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See-Worthy: Francesca von Habsburg Looks to Art and Science for Answers to Questions About the Environment

Francesca von Habsburg.


For Francesca von Habsburg, the founder of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Collection and its enterprising affiliate TBA21-Academy, many of the problems threatening environmental and geopolitical stability across the globe can be surveyed in the oceans. Changes in climate conditions run rampant in waters that cover more than 70 percent of the Earth, and connections between the seas foster connections between us all.

“My sense of social justice plays a huge role in all of this,” von Habsburg said of her ambitions for TBA21-Academy, which brings artists together with scientists and thinkers in diverse fields to consider drastic changes in the world’s waterways. “Art is the glue between disciplines.”

Descended from the foundation for von Habsburg’s collection, TBA21-Academy has since 2011 focused on fact-finding expeditions as well as exhibitions and presentations of work that blurs the boundaries between art and research. Next up is a grand home for it all in the form of Ocean Space, a new destination opening in Venice, Italy. Situated in the newly restored San Lorenzo Church, which has roots dating back to the 9th century, Ocean Space will serve as a self-described “ideas accelerator” for TBA21-Academy and its eclectic activities.

This September, the space will host a series of events related to ongoing work by Academy fellow Chus Martínez, a curator and writer who traveled to New Zealand with TBA21 support. A fuller and more official opening will follow next summer when Ocean Space is activated with programming to coincide with the 58th Venice Biennale.

Central to it all is work that draws on a collective—yet also highly personal—sense of purpose. “There are so many topics that are dear to my heart,” von Habsburg said. “As a collector, I can express myself through the works that I collect—or, in this instance, commission.”

She serves as more than the just a commissioner, too, by sharing in travels on vessels that venture all around the planet. “When you get marooned at sea with people, you develop quite a bond,” she said. “Unpredictability is important when you want to get people out of their comfort zone.”

Deliberate discomfiting is needed to think through the ominous realities of climate change, von Habsburg said. And it can prove useful for art and artists as well. “Often, once they have success, artists are pushed into re-creating more of the same, like when an actor gets typecast.” But when working “outside the scope of what is predictable and expected, you start to learn.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 74 under the title “See-Worthy.”

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