While the Chicago Humanities Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary with a season that's all about journeys, artistic director Matti Bunzl is about to embark on a one-way journey of his own. At the end of this year, Bunzl will leave the festival—and the University of Illinois, where he's spent the last 16 years as a professor of anthropology—to return to his native Austria. It was announced last month that he's been tapped to be the next head of Vienna's estimable Wien Museum, the municipal institution of history, art, and culture that he says inspired his career.
He'll be the first gay Jew ever to hold the job.
It's a turn of events Bunzl says he couldn't have imagined even five years ago, when he was picked to be the creative heart of CHF, succeeding Lawrence Weschler, who'd been commuting to the job from the east coast. Bunzl, an enthusiastic Chicago resident, limited his commuting to UI's Urbana-Champaign campus.
Except for his summer trips back to Vienna, where he grew up in one of the relatively few Jewish families to return after the devastation they suffered there under the Nazis. His father, with whom he frequented the Wien Museum as a child, still lives there, and paternal failing health is one reason Bunzl's willing to give up Chicago and return to the place where—both as a Jew and a homosexual—he was acutely marked as "other."
The larger, more public reason, Bunzl says, is that "I never imagined that Austria would come so far as to give someone like me— based on who I am and what I do—this kind of a chance. The Vienna Museum is the center of Vienna's cultural heritage. It's amazing that they would have made me the steward of that heritage.
"Let's put it this way," Bunzl says: "I don't think there have been many gay Jews who've been in leadership positions in the cultural or any other sector in Austrian history."
It is, he thinks, an opportunity "to really make a difference in Vienna and in Austrian culture—which, personally and professionally, I've been dealing with my entire life."
That focus was obvious in Bunzl's first two books: Jews and Queers: Symptoms of Modernity in Late-Twentieth Century Vienna and Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Hatreds Old and New in Europe (the latter perhaps even more timely now than it was when it was published in 2007). But in 2008, during a UI sabbatical, Bunzl spent five months doing ethnographic research on a very different subject: the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The book that resulted from that study, In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum, was published just last month by University of Chicago Press. It's a brisk and brainy read, a fly-on-the-wall look at the driving forces at work in a major contemporary art museum. And it no doubt sealed the deal for Bunzl in Vienna. The bulk of his experience has been as an academic, with an add-on as arts administrator through CHF. But his semester embedded at the MCA gave him the equivalent of an extremely high-end internship in museum management. "No one could plan something like this," he says, "but in hindsight, it's the kind of book that anybody who wants to be a museum director but does not come out of the museum field should have the chance to research and write."
It wasn't without its own drama, however. As Laura Pearson noted in a preview for the Reader's Fall Arts Issue, Bunzl's MCA book was initially slated for publication a year and a half ago, under a flashier title: In the House of Balloon Dog: A Year Inside Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. Review copies had already been sent out when suddenly they were clawed back. Why? No one was saying exactly, but as Pearson reported, the MCA had apparently required specific edits to the original manuscript, with details including names and descriptions of artists whose work was being considered for acquisition removed. University of Chicago Press promotions director Levi Stahl told me in an e-mail last week that "there were some minor editorial tweaks that delayed the book," and referred me to Bunzl for elaboration.
I asked him last year and again now whether he'd been censored. His response is circumspect: "There were some issues. We resolved those very quickly. It's exactly the book I wanted to write." This is "the first book based on ethnographic research" within a museum, and it's "a testament to the MCA for having the courage" to allow it, he says. "I did not call around the country to ask museums if they were willing to engage in such a project, but I have no doubt that most would not have done it," he adds.
So if neither the author nor the publisher is complaining, perhaps I'm wrong in thinking that this late edit removing some revealing sharp edges amounted to a kind of censorship. Maybe the book's simply a shade less the "eminently dishy" read its publisher had originally touted.
Meanwhile, CHF executive director Phillip Bahar says the board has assembled a search committee to find Bunzl's replacement, and the festival—which appears to be holding its own in the face of upstart competition that includes Chicago Ideas Week—is offering more than 100 events between October 25 and November 9, with new "hub" scheduling that'll put most of them no more than a short walk away from each other on any given day.
"We live in an age where a million things are easily accessible online, including videos of just about anyone we bring in," Bunzl says. "One could fear that no one would move their butt to our events. But the opposite seems to be the case. In a world where everything is so easily attainable, there's a new premium on the in-person experience. The sense of community that is created when people are sitting in a room together—because of the digital universe we're in—that has actually become more attractive."
In his fantasy, he says, there's a future Vienna Humanities Festival.