Barbara Kapusta On Making Art in the World’s Most Livable City

Vienna has topped Monocle’s annual “Quality of Life” list multiple times for its robust support for not only the arts but also the city’s artists.

Monocle magazine, an authority on design and culture, conducts an annual livability survey that differs from most in that it considers the accessibility, diversity and eclecticism of a city’s art scene in evaluating quality of life. Observer spoke with Monocle’s executive editor, Josh Fehnert, and one of Vienna’s most exciting artists about how living and working in the Austrian city has provided the freedom, facilities and an environment to experiment and express their creativity with as little compromise as possible.

A stark white exhibition space filled with art
The Leaking Bodies Series, 2020, 3 channel video installation, installation view, Gianni Manhattan, 2020.

While emerging artists in cities like New York, Paris and Sydney face rising rents and unstable housing prospects, the long-term rental tenancies and subsidized studios for artists in Vienna provide a sense of security.

According to Fehnert, what it means to live well in a city is about more than crime rates, Gini coefficients and ambulance response times. Cities can’t be measured using statistics alone.

“We also try to consider more qualitative and subjective ideas for what makes places tick,” he says. “We try to have some fun, too. Does your city trust you to have a glass of wine outside after 1 a.m.? Is there clean water in which to dive and cool off on a hot day? Is there good green space, some leeway to start a business quickly and a cultural scene attracting footfall and funding? It all matters.”

Monocle’s editorial team creates year-on-year comparisons using these “little dossiers” for around thirty cities in total. This year Vienna stood out for its robust support for not only the arts but also the city’s artists—particularly where housing is concerned.

“There’s a great backbone of social housing built in the 1920s and 1930s in the so-called Red Vienna period in which a socialist agenda created durable housing such as the Karl-Marx-Hof and public conveniences like the art deco Amalienbad swimming pool,” says Fehnert, adding that pricing out artists costs us all in the end.

A woman kneels in the grass near twisted sculptures
Barbara Kapusta at the Austrian Sculpture Park, Museum Joanneum Graz. Foto ©StefanLozar

Austrian artist Barbara Kapusta was born an hour and a half from Vienna, then moved to the city after high school in 2010. For nearly a decade, she has been represented by contemporary gallery Gianni Manhattan in Vienna, but her work has been shown internationally, and she travels regularly between European cities. Her objects, films and text-based works have been exhibited in Belvedere 2; the Vienna Biennale at MAK; Kunsthalle Wien; Ashley Berlin; and House of Georgia in Tbilisi. In June, her work was exhibited at Liste Art Fair in Basel as part of Art Basel, and her published works include the  books Fragiles (2023), Dangerous Bodies (2019) and The 8 and the Fist (2017).

Kapusta sees the ways Vienna has changed and describes an arts scene that bloomed in about 2014 with more opportunities for young people and queer, feminist artists. Yet some things haven’t changed, and that’s a good thing. She serves on the board of Secession, founded in 1897 by Gustav Klimt. It’s run by artists and architects in support of artists and architects, and its longevity might surprise people from outside of the city.

“Art is funded and always has been [in Vienna],” she says, adding that the support for the arts in the city doesn’t translate to full funding for artists. It’s not uncommon for artists to work one or more jobs to fund their practices.

“For a long time, I’ve been teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts,” Kapusta says. “Almost every artist has to compromise. Rarely can someone live off their artistic practice. Even if things are well funded, and institutions try to offer fair pay, it’s still not a liveable fee. Some people have galleries and sell enough to make a living, some do teaching, some do commercial work.”

And while Vienna’s system of stabilized rent and social housing is globally lauded, it isn’t all wine and roses, she adds. Vienna may be a liveable city with generous protections for artists, but it’s not cheap—particularly if you are looking for space near the city center. Kapusta rents her studio on a long-term private contract. She could save money by taking advantage of the subsidized and funded studio programs offered by the city and the state, but they feel too far from the heart of Vienna’s art scene.

An art installation with sculpture
Barbara Kapusta, Like Lovers, 2023, black vinyl, 320 cm x 70 cm and The Fragiles, 2023, aluminum, three channel audio installation, 230cm x 260cm x 135 cm, installation view Gianni Manhattan at Liste Basel, 2023.

Still, she says Vienna makes a good home base—in part, for the support she receives but also because of the city’s proximity to Europe’s other cultural hubs.

“The arts in Vienna are big, and there are different groups and scenes,” Kapusta explains. “I don’t feel the need to live somewhere else. In four hours, I’m in Prague! I can take the night train to Paris—it’s a gift.”

Barbara Kapusta On Making Art in the World’s Most Livable City