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Contemporary art fairs; Vienna

Established less than a decade ago in 2012 as VIENNAFAIR, Austria’s contemporary art fairs were rebranded as viennacontemporary in 2015, and is held every year in September, currently at the Kursalon Vienna music hall building. Considered an important festival for bringing together the contemporary art scene from Western Europe with the often overlooked Central and Eastern European art markets, Vienna also acts as an important showcase for Austrian artists, and ensures a good balance through an invitation-only approach to the main event.

A big attraction of Vienna’s contemporary art festival is the diverse number of satellite events that set up around the permanent exhibition, bringing in a diverse range of other artists championed by mainstream and independent art galleries and curators. Belvedere 21 combines a sculpture garden showcasing internationally renowned artists, with more conventional gallery exhibitions of contemporary artwork and great talents, such as an exhibit of Gustav Klimt’s last works.

Curated By is an event put together by art galleries, picking out some of their favourite pieces and artists on a theme which varies each year, while Haus Wien offers a similar concept but focused on non-traditional, independent exhibition spaces and curators. Other events are held at the Jewish Museum, Kunsthalle Wien, Kunst Haus Wien, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Leopold Museum, the Museum of Applied Arts, and numerous others in an increasingly decentralised set up.

One of the small but rapidly evolving contemporary art fairs finding it’s place

Viennacontemporary attracts around 30,000 visitors each year, but had been suffering some decline with criticisms that it had become too focused on local collecting circles, and it’s Russian ownership was seeing a gradual domination by Russian galleries. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the event was handed over to the Austrian state, turned into a non-profit which is now eligible for state support to expand and improve, and began to look at ways to re-boot itself.

Bringing on board a more international team determined to focus much more on non-Russian Eastern Europe, and improving curatorial efforts for on the ground research in areas like the Baltics. It has also shifted location to a much more central main event space, and a much more attractive one than the rundown old post office building which had been used previously. The central location should also see improvements in general visitor attendance, as well as attracting more of the serious art collectors and buyers from the mainstream contemporary art market.

So far the changes have been received well; there was some debate that the new venue is a little cramped and crowded, but it was easy to navigate and the range of social events, music and talks went down well. Participating art galleries praised the organisation, staff support, and communication, though reports on sales were varied, with some galleries complaining of little business, whilst others went home very happy. Following a current pattern in contemporary arts the more conventional artworks on paper and canvas, or even art prints, that saw the most sales action.

An important flag waver for Eastern European contemporary artists

Though time will have to tell how well this evolution continues, viennacontemporary has certainly taken itself successfully back to it’s original focus as a place to champion Central and Eastern European art. After several years of very mixed reviews, 2022 was generally well received, and the new status as a non-profit with an event and satellites at the heart of the city which take it over for a week should do a great deal to drive popular interest. Whether Vienna can compete with it’s bigger-name competitor contemporary art fairs is another question, but it can certainly provide a relevant and respected place for contemporary artists who may struggle to get exhibited elsewhere.

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