Viennese lawyer Alexia Stuefer was struck by a passion for collection about 15 years ago and has since continued to extend her unparalleled collection of female artists, including Kiki Kogelnik, Elke Krystufek, Eva Schlegel, and Maria Temnitschka. We talked to Alexia about her approach to collecting.
Let’s start at the beginning: when did you start collecting and what was the main reason you started your collection?
I discovered my passion for collecting as a teenager, a feeling that was very exciting and still exists until this day. Suddenly, I felt that I wanted to collect, perhaps an archaic trait of hunting and collecting that was slumbering inside me.
What is it that fundamentally interests you about art? What interests you when it comes to collecting art?
These questions are very big and important. I’ll try to give an answer: What I look for in art are fundamental and substantial qualities. Art is natural, mysterious, unsettling, calming, inspiring, exhilarating, beautiful – and especially – eternal and true. By collecting, I want to bring all of these elements together, put them into dialogue with each other, and create a piece of eternity.
What was the first work of art you bought and why?
I bought my first piece of art in Rome. It was a black and white photograph of a kitchen. It depicts a gas stove, part of a kitchen counter, and cooking utensils standing and hanging around. The work has a remarkable aesthetic. The moment I saw it, I was hooked. Looking back, this work already showed the direction in which my collecting activity would go on. I still feel the same joy about this work today that I felt when I had just discovered and bought it.
Your collection today has a strong focus on female artists – can you please expand on that?
Feminism is the unifying element of the collection and an important source of inspiration for me. The collection focuses on works by women artists from all eras, all parts of the world, and all media – this multidimensionality is a crucial part of the concept. It is time to show the world: Since art exists, there have been women artists.
How did the concept arise?
The concept of the collection struck me while driving in my car. The initial idea was to put the spotlight on works with a feminist timbre and aesthetics. Feminism seemed to me to be treated too one-dimensional, not only in the field of art. As mentioned, multidimensionality is one of the main features of the collection. The concept of my collection became a topic of conversation in Vienna and beyond. The reactions were very diverse, ranging from rejection and belittling to serious interest and delight – thus really reflecting the spirit of feminist art.
What is a decisive factor for you to ultimately buy a work of art? How does the feeling emerge that ultimately persuades you to buy the work of art, to want to own it?
For me, the first impression is crucial. It’s like love at first sight – the art meets me and I meet the art – an encounter, a deep desire. The more formal thoughts about price and affordability follow only later.
Is an art purchase an intuitive process or a lengthy one?
The decision is intuitive, it comes directly from the gut. I don’t specifically look for new works and artists, they happen to fall into my hands. Of course, it helps to regularly visit museums, galleries, trade fairs, exhibitions, auctions, and biennials. Freely quoting Freud: There is no such thing as coincidence. With experience, of course, one develops a sense for the originality of a work, for names, legacies. The biographies of the artists become more familiar and the knowledge of prices and the market increases.
Are there qualities you are especially interested in? What needs to be present in artwork in order to attract your attention?
The biography of the artist and her previous works are of course of great interest. I first get the information from open sources on the Internet later more information, also concerning the prices, on fee-based databases. The information and expertise from galleries and the discussions with curators and collectors are also valuable. The decisive impetus always comes from the work itself. Two works I have purchased only recently are collages by Katrina Daschner. She really succeeds in celebrating feminist aesthetics. She puts it aptly: “A feminist woman has to drink champagne.” What is fascinating about this sentence is the play with the symbolic.
Does knowing the artist influence your decision to purchase a piece of art?
As already mentioned, the first impression of the art is the decisive factor. Personal encounters with female artists are exciting and leave me awe and admiration. I consider myself very lucky that some of these encounters resulted in deep and fulfilling friendships.
Do you see collecting as an investment?
In my opinion, collecting art for the returns does not pay off. I do not have the time for this and hiring someone to do it is out of the question. It would also contradict my collection concept. The “value” of art and its price naturally play a role. For me personally, there is nothing better than putting money into art.
Many collectors live with their works of art – how about you?
My collection is a part of me. Some of the works are in my apartment, the others stored in a depot. The collection wants to keep moving, reinvent and question itself again and again, celebrate its existence. For this purpose, I regularly organize so-called hangings: In the first step of the hanging, I look for an artist or curator who will select works from my collection they deem suitable for an exhibition in my apartment. At the same time, I commission an artist to film the process of hanging and curating. The result becomes part of the collection. The curator and the artist are completely free in their activity, I do not get involved in the selection of works or the filming. The third and last act – the climax of the hanging – is the presentation of this selection. The film is presented in a festive setting in the apartment, in which the physical well-being is of utmost importance: It is a festival for feminist art, full of pleasure and exuberance.
Vienna as an art city: What do you think of the development of the Viennese art scene in recent years?
In my opinion, the importance of Vienna has grown immensely over the past two decades. New galleries and art fairs are opening up; alongside viennacontemporary, Parallel is becoming more important. New event formats offer a stage for art in public spaces. Besides, what is especially impressive about the Viennese art scene is the symbiosis between the past and the present – anyone who has ever visited the Secession knows what I am talking about.
How does collecting influence your everyday life? How has this changed due to Corona?
Just as art has a very important place in my life, collecting also plays an important role. The pandemic has changed my life in this regard, as many exhibitions in galleries, museums, biennials, and fairs could not take place as usual, and traveling for art was also not possible. However, as far as I’m concerned, my passion for art is still unbroken.
Many art fairs and galleries have opted for online activities instead of physical exhibitions. Did you follow up on this? Is there anything that you would rate as positive?
The advancement of communication is positive – online activities will not replace physical presence, so comparing the two does not make sense. But digitization opens up more possibilities for international contact, creates new meeting opportunities for artists, art lovers, institutions, and the art business. Ultimately, however, personal encounters at exhibitions, events, and public spaces will set the tone again. Being in contact with galleries is very important to me; they are places of inspiration, concentrated knowledge, personal meetings – and business. The value of art is currently measured more than ever by the prices that can be achieved in the primary and secondary markets.
Have you ever bought a work of art online?
Due to the pandemic, I once took part in a charity online auction. Even though this form of buying art cannot be compared with bidding on-site, I still find the opportunity to be progressive and enriching. Auctions have traditionally been associated with exclusivity and privilege, even though they are supposed to be public, generally accessible events. Works of art can now be purchased from one’s living room. This possibility facilitates access to art as well as an individual’s action radius – a very positive development.
Do you think that Corona will change the art world forever?
Artists and the world around them will react not only to the pandemic, but also to the climate crisis and, more generally, to the negative consequences of capitalism. In this respect, my collection also has a political dimension: women carry the main burden of – not only – the pandemic, a fact that I also seek to address with the collection. The art world continues to be dominated by patriarchal artists, who also “make” the prices. There is no other way of explaining the still blatant gender difference in price levels. In the past ten years, however, a lot has happened in the art world: female artists are more present and active in galleries, museums, biennials, art fairs, and also in university chairs. They can finally shape processes and enjoy attention, success, and appreciation. This is slowly also reflected in the prices.
What advice do you have for people who are just starting their collection?
I would like to encourage everyone to let their imagination run wild, to listen to the inner voice, and to trust their gut feeling. Collecting is by no means just a question of money. Affordable art exists. The fact that many collections seem to focus on high-priced works should not deter anyone from starting a collection themselves.
In your opinion, is there anything positive about this time for the art world, artists, gallery owners, fairs – a thought that should be taken into the post-Corona period?
The pandemic has caused a major setback for art and culture. Times are very difficult. But I am confident that ultimately they will unleash new creative forces, which will find expression in especially the works of female artists and thus enrich the entire art world. What we need now are stamina and confidence.