Since its establishment as a museum for art and industry, contemporary art has played an ideational role at the MAK. The objective is to offer a laboratory for artistic production and an educational platform: applied art is placed in the context of both fine art and architecture in order to generate synergies. These programmatic considerations led to the establishment of the MAK Collection of Contemporary Art in 1986.

The starting point of this confrontation with contemporary art and the basis of the MAK Collection of Contemporary art consists in the artistic interventions in the museum’s permanent collection: the early 1990s saw figures including Barbara Bloom and Donald Judd charged with the development of new forms of presentation for the MAK’s historical holdings in close collaboration with the museum’s collection curators. Planned as alternative approaches and a continuation of the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), these innovative ways of exhibiting reflect the principle according to which an artwork can be understood both as being embedded in a historical context and from the vantage point of said context.

The main focus of the MAK Collection of Contemporary Art is on international contemporary art stances with special attention given to selected Austrian artists. The lion’s share of these works were created within the context of exhibitions and projects developed specifically for the museum, with the exhibition medium itself participating in the works’ history and artistic production in a way comparable to that of a snapshot. In this way, relationships of continuous collaboration with regard to conceptual strategies of artistic practice developed with artists including Walter Pichler, Franz West and Heimo Zobernig.

The MAK Collection of Contemporary Art is characterized by the contextual shifting of applied art, design and architecture. The methodical juxtaposition of works from multi-genre areas of the MAK Collection with contemporary art opens up new perspectives on various historical aspects, with political issues also coming into view. Ilya and Emilia Kabakov decipher the concept of utopia, while Marko Lulic deals with sociocultural phenomena of modernism and Peter Friedl and Georg Herold question the construction of history. In large-scale installations, Atelier Van Lieshout, Liam Gillick and Josef Dabernig examine topics such as societal values and institutionalized systems.

Architecture as a theme of visual art is a further element of the MAK Collection of Contemporary Art, with new perspectives on the performative aspect of architecture being put up for discussion. Werner Feiersinger, Andreas Fogarasi, Martin Kippenberger, Gordon Matta-Clark and Dorit Margreiter sketch unusual ideas of architecture and refer to their sculptural qualities. Herbert Bayer and Alfons Schilling, on the other hand, deal in their sculptural works with phenomena of perception and interaction on the part of the viewer.

The sculpture as a social mobile is a theme of the current conception of applied art. Walter Pichler’s Fingerspanner (1967) makes it possible to lengthen human limbs in the manner of prostheses, while Franz West condenses his “Passstücke” concept in the sculpture Eo Ipso (1987), which functions as an experiencable body or “sitting machine.” It is with multifunctional creations that Plamen Dejanoff/Svetlana Heger, Birgit Jürgenssen and Erwin Wurm stage utilitarian objects as repertoire of the social space. In doing so, they question parameters of modern sculpture and explore contemporary conceptions of the “artwork” that are grounded in conceptual art.

The planned repositioning of the MAK Collection of Contemporary Art under Director Christoph Thun-Hohenstein is oriented toward socio-politically relevant issues in a global context, toward the tension between applied art and contemporary art, toward the integration of current international movements and new art forms, and toward the examination and research of important historical artistic stances. At the same time, artistic examination of the holdings of the MAK Collection is to be promoted in the areas of applied art and design as well as architecture; one purpose of doing so is to explore cultural interconnections and critically question the process of identity-creation.