The Vienna State Opera is not exactly a go-to place for cutting-edge contemporary art: Inaugurated a century and a half ago, it is housed in an ornate edifice with gilded and velvet interiors.
Yet every year since 1998, a contemporary artist has been commissioned to deliver a design for the safety curtain that about 600,000 operagoers gaze at before performances and during intervals all season long — for eight or nine months. More than two dozen artists have designed 176-square-meter (nearly 1,900-square-foot) images for the opera house and produced safety curtains that are nothing like what operagoers see elsewhere.
Kara Walker, who was the inaugural artist in 1998, delivered a curtain featuring her signature silhouettes of African American figures. Jeff Koons adorned one with toy monkeys and cartoon characters.
And Cerith Wyn Evans treated the public to a brief text (in German) that invited operagoers to “imagine a situation that, in all likelihood, you’ve never been in.”
The text began: “Permit yourself to drift from what you are reading at this very moment into another situation, another way of acting within the historical and psychic geographies in which the event of your own reading is here and now taking place.”
This season, the Chinese-born multimedia artist Cao Fei is showing a female avatar — a dystopian, pale-white head so imposing that signs have been put up all over the opera house to alert spectators to its presence.
The “Safety Curtain” series was started by Museum in Progress, a nonprofit established in 1990 by an Austrian couple: the curator Kathrin Messner and the artist and curator Josef Ortner. Their mission was to showcase contemporary art in unexpected places to audiences that might otherwise not engage with it. In more than three decades, Museum in Progress has displayed contemporary art in the pages of newspapers and magazines, on television, on billboards and building facades, and in concert and performance halls.
“The core idea of Museum in Progress is really simple: It’s about developing new presentation formats for contemporary art,” said Kaspar Mühlemann Hartl, managing director of the organization.
He said it was necessary to present the public with “really high-class art,” adding that although Austrian museums and cultural institutions do put on exhibitions regularly, they are aimed at attracting crowds. “We feel it’s really important not to popularize, not to choose artists whom everybody would like,” he said.
The contemporary safety curtains are not just ornamental: They are placed over a curtain with a dark past. That curtain was designed by Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger, a Vienna-educated artist who went on to become hugely successful in wartime. He joined the Nazi Party in 1933; produced murals for Vienna City Hall showing young Nazi supporters in brown shirts waving swastika flags; and was awarded the title of professor by Hitler himself.
Eisenmenger’s career continued after World War II. When the Vienna State Opera — which had been heavily damaged by bombings — reopened in 1955 after a major redevelopment, Eisenmenger was selected to design its safety curtain. And that curtain, with a depiction of Orpheus and Eurydice, was never questioned until the mid-’90s, when the opera house’s director at the time suggested that it should be taken down because of Eisenmenger’s Nazi past — and met with strong opposition in public opinion and the media. In 1997, Museum in Progress stepped in to propose the “Safety Curtain” project.
Despite its troubled history, the original safety curtain, which can still be seen outside of the opera season, seems to remain popular with some Austrians. Every time the Vienna State Opera gets a new director, he receives “lots and lots of letters trying to convince him” to stop the contemporary-art project, Mr. Mühlemann Hartl said. In 2010, a far-right politician even raised the question in Parliament, he added.
The contemporary “Safety Curtain” project has nonetheless managed to continue for 24 years, as it is well liked overall, and every year’s design gets abundant news coverage in Austria.
Artists are chosen by a jury of curators, currently composed of Daniel Birnbaum, artistic director of Acute Art (a London-based digital art platform); Bice Curiger, artistic director of the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France; and Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries in London.
The process of choosing the winning artist is “incredibly fast,” Ms. Curiger said in an interview. Judges draw up a long list and rank each artist based on whether they can “come up with a good idea” that will work for an opera house and speaks to 21st-century audiences.
“We want to be contemporary,” she said. “We don’t want to just have nice decorative things.”
Ms. Curiger noted that the jury felt “a responsibility,” because the Vienna State Opera’s staff and audience “have to live with a work, which is really big, for a whole year.”
For the 2020-21 season, the chosen talent was the American artist Carrie Mae Weems. She presented a large photographic image of the singer Mary J. Blige — a version of which had appeared in W Magazine — that showed her wearing a crown and sitting at a table covered with flowers, fruit, glassware and an elaborate tablecloth that were reminiscent of an old-master painting.
“Mary is a very careful woman, concerned about how Black women are experienced and understood, and what they look like,” Ms. Weems said of the image in a video interview in 2020 with Mr. Obrist. “So it was perfect.”
The project costs 80,000 euros (about $85,000) a year to fund, according to Mr. Mühlemann Hartl, a modest amount by the standards of Western cultural fund-raising. Yet he said Museum in Progress still had difficulty raising the money every year, because in Austria, individual and corporate cultural philanthropy were not very developed.
In a recent interview, Mr. Obrist described the project as “an interesting oxymoron,” because in a house where most of the music played is not from the 21st or even from the 20th century, the artists are “bringing something extremely contemporary in relationship to a work from the past.”
He said he would love to see the initiative spread to other opera houses around the world, as was the intention of the couple who conceived it.
“It’s almost like a model that they created,” he said.