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Fondation Beyeler – roots and metamorphosis

Moving forward while holding on to the past – that is the philosophy of the Fondation Beyeler under the leadership of Sam Keller.

By Shirley L. Kearney, Picture shows Ernst Beyeler and Sam Keller (l.)

The city of Basel and its arts scene in particular owe a lot to Ernst Beyeler. Many regard him as the greatest art-dealer of the post-second world war era. He befriended artists such as Picasso, Cezanne, Monet, Giacometti, Bacon and Lichtenstein; and he had celebrated Italian architect Renzo Piano design a home for his famous collection of modern art in Riehen, just outside Basel.


Born in Basel in 1921, Ernst Beyeler studied economics and art history at the University of Basel. During his studies, he worked part-time at an antiquarian book and print shop at Bäumleingasse 9. While still in his mid-twenties, Beyeler took over the shop with its stock of books, prints and drawings upon the owner’s death, Less interested in the books side of the business, he soon shifted his focus to the graphic arts. In 1947 he held his first exhibition. In 1948 he married Hildy Kunz, who became his co-collector and financial administrator.

In the 1950s their little local gallery increasingly attracted American clients, and Beyeler gradually became a powerful art-dealer. In the mid-1960s his fame skyrocketed when Pittsburgh collector G. David Thompson sold Beyeler his fabled collection of modern art. This included 100 works by Paul Klee, 340 works by Cezanne, Monet, Picasso and others, and additionally 80 works by Giacometti. Gradually some of the works were sold to museums, which helped establish Beyeler’s legitimacy as a dealer and a museum curator. During the same period, Beyeler purchased Vassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation for the then princely sum of $4,500. Nowadays it could fetch at least $25 million at auction. It remains at the Fondation Beyeler.

In 1970 Beyeler co-founded the international art fair, Art Basel, and remained an active co-organiser until 1992. In 1972, he made another impressive acquisition of 100 oil paintings, water colours and drawings from Kandinsky’s widow Nina. In 1982 he and Hildy created the Fondation Beyeler. His expertise in organising museum-quality exhibitions and exquisite catalogues never waned; his desire to give art its proper recognition and to bring pleasure to the observer can be summed up with his dictum: “Art must touch you.”

Two international exhibitions were held in 1980 and 1984: the first segment, Sculpture in the 20th Century, in the Wenken Park in Riehen with works from Rodin to Serra; the second segment in the Merian Park (on the border between Basel and Münchenstein) with works from Bourdelle to Beuys. At the time, nobody was aware of the magnitude of the collection. It only became clear with the first full public exhibition in 1989 at the Queen Sofia Museum in Madrid.

Construction of the Fondation Beyeler building intended to house the collection of approximately 150 classic Modernist works, as well as artefacts from Africa and Oceania, began in 1994. With the opening of the building in 1997, the collection became permanently accessible to the public.

Hildy Beyeler died in 2008, and Ernst in 2010 at the age of 88.


In 2008, Ernst Beyeler handpicked Sam Keller to take up the mantle of guiding the Fondation, ushering in a generational change. For Beyeler the focus was the classic Modernist movement; for Keller it is the ever-evolving contemporary scene. Sam Keller was born in Basel in 1966 and studied art history and philosophy at the University of Basel. From 2000 to 2007 he was head of Art Basel, and ultimately became its director. All the stops were pulled out in 2001 when an offshoot was set up in Miami, Florida – today’s Art Basel Miami Beach.

The Fondation’s exhibition policy is to honour present-day trends in art and not to let the museum become a mausoleum. In their time, Picasso and Giacometti were what Gerhard Richter and Richard Serra are today. Keller’s concept of a museum is that of a place where, under ideal conditions, we can experience the art of the past and the present, and, with the help of the paintings and sculptures, release emotions which can help us better understand our world. Showcasing today’s generation of important artists – Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons and Thomas Schütte, to mention a few – is part of his scenario.

The museum continues to add works of high quality to the collection, but the financial resources and personal opportunities available to Ernst Beyeler are no longer within reach – the market moves at a more rapid pace, as do people. New purchases continue where Beyeler left off. Ernst was the collector of 20th century art; Sam is both the keeper of the collection and a champion of the contemporary field, with the goal of keeping it moving along in the 21st century. Works by Louise Bourgeois and Wolfgang Tillmans are but two recent acquisitions.

In Picasso’s words: “Art is there to wash our souls clean of the dust of our everyday lives. It is about awakening our enthusiasm, because enthusiasm is what we need most of all – for ourselves and for the younger generation too.”RichterPhoto: Gerhard Richter’s Cathedral in Milan. The exhibition – the largest ever in Switzerland to be devoted to this most important artist of our time – will be shown until September, 7, 2014

For more exhibitions see www.fondationbeyeler.ch

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