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A Collector and a Gallerist with 45 Years of Experience - Interview with Ernst Hilger

  • A Collector and a Gallerist with 45 Years of Experience - Interview with Ernst Hilger
March 7, 2016

It is quite difficult to write an introduction for an interview with a collector and gallerist, who has been involved in high-class contemporary art for 45 years and counting. Ernst Hilger, one of the most renowned European collectors, who owns Galerie Ernst Hilger in Vienna, has participated at Art Basel for 35 years, at FIAC Paris for 25 years, at Art Cologne for 40 years, and so on. There is no big art fair without Ernst Hilger as exhibitor. Of course, there is no way to own and maintain such a rich collection without great passion. But, passion is not enough. Hilger travels the world in search of new art, while also providing a platform for established artists. He makes decisions on what to exhibit based on his extensive knowledge of the international art market and also his on site researches in the art hotspots he visits. A lot can be learnt from this Vienna-based collector, gallerist, curator and philanthropist. In his fascinating collection are works by names such as Pablo Picasso, Joseph Beuys, Marcel Dzama, Andy Warhol, and many more.

Widewalls had an honor to speak with Ernst Hilger. Although he is quite busy, being in New York, for the VOLTA and PULSE fairs, he found the time to answer our questions. Be sure to read this interview, maybe you will find inspiration for your own practice as well!

  • A Collector and a Gallerist with 45 Years of Experience - Interview with Ernst Hilger

Vienna as a Bridge Between East and West

Widewalls: Mr. Hilger, you were born in Vienna, and you live in this amazing, historic city. Among many awards you have received so far is the Award by the City of Vienna in 1996. So, let’s focus on Vienna for a moment and its somewhat special status in the global contemporary art scene, perceived as a city located somewhere between the “West” and the “East”. Artists from both sides have been widely exhibiting in Austria, while galleries from Vienna represent many artists from Eastern European countries. How has this “special” position of Vienna influenced the process of the creation of your collection?

Ernst Hilger: As I have been chosen not only by Siemens Austria to create the SIEMENS ART Lab, which has been concentrating on the new Eastern countries in the European Union since 1995 and has also built the ESTERHAZY Collection with an Eastern focus in the first years and organized the first comprehensive exhibition in the Museum Quarters, including artists from Bulgaria, Rumania, Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia – our gallery always had a significant pioneer position in making Vienna a new middle between East and West.

Widewalls: Many artists from Eastern Europe and the Balkans perceive Vienna as a city from where they can make a breakthrough onto the international platform. Have you ever been interested in these markets and scenes (Russian or Baltic for example)? Do you follow contemporary art developments and artists from these countries?

EH: As a founder of the first significant Vienna Art Fair, which later on became VIENNAFAIR, then VIENNACONTEMPORARY and a part of the committee till 2005, it was mainly due to my intervention that the fair created the Eastern focus. We have worked with artists like Iwan Moudov, Krassimir Terziev and so on since the 1990s. We also organized shows at the Museum of Modern Art Moscow, as well as the Museum of Modern Art Zagreb, Sofia and Bucharest, plus numerous cultural spaces and institutions specifically with the curator Alenka Gregorič from Ljubljana, and Claire Breukel from South Africa. We have also helped many of them participate at the Venice Biennale, for instance Anastasia Khoroshilova, which we have been representing since her studies with Jörg Sassa.

  • A Collector and a Gallerist with 45 Years of Experience - Interview with Ernst Hilger

Art Market Tendencies and One Exciting Exhibition

Widewalls: I would guess, you travel a lot and your collection has been partially built based on your extensive knowledge on art developments in different countries across the world. How do you manage to follow the work by the huge number of artists from dozens of countries, and still keep your collection sustainable, rich and with a number of works by some of the most renowned contemporary artists?

EH: After the beginning of the 1990s, when even Warhol and the others were to be had at reasonable prices, I mostly collect contemporaries. Now, I only have the means to buy artists very early in their career as my budget is very limited, so try to keep important positions from all my shows when these artists, from many different countries, like Iran, South Africa, Nigeria, countries of Middle America, and of course the East, come to Vienna for the first time. Then many times I have to stop following them as a collector and a gallerist. Artists tend to be always on the move and many artists that show now in other galleries were shown first in mine but from the echo to my invitations we still have a very good relation with most of them.

Widewalls: Do you think the popularity of abstract art is increasing among collectors as well, perhaps also worldwide?

EH: I think it is like painting. It is always there, and figuration and abstraction many times come from the same sources.

Widewalls: We are expecting the first exhibition (out of a five part series) that will showcase your private collection (the first exhibition opened on February 27).

EH: I have started with works on paper and sculpture of wood and paper to test the ground, and see how my colleagues and collectors react; the next part will be painting, and then photography. But whatever the outcome, there will be a book at the end with about 400 works – the essence of my collection and the story of the last 45 years of Art in Europe and Austria which I had the pleasure of playing a small part in. I exhibited almost 40 years at Art Cologne, 25 Years at FIAC and 35 years at Art Basel, many times in the function of a committee member but, at the moment we are very happy with our contemporaries at VOLTA and some other fairs.

But, the journey has just begun.

Featured Images: Ernst Hilger (courtesy of; Ernst Hilger;  The Hilger Collection. Part 1 Exhibition. credit Katharina Stögmüller/The Hilger Collection. All Images used for illustrative purposes.