Zurich takes centre stage of contemporary art scene

Thomas Kern/

The economic metropolis has emerged as the capital of contemporary art in Switzerland. The newly renovated Löwenbräukunst, located in Zurich-West, is at the centre of the action bringing galleries, museums, publishers, and libraries under the same roof.

This content was published on October 28, 2012 minutes
Ariane Gigon in Zurich,

The loss of tens of millions of factory jobs in the 1970s and 1980s had a major impact on many industrialised cities. Zurich was no exception. From Oerlikon to the north and west of the city, factories of all sizes and types closed their doors.

Today, with new names and super modern buildings, “New Oerlikon” and “Zurich-West” have forged hip urban identities. Ruth Genner, a Zurich parliamentarian and member of the Green Party, compared their transformation to “a butterfly out of its cocoon” during the opening ceremony of the “Art and the City” festival in June.

She used a similar description during a first presentation of “Löwenbräukunst,” the centre for contemporary art located in Zurich-West, which recently reopened its doors after two years of renovation. Architectural firms Gigon/Guyer and ww led the renovation of the centre, officially inaugurated in August.

The Zurich-West art invasion began in the mid-1980s. The first gallerists took advantage of the massive spaces provided by deserted factories. In some cases, decrepit conditions provided a fitting atmosphere for the works and installations popular at the time. In 1996, the “Löwenbräu,” a former brewery, became home to the Kunsthalle, the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst (contemporary art), and a number of galleries.

From the start, the rapid expansion of this centre has not only impacted Zurich, but also the map of contemporary art in Switzerland. Today, the city is largely seen as the centre. While Basel is home to one of the world’s premier contemporary and modern art shows (Art Basel), the number of galleries based there cannot compare with Zurich. Meanwhile, Geneva is more focused on its high-end jewellery boutiques, noted a former gallerist who requested not to be named.

A Zurich tradition

“In the 1990s, the number of galleries grew everywhere, not only in Zurich,” said Claudia Jolles, editor-in-chief of Kunstbulletin, a Swiss art magazine. But Zurich had a tradition of art commerce working in its favour.

“During the Second World War, a number of art merchants set up shop along the banks of the River Limmat. The growing importance of art is therefore not a new phenomenon,” said Jolles.

Today, Löwenbräukunst is a pioneer in today’s contemporary art scene. “To have museums and galleries in the same place is unique and it offers a clear advantage for international buyers. Not to mention, the airport is very close,” she explained.

While the movement may have private sector origins, the city of Zurich also provided significant support in a second phase of development – highlighting the importance and potential of the sector. The creative and artistic economy in Zurich represents 7.7 per cent of the city’s GDP, compared with 4.2 per cent at the national level.

Accessible art

“We would like to bring a better balance to the city. Not only growing the infrastructure, but also making artistic life more visible,” explained Genner.

The mix of galleries and museums may be helping to make that happen. “It creates a new dynamic. It also gives a face to Zurich as a cultural city. Plus, the combination takes the edge off for a segment of the public that visits museums but feels uncomfortable going into a gallery,” said Jolles.

The support provided by Basel-based Maya Hoffmann and her foundation, Luma, has been central to Löwenbräukunst’s development. Patronage has included the sponsorship of workspaces and funding for curators. According to some, the Basel model of risk-taking art patrons has influenced what has traditionally been a very different style of supporting the arts in Zurich, which is more closely linked to the private sector and focused on safer bets.

Added competition?

Another interesting mix found in Zurich’s contemporary art centre is that of the established and the emerging. Institutions and large international galleries, such as Eva Presenhuber, Hauser & Wirth and Bob van Orsouw, sit comfortably next to young artists who made their way along a more alternative path like Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, originally from canton Vaud. In a similar style, old and new architecture has found a harmonious fit.

Some ask if galleries situated in other parts of the city might suffer from this booming urban art area. Contemporary art expert Jolles refutes such concerns.

“On the contrary, there are more visitors everywhere! Zurich is made up of many microcosms and the energy often springs from the alternative scene. And that dynamic is not dead because some of those artists have made it. It’s constantly reinventing itself,” Jolles said.

Galerist Mark Müller identifies himself as an emerging actor who has made it. He decided not to rent space in the Löwenbräukunst, but to open his gallery five minutes away from the new centre.

“Beyond the rent, which is a deterrent in my eyes, I like to keep a certain distance. Visitors do not stumble into my gallery. Nonetheless, we all benefit from Löwenbräukunst,” Müller said.

Mitigated detractors aside, from Geneva to Basel, Zurich’s position as the Swiss leader in the contemporary art market is well recognised. Katie Kennedy Perez, from Phillips de Pury & Company, an art gallery in Geneva, said, “The commitment from the private sector, which didn’t wait for the public sector to take charge, definitely played a big role in Zurich. But the synergies that develop from public and private collaborations, similar to what we have seen in Geneva with the ‘Association du Quartier des Bains,’ are certainly advantageous, too.”


1890-1984: A succession of breweries occupy Limmatstrasse 270, located in Zurich’s western district.

1984-1986: The Hürlimann brewery takes over the space for two years before closing down.

1996: The Kunsthalle, established in 1985, moves into the former brewery with the new Migros Museum for Contemporary Art, the Collection Daros, created by Thomas Ammann and Alexander Schmidheiny, and other galleries.

2011: Creation of “Löwenbräu-Kunst AG,” owned by the city of Zurich, Kunsthalle, and a Migros subsidiary. The shareholders contribute equally to the SFr27 million principal investment. They buy the artistic centre from the real estate group PSP, renovating and enlarging it for SFr65 million.

August 2012: Inauguration of the contemporary art centre. Current occupants:


- Migros Museum für  Gegenwartskunst


- Kunsthalle


- Hauser & Wirth Gallery


- Luma Westbau/POOL etc.


- Eva Presenhuber Gallery


- JRP Ringier, contemporary art  publishing company


- Freymond-Guth Fine Arts Gallery


- Bob van Orsouw Gallery

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