Back in 2014, Phileas, an independent philanthropic organisation, sustained by the generous contributions of its private members, was founded in Vienna. The organisation draws its name from the Ancient Greek word “philia,” denoting friendship, and pays homage to Jules Verne’s daring adventurer, Phileas Fogg from ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.

Phileas supports artists, curators, galleries, and institutions within Austria, bolstering their presence on the global contemporary art scene. By cultivating long-lasting partnerships with museums, biennials, and art institutions worldwide, Phileas plays a key role in facilitating the production and exhibition of new artworks and their donation to public collections.

The exhibition space and office of Phileas in Vienna serve as a hub, offering insights into the organisation’s dynamic international activities. These spaces serve as a platform for public talks, screenings, performances, and other events. 

Phileas extends its support to the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Through an intricate approach combining fundraising, publishing initiatives, and comprehensive art historical research, Phileas ensures the pavilion’s global recognition.

Next to it, Phileas runs a Visitor program, designed to invite international curators, art critics, and museum specialists to Austria throughout the year, granting them exclusive access to artists’ studios, galleries, museums, and artist-run spaces. 

.ART interviewed Jasper Sharp, Vienna-based curator and art historian, director of Phileas.  

Let’s start our conversation with the mission of Phileas and the overall scope of work you’re busy with…

The main focus of what we do is to help artists who live and work in Austria,  regardless of whether they are Austrian or not, but also the institutions and the galleries and the artist-run spaces – to help them all have a better, more fruitful dialogue with the rest of the world. To help artists to have exhibition opportunities at institutions, biennials, museums, to make sure that the local galleries are integrated better into the international networks, that the exhibitions travel, and that the curatorial work is being seen internationally.

So it’s really about the exchange between local and international art communities. We have a very active Visitor program that brings curators, critics and art professionals to Austria all the way through the year. It’s really about shining a light on what’s going on here and hoping that some of that light will reflect favourably on people who are programming institutions and organisations around the world.

Christian Kosmas Mayer, First Monograph. Photo: Carreon Lopez

Does your Visitor program focus on any specific region or is it open globally?

It’s not focused on any particular region. We need to do more to reach curators in certain parts of the world where our contacts are not so developed. For example, during the last trip in June 2023, we had curators from Mexico, Israel, Nigeria, South Korea, Lithuania and Denmark.

Do you function in a way like the Mondrian fund or like Prohelvetia? I believe there are quite some similarities.

We’re a younger and smaller version of those organisations. Prohelvetia, for example, goes beyond art into architecture, design, literature, music, dance. We are very much concentrated on contemporary art, but they were definitely the models that we looked at. We’re now a part of a group called Peer-to-Peer which brings together seven or eight of similar organisations. Unlike them, we are not 100% state-funded. We actually began as a privately-funded organisation, and we were entirely privately funded for the first years of our existence. And then at a certain point, we began to receive small public subsidies every year. Earlier this year, we formed a partnership with the government whereby the amount of private funding that we raise every year is entirely matched by the government. So we’re pretty much a public-private partnership at this point, which didn’t really have a precedent in Austria, certainly within the world of visual arts. 

But those are the organisations that we look at, we learn from them. They’ve inspired us. And it was the lack of an organisation like that in Austria that made us create Phileas in the first place.

Sophie Thun, First Monograph. Photo: Carreon Lopez

Within your office space you have public spaces: a library and an exhibition space. Could you tell us more about how they function? 

This year we have 18 exhibitions around the world in different countries that we’re funding and helping to produce. The idea is that every year we would bring back three of those projects to Vienna at different times of year and give them a second life in our exhibition space here, because most of them were conceived in Vienna, born in Vienna, developed in Vienna, and then they go out to be shown somewhere in the world and often that’s quite far away. 

Next year, for example, we will collaborate with the Austrian pavilion in Venice again, and show some of the main works that will be in Venice at the Austrian pavilion at the same time in Vienna. So that people who live here have an opportunity to see the work that is representing them, if you like, at the biennale in Venice.

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