Beyeler Foundation celebrates first decade

Natural light streams into all the rooms - here a Rothko room (Serge Hasenböhler)

The Beyeler Foundation in Basel, which houses the collection of Hildy and Ernst Beyeler, is celebrating ten years as a success story in the world of art.

This content was published on January 24, 2007 - 14:49

After a decade during which 29 special exhibitions have been staged, the art museum has become the most popular in Switzerland, now welcoming more than 340,000 visitors a year.

But the success has come at a cost and there are financial concerns about the future.

By setting up their private collection in a building designed by star Italian architect Renzo Piano, the Beyelers offered a magnificent museum to their city. Major art of the 20th century is shown in 200 paintings and sculptures from 40 artists.

The works of such artists as Cézanne, Picasso, Rousseau, Mondrian, Klee, Ernst and Matisse are displayed alongside, and in direct interaction with, 25 objects from Africa, Alaska and Oceania.

The collection was put together over 50 years at the Beyeler Gallery in Basel.

No preconceptions

"This collection came together without any preconceived idea," the museum's director Christoph Vitali told swissinfo. "They are works that the Beyelers did not wish to or could not sell."

In the same way, the works of Paul Klee are extremely popular today but no one really wanted them at the time.

The Beyelers kept what they liked, just like the big dealers who have made art history.

"It was only in the 1980s that they began to ask themselves what they would do with them," Vitali said.

The construction of the museum in Riehen on the outskirts of Basel was financed by a foundation created by the couple in 1982. The commune and canton Basel City provided the land.

Natural light

The museum, which is in the middle of the countryside, is covered in red porphyry and glass, with the 22 rooms bathing in natural light.

"It's this unique combination of collection, architecture and the country that makes the museum's success," Vitali said. "The public love to come here for the day."

Another reason for its renown is a dynamic programme which features special exhibitions, concerts, fashion shows and other events.

The tenth anniversary is to be marked from August 19 by an exhibition devoted for the first time to the history of the Beyeler Gallery. Nearly 16,000 canvases, sculptures and works on paper have passed through Bäumleingasse 9, the original address that has remained unchanged.

"We will show 100 of the most important works, which for the most part have come from major public and private collections throughout the world," Vitali said.

Financial concerns

But success has not prevented financial concerns, with Vitali explaining that the Beyelers had to withdraw financially. The ambitious programme of the museum is also difficult to finance.

Public authorities pledged SFr2 million ($1.6 million) a year for the first ten years to the annual running costs of SFr14 million.

"We have asked for an extension of subsidies. The commune of Riehen has said yes, but the canton is a bit more reticent. However, I hope they will continue," said Vitali.

Entrance tickets bring in SFr5 million and then there is revenue from the shop and restaurant.

Museum friends

In a bid to bring in more money, Vitali created a Friends of the Museum Society, whose 130 members contribute a total of SFr300,000-400,000 a year. And then there are sponsors.

It is no accident in this delicate financial position that the designated successor of the foundation's director, who retires in April 2008, is Samuel Keller.

Keller has been the director of Art Basel since 1995 and the creator of the twin fair Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002.

He is an art historian and discoverer of talent who knows how to attract publicity. Will the arrival of an "art businessman" be a turning point in the foundation's history?

"I think Samuel Keller will, like me, spend most of his time on the programme and only then look for ways to pay for it all," Vitali said.

swissinfo, Isabelle Eichenberger

The Beyeler Foundation

As well as owning a gallery, Hildy and Ernst Beyeler over half a century collected 200 works of 40 major 20th century artists.

In 1982 the collection was entrusted to a foundation and presented to the public in its entirety for the first time in 1989 in Madrid.

The Beyeler Foundation was inaugurated on October 18, 1997 in Riehen near Basel.

The new museum was designed by Genoa architect Renzo Piano, who was responsible for the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Paul Klee Centre in Bern.

Over the past ten years, the collection and 29 special exhibitions have attracted 2.5 million visitors.

Out of an annual budget of SFr14 million, SFr2 million comes from the commune and the canton, and SFr5 million comes from entrance tickets.

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The 2007 Programme

Edvard Munch special exhibition - "Signs of Modern Art" - from March 18 to July 15, with 140 paintings, drawings and engravings of the Norwegian artist (1863-1944).

An exhibition "The Other Collection" will celebrate ten years of the Beyeler Foundation. It is a tribute to 60 years of the Beyeler Gallery and runs from August 19, 2007 to January 6, 2008.

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