Art collector, advisor and curator Amir Shariat guides through contemporary art galleries in Vienna.
Watch the second video about contemporary Vienna focused on experiencing the city through the eyes of a local citizen. We explore it with the tips from architects, theater directors, photographers, art collectors and other creatives who live in Vienna.
We start our day at the traditional Viennese coffeehouse Cafe Sperl. After discussing Amir’s fascination with Viennese art scene we stop by at One Work Gallery to chat with artist Salvatore Viviano and visit Galerie Meyer Kainer at Eschenbachgasse. There we scroll through the exhibition ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’, a group show featuring artworks by following artists: Kerstin Brätsch, Michaela Eichwald, Debo Eilers, Gelatin, Julia Haller, Rachel Harrison, Michael Krebber, Albert Oehlen, Sigmar Polke, Christian Rosa, Gedi Sibony, Josh Smith, Amelie von Wulffen, Franz West and Heimo Zobernig. After a quick lunch at Heuer (Kunsthalle Karlsplatz) we finish the day at Galerie Emanuel Layr with the Installation, which brings together the work of Gaylen Gerber, Park McArthur and Jim Nutt.
After twenty years abroad you returned to Vienna. Why?
The city has a lot to offer, much more than most people think.
What is contemporary Vienna for you?
Contemporary Vienna is based in the past. Indeed we are sitting here at Cafe Sperl, built in 1880 for a famous Viennese family. And the first painting I ever bought was a 19th century landscape by the famous Austrian painter Waldmüller. That was 1985. Now the question is: how did I make that jump to contemporary art in my collecting habits. That’s not too difficult. I was born in the 20th century and eventually the art of the 20th century started to be more appealing to my eye and this is why I became more of a contemporary art collector.
You were fourteen when you bought that work, right?
Yes. It was my father who pushed me to buy it. He was a dealer in Vienna and he had his own gallery specializing in everything from old masters all the way to furniture. Very alien to what I collect today.
Do you still have that piece?
No. I went to study in 1989 in Vienna and I did not want to ask my parents for money, so I sold that piece at an auction in order to finance my studying.
Do you regret selling it?
My father told me not to sell, because Waldmüller is a very good artist (he was right), but at the same time I did not want to be a financial burden on my parents. So I thought I have to make my own way in life and decided to sell it in order to be able to study.
And now, can you sell one artwork to buy ten other works?
I think, as you grow older or wiser, your eye changes and you change as a human being. So a lot of the artists I used to buy fifteen years ago don’t have the same appeal to me today. I try to have a very coherent line in my collection which mainly consists of abstract and minimal art. Anything falling outside these strict guidelines unfortunately has to make way. I do believe that with age you do become more discerning in your choices and as a young man I was more intuitive. So I used to buy a lot more and did not look at the collection as such. Today I’m more careful about what I buy.
Private collectors often talk about their freedom of choice as opposed to the institution and its need to fulfill gaps in the collection. Do you have certain boundaries of the collection affecting your decisions?
Well, the boundaries that I have set for myself are not really boundaries. My tastes have become more abstract and more minimal over the years, simply because I’ve grown older and I realized what I really love in life. And what I really love is abstract and minimal art.
What was the second work that you bought and when was it?
I bought my second work many years later when I was thirty years old and it was by Andy Warhol. I was still very young and I did not know Andy Warhol that well. I knew he was a good artist, he was long gone by then. I just fell for it. I thought that this is a great artist and I would love to own a piece by this guy.
And I still have that piece.
Who was your first art advisor?
I never had an art advisor. When I started, I did everything on my own and I went to see auction houses and galleries. Don’t forget that I used to go to Dorotheum auction house at the age of nine with my dad and we used to go to flea markets. So, I’ve been doing this well over thirty years now. And, as I said, you become more discerning in your taste and more careful about what you put in your collection over the years, but I never really follow a single person. I do listen to people from galleries and art advisors, but who I really trust the most are the artists. They have a fantastic eye. They know what one should get.
You must be following the Secession then?
I love Secession. It’s an amazing institution, built over one hundred years ago by artists. I think that the shows they are doing are phenomenal. They just had a great exhibition curated by Ugo Rondinone. He juxtaposed historically important artists with contemporary ones and it actually mirrored my own collection.
What is important for you in an artwork? You said that you think more, you make your decision and you process it. So when you see work of art, you are sort of scanning it… What are the key points that you’re looking for?
I think you raise an important point, which is scanning. Sometimes I feel like the terminator. Arnold, he is Austrian. But you scan an image because of the history that you have in your own brain. Being raised in Vienna I was exposed to old masters, 19th century paintings, early 20th century paintings. What I look for in an artwork today is that it has to have a historically important context. It cannot just be a painting completely removed from history. And I think the reason why Austrian artists are so powerful is because they have a connection to history. If I look at my own collection (I collect work from the 60s till today) every contemporary artwork I have has a very strong anchor in history.
What does collecting mean to you?
Collecting is almost like a drug habit and I often think of myself as an addict. But the lucky thing is that I’m an addict of items that I love, of artists that I love… Generally speaking, I collect ideas. I believe that I’m creative as a person, and as such I like to collect creativity. But creativity, unfortunately, knows no boundaries, so collecting means buying far more than you can afford both financially and spatially.
Did you have to sacrifice anything for collecting?
I don’t think collecting ever involves sacrifice. Collecting has to do with emotions, creativity and with the will to always push the boundaries, and this is why collecting for me is very important. I have a lot of paintings and sculptures in my collection. As I said, I collect far more than I can afford, which is a positive thing, but also a negative, because you spend most of your time visiting galleries, museums and studios, and some other things have to suffer because of that as a result, but the art never suffers.
What is your opinion on the local art scene?
I love the Viennese art scene. When I came back about a year and a half ago I was really surprised by the quality of the artists shown here, as well as by the quality of those that are not being shown here. Vienna remains a very creative spot. It was the centre of an empire and that factor will never go away.
There is a lot of history in Vienna, but there is also a lot of history that has to do with art, which gives artists a phenomenal foundation. Many of the artists I have met here are unknown outside of Austria simply because of lack of promotion. Austrians are not the number one marketers on the planet, they sometimes don’t fully realize what jewels they have. I think my role in Vienna is to make the international art scene understand that there are really good artists in Vienna. Just because they are not yet well-known internationally doesn’t mean that they are not good.
But, in a way, that means that they are not that expensive and their work is more or less affordable. It is a good place for a collector to be, isn’t it?
I think it’s a great place for collectors. As you correctly said, art is still extremely affordable, even pieces by artists who have been active since the 50s or 60s. Austrians know them well and collect a lot of these artists, but outside of Austria they are not well-known. When Austrian artists will gain international audience, they will blossom further. And it’s not just about prices, it’s also about time: nobody is going to pressure you, because there are few collectors here and you have time and space to think before making a buying decision.
What about artists?
Vienna is constantly reinventing itself and there are lots of new contemporary artists coming out of the city. A lot of them have tremendous international acclaim right now. Especially after the death of the luminous figure of Viennese art,Franz West, a few years ago, a lot of other artists from the 70s and 80s and even younger ones are coming up. The interesting thing for me is that there are phenomenally well-known artists like Daniel Richter giving courses at the University here, so we do have internationally well-known artists who come and teach in Vienna.
You can always find good art in Vienna, and – as I said – the beauty of Vienna is: nobody is going to run through the door of the gallery and take the artist away from you, you have time to think and get the art.
Talking about buying art. Do you take a lot of time to think about the artwork or are you buying rather impulsively? The other day I heard one collector complain about the rapidly changing speed of the art market.
I think that the pace of the art world is the one of the world today. It is much faster than ten or twenty years ago. There are more collectors, museums, curators and advisors. So there is more competition for getting good works. Vienna, on the contrary, has its own pace, which is very much based in 19th century Austria. You have time and space to think. Do I really need to rush through the door of the gallery to buy an artist? I don’t think so. But at the same time I buy very intuitively, which requires me to be rather fast. I make my decision within split seconds whether I like an artist or not. And it is almost like a job interview. You know within the first ten seconds whether you will hire the person or not. I think art is the same thing — it’s a visual impact. So you know very quickly whether that art appeals to you or not.
Is it important for you to know the artist personally?
Surprisingly, I know very few of the artists I collect. For two reasons: First, unfortunately probably a third of them are no longer alive and second, I do rarely look at where the artist has studied or what is being said in the curatorial text. I always look at art as a visual impact story and for me it’s really important to buy the artwork for what it stands for. If I do get to meet the artist, usually it is a very positive experience and it confirms my collecting decision. But I wouldn’t say that meeting the artist is an absolute “must” in order to purchase an artwork.
How do you see your role in the art scene here as a collector?
Vienna is extremely busy when it comes to the art world. As a collector, what I’m trying to do is to bring the Viennese art world to the attention of my friends in the US or in London who rarely come to the city. I think that one of the opportunities to come to Vienna is the viennacontemporary art fair in September, because it brings together a lot of collectors from around the world with Austrian collectors, Austrian artists and Austrian institutions and that’s the place to learn about art in Austria.
I couldn’t have said it better. How many pieces do you have in your collection?
I would say there are several hundred pieces right now, but unfortunately my collection is a little bit dispersed. My aim, eventually, is to bring everything together in Austria and be able to show it.
What are your plans for the collection? Do you want to open an institution or a museum?
I would not call it a museum, because that would be too far fetched. But I would love to open a kind of “kunsthalle”-type of place in Vienna where I can show my collection.
I recently had a conversation in Basel with a collector who said that people have the urge to show their collection due to them being afraid of death or not being noticed. What is your approach? Why do you think it’s important for you?
I know a lot of private collectors who have built their own museums and have done a fantastic job. I think that if you look at what public institutions can do today, the reality is that most of them cannot even show these collections because they don’t have the space and even if you bestow your collection to a museum, the likelihood that it would ever be seen is minimal. This is why I think a lot of philanthropists and collectors are building their own spaces in order to have their collections seen by a public audience. And I think that that’s exactly my aim: provide a platform for these artists to be seen and to become known to the outside world. Otherwise their works would just be constrained within my four walls or in some storage facility and that would be very sad in my opinion.
That is a very good point. Now let’s talk a bit more about Vienna.
What does Vienna sound like to you?
The first thing that comes to my mind when I’m abroad and I think of Vienna, is of course the sound of the horse carriages going through the city centre on cobbled stones and the clicking of coffee cups in Viennese coffee houses. Vienna is also revered for its contemporary edge. Few people outside of Vienna understand contemporary Vienna. Contemporary Vienna is very different from what you know from the history books. It needs to be explored and seen. One of the places I love is the Naschmarkt, a flea- and food market which is almost, I would say, the beginning of what we call the Balkan. That’s where you can feel Vienna’s past as the capital of a multicultural empire.
What is the smell of Vienna?
The smell of Vienna is the trees, I would say. I live in the 19th district which is very green. The city has a lot of parks and Vienna has a lot to offer outside of what we know as the city centre. If you want to walk around the outskirts of Vienna during the weekends, it offers great opportunities. You can hike up phenomenal hills like Cobenzl and Kahlenberg and have a great view. I believe that is the place where Sigmund Freund had his first dream spell and I know that place quite well. It’s on top of the hill overlooking Vienna, amazing views.
Imagine you have a guest who is interested in contemporary art. What are your recommendations? What to do here within a couple of days? What is the “must”?
I think that in 48 hours in Vienna the absolute must is to go and see main institutions like Albertina, Secession and Belvedere, but also to go and see the galleries. The galleries are all clustered around two or three centers in Vienna, all of them within walking distance. That’s where you should spend your time. And the flea market is very close by and there are great spots there to go and have a bite or have a coffee if you want to relax.
What about Viennese people. How do you describe them to someone who has never been to the city?
Well, Viennese people are more conservative than non-Viennese Austrians. At the same time they are extremely fun to talk to and I think that they know how to live and how to love life. And that’s what I love about Vienna. People are very relaxed compared to people from global cities like Paris, London or New York and the pace of life is much slower. But that does not mean that creativity is lower. Creativity is extremely high in Vienna and there have been recent studies showing that Viennese and Austrians are among the most creative people in the world.
Based in Vienna, art collector, curator, and advisor Amir Shariat brings a unique thematic touch to his exhibitions, often pairing new pieces alongside the works of postmodern masters. The son of an art dealer, Shariat grew up surrounded by paintings from the Renaissance through the 19th century, setting the stage for a lifelong relationship with the art world. As an adult, Shariat migrated toward contemporary motifs and began collecting pieces by lesser-known artists, a practice to dovetail his work investing in undervalued capital markets. In time, his collection came to encompass a broad oeuvre that reflects both his aesthetic preferences and the evolution of art from the late 20th century to the present day. Whether valuable or simply thought-provoking, the individual pieces of Shariat’s collection reveal a deep-seated passion that transcends monetary investment.
Watch the first episode of #contemporaryvienna series with Architect Ana Barros here.