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Basel opens first warehouse for art

A deceptively spacious design by Herzog and de Meuron (H. Helfenstein)

How do you describe an art museum that is not a museum? The answer in German is Schaulager or "viewing warehouse".

But this latest addition to Basel's cultural scene is unlikely to let the small matter of an identity crisis prevent it from leading the way in which art works are stored.

"It's something between a storage house and a museum," Schaulager director Theodora Vischer told swissinfo. "And as far as we know, the first of its kind."

This is definitely no ordinary warehouse.

For a start the building, designed by award-winning Swiss architects, Herzog and de Meuron, is as unconventional as the Schaulager concept is revolutionary.

Ten minutes by tram from the centre of Basel, it's on an industrial estate. Polygonal in shape, it has a brown façade covered in pebbles taken from the bed of a former river which once flowed through the site.

Vast space

A further surprise awaits the first-time visitor. The five-floor interior, mostly white, includes a vast exhibition area of 4,300 square metres and a further 7,244 square metres - closed to the public - for the storage of art works.

"Most art museums lack storage space so works not being exhibited are put in crates, where it's difficult for them to be observed by curators and researched by art scholars," says Vischer.

"Here we have ample space for paintings to be hung and rooms for sculptures and other installations to be seen," she continues. "The amazing thing is that no one had previously thought of such a concept."

Conservation

The Schaulager concept first came about when the directors of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation were faced with a chronic shortage of space in which to house the vast collection.

The Foundation was established in Basel in 1933 with the aim of buying works of art "looking to the future and not yet generally understood in the present".

It became so extensive that only a small number of the 650 works - including many large installations - could be placed on display in Basel's fine arts and contemporary art museums, to which they are on permanent loan.

Those works not on display were dismantled and boxed for storage meaning that most of the collection could not be viewed. In addition, there were fears that the often unfamiliar materials and new media would deteriorate during storage.

Optimum conditions

The Foundation's president, Maja Oeri, realised that the answer to these problems was not the conventional one of creating more museum space.

In the Schaulager, art works are given space to breath in a building where temperatures are kept at a constant 21 degrees and light can be adjusted as required.

As for Schaulager's capacity, Vischer says it will never be full - because works loaned to art museums for exhibitions will create space for works being returned for storage.

Annual exhibitions are planned, the first being a major retrospective of drawings, books, pictures and installations by the German artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998).

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

In brief

Schaulager is a new kind of art venue in Basel.

Designed by architects Herzog & de Meuron, it has a total surface of 16,000 square metres.

It primarily addresses a specialist audience of restorers, curators, researchers, students and teachers, but occasional exhibitions will also be accessible to the public.

When not on loan for exhibitions elsewhere, some 650 works from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation's collection will be kept there.

Its first exhibition, the first major retrospective of works by Dieter Roth since his death in 1998, ends on September 13.

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