contemporary art news

A Hot Mess: The Soap Opera that is the Vienna Art Fair Scene.

The Vienesse love a good operetta with a little farcical or satirical intrigue. So, after reading a rather lame Art Net preview of the upcoming Spark Art Fair in Vienna (March 15-17, 2024) which merely quotes a Spark press release and talks about the city’s ‘livability’ awards. I thought I would recap the ‘he said / he said’ drama that has developed over the last few years and has created three art fairs from the original fair- Vienna Contemporary.

Vienna Contemporary Art Fair at Marx-Halle in 2020 (Foto ©

The original fair Vienna Contemporary is still running after some ownership changes (between different Russian investors) and directorial changes will move back to its original home at the Vienna Messe in September after a nasty divorce with the Marx-Halle way back in 2020 and a series of ill-advised locations including a very small building in the cities Stadtpark and a construction site of an old post office.

British-born and Vienna-based writer Francesca Gavin is the new director for the upcoming VC fair in September, replacing Boris Ondreička, the Slovak Curator who ran the fair through the eventful Post-Covid series of fragmented fairs and off-site locations. Shifting from Ondreička’s eastern European approach to Gavin’s more international ‘Western European’ (UK/FR) approach will be interesting to see if she can transition from a traditional Viennese art scene which is perenially stuck in its Austro-Hungarian monarchical past. 

The story is typical of the Viennese fighting over an even smaller piece of the pie- that is the local art market, driving away international galleries due to the uncertainties. The Spark Art Fair made its successful (post covid) debut in 2021 with an innovative design concept featuring large semi-circular booths for solo presentations. But just one year later, despite a successful follow-up event, Spark managing director and initiator Renger van den Heuvel pulled out in the fall due to disagreement with management. The trade fair thus lost its internationally well-connected head. The majority owner and operator of the Marx Halle, quickly put together a new management team, but this was met with skepticism by the local and regional galleries. Spark threw in the towel and canceled the 2023 edition of the fair, instead announcing dates for 2024 and the two fair directors Jan Gustav Fiedler ( a relative unknown from Germany) and Walter Seidl (an established curator focused on Eastern Europe) and two curatorial advisors Christoph Doswald- A swiss curator known mostly for public Art and Marina Fokidis former curatorial advisor for documenta 14 (Athens) and founder of the Kunsthalle Athena.

Renger van den Heuvel started a new art fair together with his wife – who both previously worked for Spark and VC called STAGE Bregenz. marking its premiere last month in the Austrian city of Bregenz in the Lake Constance Region bordering Switzerland and Germany.  Perhaps taking Basel’s 3-way (Swiss, French, German) border as inspiration. STAGE successfully presented 44 leading galleries from nine European countries, including Lelong & Co. (France), P420 (Italy), Annex 14 (Switzerland), Hunt Kastner (Czechia), Office Impart (Germany) and several young and established galleries from Vienna. 

the STAGE Bregenz Art Fair celebrated its premiere edition from 22 to 25 February 2024 at the Festspielhaus Bregenz.

East meets West

During the Cold War, Vienna was a classic film noir set location where spies would meet in smoke-filled cafes. Therefore, the Vienna Contemporary Fair was always a decent regional art fair- with a focus on CEE (aka Eastern Europe) with an interesting mix of galleries from Slovakia, Hungary, Czechia, Croatia, and Russia along with a handful of German and Italian galleries. Vienna Contemporary even stated in 2019 that it presented “the highest concentration of Eastern European galleries worldwide”, with special attention to emerging art markets.

V.d. Huevel commented regarding his new fair that his… “aim is to establish STAGE Bregenz as a regional art meeting place with international quality and appeal,”… “In this way, (the fair) acts independently of the global market. Sustainability is a fundamental principle of the new trade fair format. By shifting from Austria’s east (Vienna) to its western border, STAGE links itself to the D-A-CH region rather than its typical go-to Eastern European neighbors.  This theme of regionalism and sustainability is a topic we have championed with our ‘gallery weekend’ members and audience.

In this current post-pandemic situation- the art fairs are still going through a consolidation period especially with Freize buying out or investing the Chicago’s EXPO and NY’s Armory Fair, the US and European fairs are slowly becoming regional events with a mix of local and international players, much like Art Cologne or Art Brussels are powerhouse fairs in there own regions, Art Basel Miami or Freize LA are slowly morphing into regional US fairs catering to US buyers.