How Fondation Beyeler has become one of Switzerland’s most popular art museums
Sam Keller, the director of the Basel-based institution — now celebrating its 25th anniversary — talks to Christie’s about its evolution from the private collection of Ernst and Hildy Beyeler, and explains why ‘it should never stand still’
Ernst Beyeler liked quoting the maxim of his friend Pablo Picasso that art’s purpose is ‘to wash the dust of everyday life from the soul’. The late collector-dealer wasn’t simply interested in his own soul, it should be said, but in the wider public’s, too, and in 1997 he oversaw the opening of the Fondation Beyeler in his home city of Basel.
More than eight million people have visited in the intervening 25 years, making it Switzerland’s most popular art museum. It’s easy to see why.
At the core of the collection, which comprises 400 works, are those donated by Ernst (1921-2010) and his wife Hildy (1922-2008). They range from the Impressionism of Monet and Post-Impressionism of Van Gogh, through modern masterpieces by the likes of Picasso and Matisse, to major works by post-war greats such as Rothko, and contemporary artists such as Anselm Kiefer.
The museum building itself is also a draw. Designed by the architect Renzo Piano and located in tranquil parkland, it’s laid out on a single floor and flooded with natural light, thanks to a glass roof. It boasts a large water-lily pond by its entrance, to boot.
‘This is a year for us to look back but also to look forward,’ says the museum’s director, Sam Keller, apropos of its 25th anniversary. ‘Ernst Beyeler led the foundation through its birth and early years. My job has been to turn it into a responsible adult! And at 25, the institution has a bright future ahead of it.’
Under Keller’s stewardship, significant changes are afoot at the Fondation Beyeler, with a $100-million extension set to be completed by 2025. To gain a better understanding of the changes, a brief history of the museum and its collection is perhaps in order.
While still a student at the University of Basel ― studying art history and economics ― Ernst Beyeler landed a job at an antiquarian bookshop in the city centre. Upon its owner’s death in 1945, he took over the store himself, and swiftly turned it into an art gallery.
Beyeler’s initial focus was on Classical modern art. However, before long, he expanded his portfolio to include work from other times, places and styles. Quality was his watchword — as was affability. Beyeler built up strong relationships with clients, gallery-goers and artists alike (in addition to Picasso, he counted Rothko and Roy Lichtenstein as friends).
International recognition came, and by the late 1950s Ernst was frequently travelling, leaving Hildy to manage Galerie Beyeler’s finances and staff back home.
Over the decades, in parallel to their work at the gallery, the couple amassed a first-rate art collection of their own. ‘Initially, it just grew from the pictures we wanted to live with,’ Ernst said in later life. ‘And that was a good feeling. A much better feeling than having money in the bank.’
In the early 1980s the couple chose to convert their collection into a foundation, and set about planning a museum to house it — a plan realised with the opening of the Fondation Beyeler in October 1997 in the verdant suburb of Riehen, 20 minutes by tram from Basel’s centre.
It’s said that Ernst asked Renzo Piano to source 20 different choices of stone for the exterior walls, before eventually hitting on the red porphyry from Patagonia that clads the museum today. This blends pleasingly into the leafy surroundings, especially in autumn.
The building is located in an idyllic park, and its entire west side is given over to a conservatory with floor-to-ceiling windows. These offer a picturesque view that takes in fields of grazing cows in the middle distance, with the foothills of the Black Forest mountain range beyond.
From early on, the foundation built up a reputation for both its permanent collection (which is regularly presented in new displays) and its temporary exhibitions (which regularly receive rave reviews). Georgia O’Keeffe and Mondrian have been the subjects of two exhibitions in 2022 so far, the idea always being to focus on artists whose work either appears in the permanent collection or complements it.
After serving as the foundation’s inaugural director, Ernst Beyeler stepped down in 2003. Keller took over, as the third director, in 2008. ‘Ernst told me on my first day in the job,’ Keller says, ‘that the last thing he wanted was for the place to become a mausoleum, or an art graveyard. By which he meant that the Fondation Beyeler should always continue to grow and evolve. It should never stand still.’
‘Where the museum of the 20th century was for objects, the museum of the 21st century is also for people’ — director Sam Keller
One key factor in the museum’s growth is the endowment that the Beyelers established, which helps to fund the running of the foundation and the continued purchase of works for the collection. ‘They realised that what was considered new art in their day wouldn’t still be considered new art in the decades to come,’ says Keller.
Through the acquisition of a few contemporary works each year, the endowment allows the collection — in Keller’s words — ‘to stay fresh’. (Among the most recent additions is Poltergeist, a cabin-like installation from 2020 by the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread.)
Another crucial way in which the Fondation Beyeler is moving forward is with its extension. The germ of the idea was actually Ernst Beyeler’s, and it is being realised with the help of Hansjörg Wyss, through his Wyss Foundation (which has provided most of the funding), and the Swiss architecture firm Atelier Peter Zumthor.
It began with the purchase of an area of previously private land adjoining the existing park, where construction of a ‘House for Art’ is currently under way. This 1,500-square-metre edifice — a little less than half the size of the Fondation Beyeler’s existing building — will be for collection displays and small-scale exhibitions.
In the park itself, meanwhile, an events pavilion is being built, offering a dedicated space for concerts, talks, dance performances and more.
All the buildings will be a short and agreeable walk from each other.
‘Where the museum of the 20th century was for objects, the museum of the 21st century is also for people,’ says Keller. ‘Visitors come here for different reasons. One day they might want to be entertained, another day they might want to learn. One day they might want some contemplative time, another day they might want to bring the family to an event.
‘Art is absolutely at the heart of the Fondation Beyeler’s identity, but we also understand that a modern museum is also about social spaces. We wish to be a place of different speeds and atmospheres, and the extension will give us extra space to enhance the inherent qualities of our museum.’
Back to the present, the venue opened its third show of the year on 30 October. Anniversary Exhibition celebrates the foundation’s quarter-century, in a kind of ‘greatest hits’ fashion, with a show of 100 highlights from the collection spread through all 17 of the museum’s galleries.
These are supplemented by a selection of Hyperrealist sculptures by the US artist Duane Hanson, each a slightly tongue-in-cheek take on a main work in the show. For example, Madame Cézanne à la chaise jaune — Cézanne’s portrait of his wife Hortense sitting on a yellow chair — has a Hanson sculpture of an old woman placed beside it. The old woman is also seated, and mimics Hortense’s hands-in-lap pose.
Keller says that Hanson’s interventions amount to a ‘new perspective’ on the collection — consistent with his own aim of keeping the foundation fresh.
Keller’s connection to Basel runs deep. He was born and raised in the city, and in his previous job was director of Art Basel, the now-giant art fair that Ernst Beyeler co-founded in 1970 with fellow gallerists Trudl Bruckner and Balz Hilt.
Galerie Beyeler, incidentally, closed shortly after Hildy and Ernst passed away, as per their wishes.
Keller speaks of the couple warmly, praising the ‘solid foundations’ they laid at the foundation. He describes Ernst as a ‘mentor’ and admires the fact that, despite his riches, he never owned a car (preferring to travel where possible on his bicycle).
‘As a local boy, directing the Fondation Beyeler is the dream job for me,’ says Keller. One highlight so far was an acclaimed Goya exhibition in 2021, held in collaboration with Madrid’s Prado Museum and opened by the Queen of Spain.
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‘That was a special show ― more than 10 years in the planning and full of remarkable loans,’ says Keller. ‘I’m wary of calling it the favourite exhibition [of my tenure], though. My favourite exhibition is always the one I’m currently immersed in, the one we’re putting on next.’
Keller, as we know, likes to look forward.
Fondation Beyeler’s Anniversary Exhibition — Special Guest Duane Hanson, showcasing approximately 100 museum highlights by 31 artists, runs until 8 January 2023