Rudolf Budja, the gallerist behind the eponymous Rudolf Budja Gallery, stumbled into the art world at the very top, in a sense. It was 1986, and Budja, an Austrian from Graz, decided to set off for the United States. “I left when I was 18, on my birthday, to Miami. That was my escape from home.” However, his plan wasn’t a pre-determined, permanent move. “I wanted to go on vacation for two weeks,” Budja tells me, “And I ended up for two months in Miami. During the layover in New York when I was going back to Austria, I decided to stay.”
During this time, Budja hadn’t yet developed his love and eye for art—he worked as a DJ and spent a lot of time in New York’s clubs. But, given that this was ’86, it was perfect art world timing. Budja says he met Jean-Michel Basquiat at Area, the nightclub on Hudson Street, as well as other celebrities and artists that frequented the club. “He was just this kind of cool guy,” Budja says of Basquiat, “He wanted the turntables but didn’t really know what he was doing.” It was a contrasting image of the artistic genius that he was, as Budja would come to learn.
While everyone else was getting messed up, Rudolf was drinking water since he was under 21 and active in sports. “Everyone called me Rudolfo Minerales,” he says with a laugh. A memory that sticks out heavily in his mind from that time period is seeing Andy Warhol at a grocery store, somewhere in SoHo. This proved to be a serendipitous event, given that Budja would soon start acquiring an impressive collection of Warhols and many other pop and modern artists.
“I was just a boy, running around New York making music,” Budja says of the time.
After a year of being in New York, he went Los Angeles. “This is where I really got my art education,” he says. Budja hung out and shopped at Gemini G.E.L., the historic artist’s workshop and innovative print making studio founded in 1966. The young Budja met artists there and in L.A.’s nightlife, and started to acquire a collection of art. “I would get paid in prints for work I was doing,” he says. Budja then decided to open his first gallery in at the age of 19, in his hometown of Graz, in 1988.
In the time since then, his art expertise and clientele has grown across continents. He went on to open several galleries in Europe, including Salzburg and Vienna, and his collection grew to include a number of influential Pop and conceptual artists.
One early artist was fellow Austrian Erwin Wurm. “He was an artist I discovered when I was very young. I now have around 100 pieces from the artist, the largest collection of his work,” Budja says. Wurm, lesser known but an artist who has entered the critical canon, “Went into the minds of people and influenced them to do things they would never do on their own,” Budja says. “He realized that he could make sculptures out of these people, by taking a photograph. He called them One Minute Sculptures.”
In the years since, Budja has mounted major exhibitions that proclaim the strength and diversity of his acquisitions: a show of Laurence Schiller’s photographs of Marylyn Monroe; the works of David LaChapelle; and of course, many exhibitions of Warhol and other foundational pop artists. He’s been collecting Warhols since the 80s. “I paid very little for them back then—they weren’t cheap for the time, but they weren’t anywhere close to what they’re worth now.” However, Budja doesn’t acquire all works just to sell them off. “Sometimes you are tempted, it would be so easy to sell it and then you have a lot of money to play with. I sell other works, but there are certain pieces I would never sell.”
The Austrian collector is not only interested in Western art—over the years, he’s amassed a passion and collection of Asian art too, and has put on several shows of contemporary Chinese artists. For his three children, all girls, he collects Japanese art. This hints at the scope that his eye has honed. At this point in his career, Budja has served thousands of clients over the last thirty years. His international network has him drawing connections globally.
“It’s interesting to see different artists who don’t know each other doing similar things. If you find out what’s going on, you start to see the next step. I use this as a tool to figure out which artists to work with at the gallery.”
Though he’s done several exhibitions at spaces in Miami, he’s only now planning to open a more permanent space. It wasn’t like this at first though: “I just played around in Miami when I was bored,” he says of his early times in the Magic City. “It was nothing serious, but now, I want to make a new space.” Budja is currently renovating a 10,000 square foot warehouse on Miami Beach, and should be opening in December this year.
At the end of the day though, it’s about more than just international exhibitions and the buying and selling of art. “What we really do, what my profession is—first of all—is to make people happy by building them up with very collectible items for a truly good collection. It’s not only the money, it’s about the person and what they really love and appreciate,” Budja says.
“You don’t just buy a piece of art, you buy a whole experience, a history.”