Basel beats Bern in battle for art

The collection of Picasso, Chagall and Jawlensky works will now leave its home on lake Thun forever Keystone

A contest between two leading art museums to house a prestigious collection of classical modernism art has been won by the Basel Kunstmuseum.

This content was published on June 6, 2002 - 07:57

Bern's fine arts museum had hoped that the Im Obersteg collection, which includes works by Jawlensky, Chagall and Picasso, would fill the gap soon to be created when it transfers its Paul Klee collection to a new museum on the city's outskirts.

But after a year of discussion, the board of the Im Obersteg foundation chose Basel.

"I'm absolutely delighted," the Basel Kunstmuseum director, Bernhard Mendes Bürgi told swissinfo. "We are already strong in classical modernism, and with these works we've an ideal context for the Im Obersteg collection."

As for the Bern Kunstmuseum, its acting director Felix Baumann said he was "very disappointed".

Stuck in storage

Baumann added that while his museum would have exhibited most of the more than 160 works on a permanent basis, Basel was planning to exhibit only about 40, with the remainder only being brought out of storage to be included in temporary exhibitions.

In the end, family ties were apparently the deciding factor. The late Swiss industrialist Karl Im Obersteg - who began the collection after the First World War - and his art collector son Jürg had close connections with both Basel and its fine arts museum.

Another factor taken into account was the concentration of leading art institutions in and around Basel, which ensures that a much wider public will see the Im Obersteg collection.

Toni Stooss, a former director of Bern's Kunstmuseum, and a member of the Im Obersteg foundation's board, says the decision was a difficult one. "Until just a few days ago it was not clear where the collection would go," he said.

Perfect setting

The lakeside village of Oberhofen, just a few kilometres from Thun in Canton Bern, has for ten years been a perfect setting for this small but important art collection.

Visitors are able to arrive there by boat, and step ashore to see some of the best examples of late 19th and early 20th century classical modernism in a building with commanding views of the lake and the mountains of the Bernese Oberland.

But in recent years the annual number of visitors had fallen from 15,000 in 1992 to about 4,000 last year. "Unfortunately the Oberhofen building is not air-conditioned," says Stooss. "This means it has had to be closed during the high tourist season in winter while the collection was stored at the Bern Kunstmuseum.

"The move to Basel will ensure that many more members of the public will have access to this priceless collection."

by Richard Dawson

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