Eva and Manfred Frey, both Vienna-based doctors and art collectors, have been committed to art their entire lives. While they usually like to stay out of the spotlight, they kindly met with viennacontemporary for an online interview from their home in Vienna to talk about their passion for discovering young art, the importance of social contact in the art world and how Covid-19 is currently changing the art market.
viennacontemporary: Let’s start from the beginning. How did your passion for collecting develop? Did it evolve together or did one of you inspire the other?
Manfred Frey: Our passion for art started individually, before we met, and has always been something we share. For many years, we visited a lot of art-galleries and museums together. In the beginning, we only looked at art. Over the last 20 or 30 years we learned to look at art together and got to know many young artists who went on to establish themselves. Once we could afford to buy art, it was always a joint decision. Today, if my wife goes ahead to a vernissage without me, she knows exactly which work will be my favorite and vice-versa. It’s always completely clear.
Eva Frey: It was a shared passion from the start and has further evolved together. There is hardly anything that unites us the way art does. It’s always a real pleasure to show the other one something you have discovered.
viennacontemporary: Where does your love for art come from?
Eva Frey: Art and culture were extremely important in both my husband’s family and my own, even though – back in the 50s and 60s – they did not have the money to buy art. But we always had art books and visited many exhibitions. Art has always been an integral part of our upbringing, just like reading and writing.
viennacontemporary: What was the first piece of art that you bought together?
Eva Frey: It was a gift for my husband when he was awarded his doctorate. I wanted to find something special, so I drove into town to look for something I could afford. It was the first time that I thought about buying art and I have to admit that I was a little surprised by how expensive the works were. In the end, I chose a graphic by Paul Flora. Before I could buy it, I had to return home to scrape together all my savings. We never take this picture off the wall. Even when other pictures sometimes have to make room, this one always stays.
viennacontemporary: At what point did you have to admit to yourselves that you had become collectors?
Manfred Frey: When all walls were full and we had to start storing art in our archive, in the basement, and everywhere else in the house. It was apparently noticed by the gallery scene that we purchased art frequently.
Eva Frey: So, people said we were collectors and we thought, well, why not – that’s not a bad thing. We only collect works we have room for. Of course, this means a limitation in size when it comes to pictures or sculptures. Our collection is located in several places: in our practices, in our holiday home at Attersee and in the apartments of our children – we are particularly pleased that they are very interested in art and always choose works they want to hang in their apartments. And, of course, we have lots of artworks here, in our home in Vienna. Three years ago, we even built a depot in our basement.
Manfred Frey: There was too much art wrapped in foil. To us, it was like buried art – it was unbearable. That’s why we chose to transform our basement into a small showroom, with art neatly sorted in drawers and showcases.
Eva Frey: At the very latest, this is when we became collectors.
viennacontemporary: What advice would you give to people just getting started with their own collections?
Manfred Frey: In the beginning – before we could start buying – there was a period of about 15 years in which we only looked at art. It is very important not to be shy and visit many galleries, even if you don’t purchase anything. If the gallery is only interested in selling, turn around, leave immediately and never go back there. Another interesting aspect, of course, is maintaining close contact with the art scene: gallery owners, artists, and other collectors, who you can engage in discussions with to find out what they like and why. If you like an artwork, you don’t have to buy immediately. Take your time for research: What else did the artist do? Do her or his other works keep up with the quality of the one you like?
Eva Frey: Learn, look, be brave – don’t follow any rankings and make your own judgment.
viennacontemporary: How would you describe your taste when it comes to your collection? Is there a general theme you are specializing in?
Manfred Frey: I would say: the more contemporary, the better.
Eva Frey: Contemporary art shows us the time we live in – it is always a political statement. I am thinking here of the German pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, where artist Natascha Süder Happelmann addressed Europe’s immigration policies. We are intrigued by artists who use their practice to take a stand and provide food for thought. We have also discovered that we are particularly interested in the art of two age groups: artists who are roughly our age – we’ve had the opportunity to follow their development and we might have been affected by similar influences; and artists the age of our children, who are around 40. We are always surprised when we like a work and find out that the artist’s date of birth is close to our daughter’s or son’s.
Manfred Frey: The aesthetic is also important to us. Even though we are very interested in conceptual art, the concept alone is not enough: I have to be touched and drawn in by a work without having read half a book about it. The work has to pull you in first, and then you start to dig deeper.
viennacontemporary: How do you decide which art to buy?
Eva Frey: We have become pretty good at looking. When we’re traveling internationally – not right now, of course, – we always gather information about current exhibitions at galleries and museums in our destination and enter all art locations we accidentally pass. When we enter a place, it’s an immediate decision: sometimes we spend an hour in the gallery, sometimes we are gone within two minutes. This is not a quality judgment, but after decades of looking at art, we have developed certain areas of particular interest. We have become very independent of names and rankings in our decisions. If something appeals to us, we usually try to find out more about the artist.
Manfred Frey: It’s important to us to know a lot of artists personally. If we are attending an opening or going to an art fair where artists we know present new works, we already know the basic information about them and their work. We’ll then look to see if there is anything particularly interesting or new being presented. We are also always seeking to discover young artists whose art sweeps us off our feet.
viennacontemporary: You are known for investing in very young art. What is it that fascinates you about it?
Eva Frey: Art is always a commentary on the times we live in. Intergenerational understanding is very important to us, that’s why we like to engage with young artists and the issues they deal with.
Manfred Frey: It is, of course, also a financial factor: you can afford to buy it. It is fascinating to us to see the potential of an artist at a very early stage.
viennacontemporary: How important is an artist’s personality to you?
Eva Frey: We’ve had cases where we fell in love with an artwork, but ended up disliking the artist who created it. This actually happened with a very well-known artist.
Manfred Frey: That was it for us – we did not think about buying it any longer. In my opinion, an artwork is the personality, you cannot separate the two.
viennacontemporary: The Corona-Crisis has made it more difficult to meet artists and gallerists personally. How do you stay in touch in these times?
Eva Frey: Staying informed is easy, because institutions are making great efforts to keep in touch. Foreign museums have never tried harder to be visible. However, buying art is quite difficult for us at the moment since we do not buy online. I think that if the art market became a completely digital affair, we would not buy anything anymore.
viennacontemporary: Do you think that the art market will continue to develop in this direction?
Manfred Frey: Over the last few months, the quality of online presentations has drastically improved. Sophisticated 3D-programs and live tours through exhibitions create real live impressions of the works presented. The digital presentations are well accompanied by online information about artists, you can look up biographies, join virtual studio visits, etc. All of this has been put on the web very quickly, just to have something to show, but the result is that now we can access content from home that was not accessible at all before. In the real world, you might visit an artist’s studio only if you know his or her gallery well, or in the context of an art fair program – but now, you can simply press a button whenever you have time and immediately find yourself in a studio or in a video conversation with interesting people. I think that these are great initiatives and I hope that in the future these aspects can be combined with the analog world.
viennacontemporary: The current crisis is especially hard on artists and smaller galleries – do you feel that, as collectors, it is your responsibility to help? If so, what can one do?
Eva Frey: I do not think that it is very helpful to run around and aimlessly buy art. Instead, it would be better to continue on the same path and to focus on the artists you have always had an interest in. In general, it is important to talk more about the visual arts – also in politics. If people only talked half as much about contemporary art than they do about bars, I would be happy. Many artists have told me that their day-to-day situation has not changed – they are used to working in the studio alone. What they are missing – as are we – are the art gatherings, exhibitions, the discussions – the lively aspect of art.