, I am grateful to now look daily at a piece that reminds me of Jan De Ruth’s strength, courage, and perseverance.