Since its opening in June 2014, the Kunsthalle Graz has already received over 1200 visitors and become a pillar of the city's art scene.
When Graz sculptor Arnold Reinisch started looking for a new studio, his wife suggested that instead of continuing the cycle of moving, renovating and then being chucked out of a rental yet again, it would be easier and more sensible to buy somewhere permanent. Two-and-a-half years, more than 100 tons of rubble, three thick layers of tiling and a collapsing outside wall later, the former bakery - "kaputt und desolate" - has emerged from the dust. Reinisch's studio concept has evolved to incorporate a contemporary exhibition space, an action platform, an artist-in-residence facility and a holiday apartment. Not to mention a garden of rare vegetables and a bee colony.
Kunsthalle Graz is also now an association, co-run by painter Jani Schwob and art historian and journalist Wenzel Mraček. "Arnold forced us into it," comments Mraček. Like the construction project, the programme is also wide-reaching: it aims not just to support local artists but also to weave a network of cultural experts and enthusiasts at a local, national and international level, forging contacts with similar institutions across borders and staging exhibitions, acoustic presentations, readings, performances, lectures, workshops and seminars, a cinema night. Socially relevant themes such as integration, ecology and diversity are cited as the focus.
And, of course, there is "the thing with the bees" as Mraček puts it: from May 2015 onwards, the flat roof of the Kunsthalle will be home to a collection of beehives looked after by a local beekeeper. The bees will form the subject of a number of art projects: an international call for photographers is being drafted, and sound artists will also be invited to make use of the bees as source material. Out front, in the glass-roofed courtyard between the gated entrance and the gallery, the plan is to create a patio garden: by the summer, rare seeds from old varieties will bear fruit and vegetables. At the moment it remains cold and empty, but looking round the inside at the sleek, wooden-floored, XAL-lit space they have envisioned and built mainly by themselves, you have little doubt that it will become exactly the lush, green plant laboratory that Schwob, Mraček and Reinisch describe.
The artists they display also fall outside the mainstream: "We present art that does not find a place in other venues in Graz," explains Reinisch. These are artists who are relevant in the current contemporary art scene, yet tend to be ignored by other exhibition spaces because their profile doesn't quite fit in with their programmes. So Kunsthalle Graz is designed more to complete a niche, or complement the existing scene, rather than to compete with it. The three directors decide together democratically - "with a little bit of, er, discussion" - what will be shown. In June 2014 they opened with Klaus Pichler's Just the Two of Us - a photographic series depicting role-players in situ or at home, anonymous in their alter-ego costumes, from a relaxed dinosaur in an easy chair to a Cookie Monster gazing sadly at his kitchen table.
Two outstanding Graz artists who died far too young and deserve much greater recognition have also this year been given a stage at Kunsthalle Graz. In October, exhibition designers Alexandra Riewe and Christian Marczik explored "the last anarchist" concept and media artist Claus Schöner's undershown legacy, creating a coherent installative display from 200 of his 600 surviving works. In November and December 2014, this was followed by a three-part retrospective of W. W. Anger (1957-2004), showcasing his multifaceted and extraordinary body of works around networking, the individual and virtuality, an oeuvre that remains visionary and fresh to this day. Prior to the official opening, literature found a place on the building site as Gerlinde Hacker and Mathias Grilj read aloud short, captivating pieces amidst the construction debris. Next year will see, among other things, Anita Witek's photographic works and Michael Gumhold's objects.
There are, unsurprisingly, no profits to be made here. Much is achieved through enlisting the help of contacts and friends, and all three directors derive their livelihoods from somewhere else. Financing comes from the state, the region, the city and also from self-driven initiatives: Kunsthalle Graz T-shirts, Kunsthalle Graz own-brand beer. In 2015, keep an eye out for jars of Kunsthalle Graz honey and Kunsthalle Graz heritage tomatoes. It is an impressively ingenious yet very hands-on operation, from international curating, to fixing the radiators, to doing publicity, through to minding shop - all invested with huge energy and love that show in the results. "We are not too small, and not too big," says Mraček.