2015 / CEE Monthly / Collecting

viennacontemporary 2015 | Focus Bulgaria| Gaudenz B. Ruf

Interview with Swiss collector Gaudenz B. Ruf about his passion for art and the Bulgarian art scene. 

Mr. Ruf kindly supports Focus Bulgaria, special project of viennacontemporary.
Gaudenz B. Ruf is a diplomat and passionate about art. As Ambassador of Switzerland in Bulgaria from 1995 to 2000, he set up numerous exhibitions in his residence. As Ambassador, he supported the development of the country, and the Bulgarian contemporary art scene in this process, demonstrating genuine insight as well. The artists he presented are – today – are key names in the Bulgarian art world, some of them who in the beginning of the 90’s helped establish the current art scene as well as the younger generation of today.

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Kristina Kulakova: Your passion for Bulgarian art started during your time as Swiss Ambassador to Bulgaria in 1995. Can you please give more insight about how it began? 

Gaudenz B. Ruf: I’ve always been interested in contemporary art, right from my university years in Switzerland. My profession as a diplomat later gave me the opportunity to discover art scenes in faraway places that were, in those days, fairly unknown in Western Europe, such as India, East Africa, the Baltic countries, then Bulgaria and later Serbia. My experience was always the same: these were lively, intellectually challenging milieus that were capable to produce high standard art. Each time my explorations and contacts were most rewarding.
The Bulgarian response was particularly positive. The artists there, in the 90’s badly neglected in the turmoil of transition, were most interested in taking up a dialogue. This encouraged me to open my residence for exhibitions (some 12 in 4 years) and in 2007 to create an art award.

What was the first exhibition you organized in your residence? 

The first Bulgarian artist I invited was Nedko Solakov, who then was well known in Bulgaria but not yet an international figure.

Did you start collecting art at that same time or it came later? 

It came much earlier! Already as a student I bought graphic art I could afford and later my contacts with the art world in whatever country always ended up with purchases. I could not help it! Of course the result of this was that my collection is rather a patchwork and reflects my migratory life.

What was the most striking thing about Bulgarian contemporary art back then? 

The art scene I met in Sofia in the mid 90’s was sharply divided: on the one side there were the large number of “traditional” artists, technically on a high level but, after the long years of isolation in the Cold War, in their thinking still cut off from the Western main stream. On the other side emerged younger artists who badly wanted to catch up and organized themselves in self-help groups. They displayed an enormous energy, acted with great skill and were remarkably successful given the dire economic framework conditions. Their art was mainly conceptual and often reflected the political and social realities – the persistence of totalitarian practices and the “benefactions” of an unchained capitalism.

How did it change over the time? 

In the last twenty years Bulgaria and its art scene changed dramatically. Of course there are still representatives of a rather traditional art and official institutions sometimes do not seem to understand the mainstream developments outside the country. But the internet has linked Bulgaria to the world, the borders are open and the Bulgarians look outside.

Many Bulgarian artists live and work abroad – a great number in Vienna! –  and travel back and forth. So it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish national features. Nevertheless, there is still a strong political and social component in today’s Bulgarian art. Their all but perfect environment provokes the artists’ minds. Figurative and conceptual art prevails over purely aesthetic abstraction.

Did you have an art advisor when you started collecting? Who was it? 

No never, I always relied on my own feeling and judgment. Having direct contacts with many artists and access to their studios, mainly in Bulgaria, I was able to see a great amount of art and in a position to make my choice. However, given my professional obligations and the frequent lack of time my proceedings were not always very systematic and I surely missed some good chances.

What is important for you in the artwork? 

An artwork must be a challenge for me. It must open my mind to a new world even if this is a difficult and sometime unpleasant process. “Easy” art might soon become boring. A good artwork always has at least two levels: the purely visual one with shape and color and the meaning/message/story behind it.

How the idea of the Art Prize was born? How did it affect the art scene in Bulgaria? 

When I retired from diplomacy I was looking for some commitment in the field of visual arts. Not so much in Switzerland where there are plenty of resources and artists are rather spoilt. I was thinking of my friends in Eastern Europe whose framework conditions were rather poor – very limited public funds and a very limited art market – and who deserved support. I also knew that in Bulgaria there were only few art competitions and hardly any that provided more than just a certificate of honor. So I decided to create an award with a financial reward and an international jury thus providing an additional new platform for the art scene. The focus was on young innovative art and the standards set were high. Of course not everybody liked this “avant-garde” formula but the “Ruf-Award” gained more and more prestige. The competition was also opened to Bulgarian artists living abroad and this possibility was widely used thus bringing fresh air and international flavor to Bulgaria. Four years ago the award formula was changed into a support program. Artists and art organizers may ask for a financial support for their projects. It has become very popular and allowed the realization of many art works, events and publications.


The Gaudenz B. Ruf Award was set up in 2007 by a Swiss national who lived in Bulgaria from 1995 to 2000, during which time he became acquainted with the rich cultural life of the country and convinced of its artistic potential.
The Award is financed through a fund established in Switzerland.
The aim of the Award is to promote and propagate artistic expression in Bulgaria in the field of visual arts and to focus in particular on the younger generation.
From 2007 until 2011 the Award was granted annually to one young and one advanced artist within the framework of a competition. During those five years more than 560 candidates competed for the prize and 79 artists were shortlisted. The works of the shortlisted artists were presented at the yearly Award exhibitions and published in catalogues (cf. Archive).
From 2012 the funds of the Gaudenz B. Ruf Award avail support to the creation of art works by Bulgarian artists and to events presenting contemporary Bulgarian art in Bulgaria and abroad.


Focus Bulgaria is organized by the Open Arts Foundation and Sariev Contemporary, Plovdiv, in cooperation with the Institute of Contemporary Art-Sofia and the Art Affairs and Documents Foundation. It is kindly supported by Gaudenz B. Ruf (Zurich / Sofia), the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Bulgaria, the National Culture Fund, Bulgaria, the EVN Collection, Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, and is organized in partnership with the BKI Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna and Ogilvy Group Bulgaria and Pulsio Print. 

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