Austrian International Gallery in the Hungarian Scene:
The Knoll Gallery
Hans Knoll arrived from among the new wave of Austrian commercial galleries founded in the eighties and started his gallery in 1989 in Budapest as well. As compared to the more of a national orientation of the previous generation of Austrian galleries, this wave of fine art enterprises was new in the sense that it moved around more in the context of intensive internationalisation, trying to break into the international market partly based on international artists, but also through the internationalisation of domestic artists. This latter moment was extended by Knoll in the direction of basing on Hungarian and other Eastern and Central European artists as well. He has at least a half a decade of advantage even as compared to the earliest founded Budapest commercial galleries (around 1990), and has been working in the international scene for around two decades, which experience should be built on by Hungarian galleries and institutions, to promote the importance of the Budapest fine art life and the art market. The Viennese gallerist is open to the new trends in international art life, and also takes part in this context by organising a considerable number of international art projects. He gradually integrates his artists in the activity of international institutions. The market positions of the gallery are also continuously strengthening, and not only among private collectors, but partly in the circle of museums and business corporations as well, and the gallery glides forward among the rows of smaller but active international galleries with an acknowledged professional activity.

Within the New Wave Among Austrian Contemporary Commercial Galleries
and the Appearance in Budapest

The boom in the eighties among Austrian contemporary commercial galleries was a part of the international wave of founding new galleries, and Hans Knoll was one of the most clever representatives of this group, as he was one of the few survivors of the 400-500 newly established galleries. It would be difficult to say exactly to which extent his success was explained by working together with artists from different nations or by the internationalisation of domestic artists. Numerous well-established Austrian galleries –such as Galerie Nächst St. Stephan and Galerie Krinzinger – base their work on a combination of this, while a great number of freshly founded local galleries dealing only with domestic artists were less successful and went broke one after the other in the eighties. One thing is certain: the mentioned more internationalised line from the eighties brought a new phase within Austrian contemporary fine art renomé building.

Hans Knoll and Heinz Cibulka, 2008

Hans Knoll founded his gallery in Vienna in 1985. In the beginning the gallery operated in the outskirts of Vienna, in the form of art and social gatherings, and the meetings built on different art media - film, video, painting – connected with cooking. Later the events gradually gained a higher ranking, and the gallery moved downtown. As opposed to the majority of the galleries, which followed Cologne, and tried to break into the international market primarily by managing international artists, the gallerist developed an international strategy built on Austrian artists. In the course of this, he started to deal more intensively with Eastern European art as well, and not only Hungarian, but Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Polish art, too. He was the first – and interesting enough the only one of the Austrian gallerists till this very day – who set up a “bridge-head” in Budapest, institutionalising the role he intended to play as a bridge between East and the West at the time of the regime change. He established an office on Pozsonyi Street already in 1988, followed by the opening of the Knoll Gallery Budapest, on Liszt Ferenc Square, in 1989, as the first international gallery in Hungary.

Developer Commercial Gallery with an Open, International Programme in the 90s

As a gallerist, Hans Knoll proclaims himself not a simple merchant, but a developer. He sets out to build the long term development of the artists he manages, and the art market in general. He supports the participation of his artists in different projects, shows. He establishes professional contacts for his artists, and helps broaden the professional debate through the organising of domestic and international art events, at times going beyond the interests of the limited sphere of his artists. A “developer gallerist” thinks in the context of an art scene, of a city. In Budapest, such moments are the regular presentation of international artists in the Knoll Gallery, the orientation of the art scene with international projects.

The programme of the Knoll Gallery is continuously developed, the participating artists are selected to fit a definite profile. This profile is considerably marked, still the gallerist cautions against its identification with any trend – even with the post-conceptualist label, as he says that the activity of characteristic artists transcends the borders of these. The artists of the Knoll Gallery in Budapest in the beginning were: Ákos Birkás, János Sugár, Zsigmond Károlyi, Róza El-Hassan and András Bernát.

However, the programme of the gallery is relatively open as compared to commercial galleries – though in the West this is already natural in the circle of developer galleries. The gallerist has an ongoing, closer co-operation with a smaller circle of artists, and a looser co-operation with a broader circle of creators. Both circles are open and changing in time. The inner circle first involved the Austrian Johanna Kandl, Werner Reiterer and Karl-Heinz Klopf, and the Hungarian Ákos Birkás and Róza El-Hassan.

International Projects – International Market

Around one-third of Hans Knoll’s activity is realised in projects involving the artists who are part of the inner or outer circle – or an even broader circle – of artists co-operating with the gallery, with special financing raised for the projects. This trait is already a basic requirement for galleries aiming at international visibility, acknowledgement and presence.

Jan van der Pol's opening in the Knoll Gallery, 2008

Knoll proved to be very clever in weaving together the international management of his artists with his own acknowledgement for the organisation of international projects (e.g. Détente, Übergänge, White Flags, Governementality). It was through this that he became able to play the role of the recommending person even in the case of major international events. It was this way that he had János Sugár participate at the Documenta, Róza El-Hassan at the Aperto, and Ákos Birkás (through Paris, Brussels, Düsseldorf and Berlin galleries) at the Basel and the Cologne international fairs. Knoll – together with Roger Bürgel - organised the Expo 2000 shows titled Governementality, in Moscow, then in Hanover, on the basis of which his organising partner Bürgel was selected to be the artistic director of the Kassel Documenta in 2007.

In the nineties around 70-80% of the gallery’s sales were realised in Austria and 20-30% internationally, while presently the shares are 50-50%, however, as the latter often involves the most representative choices with higher prices, thus the proportions in terms of values are greater than 50% for the international sales with less than half of them going to Austrian markets. Sales in Hungary had been modest, but show a certain increase in recent years. Sales to museums have been limited in the past years, perhaps 10%, as the museums’ budgets were quite restrained. Meanwhile sales to enterprises were somewhat higher and with an increasing share, with business to private individuals covering the greatest share.

International Developer Established Art Gallery in Central and Eastern Europe in the 2000s

In the course of time, by the 2000s, the Knoll Gallery gradually started becoming a gallery of a higher class, an international developer established art gallery, at least a Central and Eastern European version of this, if not a New York type.

This is shown among others by the circle of artists of the gallery. The inner circle presently includes the Hungarian Ákos Birkás and Csaba Nemes, the Austrian Wilhelm Scherübl, and the Russian AES+F, and Blue Noses. Besides this, within an outer circle, the gallery also organises events for a number of younger Hungarian artists, Zsolt Keserue, Emese Benczúr, Erika Baglyas,  to a smaller extent for Róza El-Hassan, while also arranging exhibitions for some great international stars as well, like Joseph Kosuth, Tony Cragg, David Rabinowitch and Douglas Gordon. The Knoll Gallery in Vienna works 90% with international artists. This is the result of Hans Knoll’s all-international active presence, exchange of gestures, projects, art works and artists.

The internationalisation of the gallery involves taking part in around 10 international art fairs each year recently.

The gallery’s international character is also manifested in its projects in Central and Eastern Europe. These have involved among others 14 museum shows arranged with the works of Tony Cragg in museums in Central and Eastern Europe; the White Flag projects organised in 1997 and 2006 in Budapest, but also three times in Moscow, as well as in Innsbruck and Linz in Austria, involving a large number of open studios and lectures and discussions within them; and the already mentioned Expo 2000 shows titled Governementality, arranged in Moscow and later on in Hanover.

Thus, the Knoll Gallery has slowly evolved into a type of gallery which may again set a new example for Budapest galleries, a number of which have been starting to manage an artist stable with Hungarian established and young artists but, for the time being, at a more local level, with only minor international presence, but perhaps with the hope of following the set model sometime in the future.