When Emanuel Layr opened his gallery in Vienna in 2011, there were few other commercial businesses that specialized in showing the young artists he wanted to support. “I didn’t really think too much about it,” Layr said, speaking in his gallery’s light-filled office on an unseasonably hot summer day. “I studied the history of art—I was not so much based in institutions. I was running an alternative space. I thought: Why not sell art?”
More than a decade later, Layr’s gallery is still open, and it is flourishing, with Vienna-based artists such as Anne-Sophie Berger and Lena Henke on his roster alongside international ones like Cécile B. Evans and Dominique Knowles. Others have followed in Layr’s steps. A host of cutting-edge galleries have sprung up in Vienna in the past five years, among them spaces like Gianni Manhattan, Shore, and Felix Gaudlitz, all of which have figured in internationally respected fairs such as Liste in Basel, Artissima in Turin, and FIAC in Paris.
Layr, however, is confident that there is a solid collector base in Vienna and a strong gallery ecosystem to meet it. “The money is here,” he said. “The potential is there.”
When many people think of Vienna’s art scene, they think of its rich mass of museums—the Albertina, the Leopold Museum, the Kunsthistoriches Museum, mumok, and Secession, to name just a few. They do not think of the city’s fast-growing gallery scene, which often barely registers on the radars of many international art market observers.
Art Basel’s recent Swiss fair, for example, had just five galleries with Vienna spaces, one of which was Layr’s. (By contrast, more than 70 of the 289 galleries taking part had a space in New York.) Meanwhile, the world’s four biggest galleries—David Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, and Pace—have begun expanding their operations at previously unseen rates, opening in far-flung locales like Menorca and Gstaad, Switzerland, but so far, none have set up shop in the Austrian capital.
Still, there are signs that the Vienna scene is on the rise. König Galerie, a giant of the Berlin scene, expanded to Vienna last year. The Zurich-based Galerie Eva Presenhuber, which also has a space in New York, followed suit earlier this year.
Eva Presenhuber, the Austria-born founder of the latter gallery, said in an email, “Vienna is a cultural treasure with an important history, and I look forward to contributing to the community with exhibitions by exceptional contemporary artists.”
That community is home to some more established galleries with long histories in the city. Valie-Export, one of the most renowned living Austrian artists, had some of her first solo shows at Galerie Krinzinger and Galerie nächst St. Stephan, which were founded in 1971 and 1954, respectively. The latter gallery also began showing Franz West, an Austrian sculptor who went on to win the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award in 2011, early in his career. Famed Austrian artists like Maria Lassnig and Bruno Gironcoli showed alongside him there during the ’70s.
There are also mid-sized galleries like Meyer Kainer, which was founded in 1999 and now represents an international slate that includes Liam Gillick, Rachel Harrison, Ulrike Müller, Yoshitomo Nara, Raymond Pettibon, and West.
But these three galleries are the outliers in a city whose gallery scene is these days mostly defined by smaller, younger spaces that show emerging artists. These newer enterprises are known for showing conceptual art of the kind that many dealers typically fear because it is challenging and hard to sell.
A look around the city’s galleries earlier this June, just ahead of Art Basel, when many in the European art world do their traveling, testified to this. Layr was showing a new body of work by Lili Reynaud-Dewar that featured images of the artist, painted in red and shown in the nude, along with questions directed at the viewer that address sexual orientation and private property.
Felix Gaudlitz had a show by Tiffany Sia, who debuted a series of landscapes that aspired toward the “anti-sublime” and invoked the political history of Hong Kong. Vin Vin was displaying a two-person show by Alfredo Aceto and Thomas Liu Le Lann whose centerpiece featured the artists chewing white chocolate cubes in a 2012 Subaru Legacy while driving around Geneva.
Layr said that one reason these galleries can mount these ambitious presentations is because they don’t have to worry quite as much about sales since rent is so low. “You can rent a space for 1,000–3,000 euros per month,” he said.
Meanwhile, art fairs, which can often be costly gambles due to the prices for booths, also pose less of a threat to Austrian galleries than ones based in other countries. The Austrian government offers grant money to galleries for the specific purpose of showing at two foreign art fairs per year, defraying some of the financial blow.
A solid collector base also helps. Of all the people listed on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list in 2021, just two had residences in Austria; one of them, Heidi Göess-Horten, died earlier this year immediately following the opening of her new private museum in Vienna. But dealers said there are many more in Austria who are growing interested in buying art that do not rise to that caliber yet. Presenhuber said, “With the opening of the gallery, I have been introduced to a group of younger collectors that are very engaged and I think will positively influence the Viennese collecting scene in the future.”
In recent years, some galleries have even begun relocating altogether in Vienna, a rare move that has raised eyebrows when it happens, no matter the enterprises’ size. In 2018, Berlin’s Exile departed the German capital for the Austrian one. The gallery’s founder, Christian Siekmeier, gave an interview to Artnet News in which he said that the rent in Berlin had “skyrocketed” and “political blindness and antagonism” had become the norm among galleries.
The move owed something to Croy Nielsen, another gallery which similarly transplanted itself from Berlin to Vienna in 2016. Henrikke Nielsen, a cofounder of the gallery, said in an email, “We felt that there was room and maybe even a need for a gallery like ours at that point. What was most surprising about moving here were the positive reactions we received from the art world internationally.”
She praised the Vienna scene for its close-knit quality, and pointed the annual Curated By gallery festival, in which international curators are invited to organize shows at local commercial spaces, as an example of that.
“It’s rewarding to be part of a community where everybody know each other,” Nielsen said. “The advantage of the scene being relatively small.”