Klaus Albrecht Schröder, General Manager ALBERTINA and Karlheinz Essl, 2017 | Photo © ALBERTINA, Wien
Klaus Albrecht Schröder, General Manager ALBERTINA and Karlheinz Essl, 2017 | Photo © ALBERTINA, Wien

The History of the Essl Collection

The Essl Collection story is inseparably intertwined with the life stories of Agnes and Karlheinz Essl. It was in 1958 that the young Carinthian businessman Karlheinz Essl and the gallery employee Agnes Schömer from Klosterneuburg first met each other in New York. Their shared interest in contemporary art made for an instant connection.

The 1980s saw the Essl Collection grow to become the most important collection of Austrian contemporary art. From Viennese Actionism to works by abstract painters from the circle of the Galerie nächst St. Stephan and from the group known as the “Wirklichkeiten” to the “Neue Wilde” group as well as artists of younger generations, the Essl Collection was unique in providing a comprehensive impression of developments in Austrian fine art since the end of World War II.

The Collection Becomes Accessible

When the Essls set about planning the new headquarters of their family business—the Schömer-Haus in Klosterneuburg—in 1985, the integration of the Essl Collection was a key criterion in the associated architecture competition. The Austrian architect and future Grand Austrian State Prize winner Heinz Tesar prevailed with his design. Tesar planned a multi-story building centered on a light-flooded ovular hall with a surrounding gallery, which became the first location where the Essl Collection could be made publicly accessible.

International Collecting

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening of Europe’s borders in 1989, Agnes and Karlheinz Essl decided to expand their collection by international works. Tendencies from all over Europe—especially from Germany, Spain, and the countries of Europe’s southeast—as well as from the USA gained a presence. The initial years of the 21st century then saw the addition of works from China, Australia, and India.

Worldwide Recognition

It was with the exhibition The Decade of Painting at Kunstforum Wien (1991) that central works from the Essl Collection were introduced to a broader audience for the first time. Due to its great success and the accordingly strong international interest, this exhibition then traveled the globe until 1996—being shown in eleven further museums on three continents.

A Museum is Built

In the interest of creating a permanent home for the Essl Collection, which had grown to include several thousand works, the collectors Agnes and Karlheinz Essl ultimately decided to build their own museum. At the resulting Essl Museum in Klosterneuburg, likewise planned by Heinz Tesar and opened in 1999, the Essls spent 17 years showing their collection—itself a significant component of Austria’s recent art history—to a broad audience while also providing access to academic researchers and art experts.

In the International Art Scene

By virtue of its international holdings, the Essl Collection presented a combined panorama of Austrian and international contemporary art that was unique the world over. Every year saw up to 400 works from the Essl Collection loaned to the world’s most important museums including the Tate Modern in London, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the National Gallery in Berlin, the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, and many others.

Transfer to the ALBERTINA Museum

In February 2017, the Essl Collection took the initial step of entrusting its holdings to the ALBERTINA Museum as a permanent loan until 2044. In the context of the ALBERTINA Museum’s preexisting collections, this addition gave rise to a multi-century panorama of Austrian art embedded in an international context—making possible a near-uninterrupted survey of several centuries of art history into the present. It is thus that the Essl Collection, one of the world’s most important privately compiled collections, is now being conserved, curated, and made accessible to the present-day public as well as coming generations by the ALBERTINA Museum. The collection currently includes approximately 6,000 works.

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