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The Secret of Swiss Museums

Art institutions in Switzerland benefit from a national culture of unostentatious generosity.

Exterior view of the Kunsthaus Zürich

Exterior view of the Kunsthaus Zürich

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No single museum in Switzerland merits mention in the same breath as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre or the Tate. But anybody traveling by train within an hour radius of Zurich’s central station will encounter a plethora of public collections of art that taken together are almost unmatched in volume and quality.

In Zurich itself, there is the Kunsthaus, with works spanning Old Masters to contemporary art, and across Lake Zurich, the Rietberg with its superb sampling of African, Asian, and Pre-Columbian art. Traveling north from Switzerland’s largest city, there are remarkable collections in Winterthur, a focus of high-tech industries, and Schaffhausen, a medieval town on the edge of the roaring Rhine Falls that draws contemporary art enthusiasts to its Hallen für Neue Kunst, featuring stellar works by Sol LeWitt, Joseph Beuys, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, among others.

To the east of Zurich is the former silk-and-linen center, St. Gallen, whose art museum ranges from the late Middle Ages through the early 21th century. To the southwest, Bern, the nation’s capital, harbors the world’s largest Paul Klee collection at a hillside museum designed by Renzo Piano. To the west of Zurich, in Basel, there are the Kunstmuseum, arguably the premier public collection in Switzerland, and the Fondation Beyeler, another Piano creation, with some 200 modernist classics, including 23 Picassos. And leaving aside Geneva and Lausanne, which lie beyond the arbitrary 60-minute train limit, that’s only an abbreviated list of public treasures in easy reach of Zurich.

But how to account for this rich density and abundance of fine art? Two explanations stand out. There is a deep-rooted tradition of art philanthropy, unaided by the far more generous tax incentives enjoyed by American collectors. “Our colleagues in the U.S. are very surprised when they hear this,” says Josef Helfenstein, director of Basel’s Kunstmuseum, about first-time visits by American museum officials. They are even more startled to discover that, in most cases, Swiss donors of funds and art don’t expect museums to put their names on buildings or galleries, or even alongside works that were once in their private collections. “This generosity makes it a lot of fun to work here,” says Christoph Becker, the German-born director of Zurich’s Kunsthaus.

There is an equally important, and sometimes controversial, explanation for Swiss art riches. More than 150 continuous years of peace have made Switzerland a magnet for collections from neighboring countries in times of tyranny and war. The country was a marketplace for art looted by the Nazis. It also benefited from refugees who brought their collections to Switzerland and later donated sizable portions to its museums.

Among foreigners, the phrase “Swiss generosity” doesn’t always trip easily off the tongue. But a sense of public philanthropy, especially in the arts, has long existed in this alpine nation. Unlike in France, Britain, or Italy, there was no royalty or nobility in Switzerland to amass art that became essential to museum collections. The gap was filled by affluent merchants and tradesmen. Basel’s Kunstmuseum, for example, traces its origins to the Amerbach family, wealthy printers who personally knew Hans Holbein the Younger and collected his works. “The Amerbachs ran into financial problems and were forced to sell their collection, but wanted it to remain together in Basel,” recounts Helfenstein. So the city, with financial aid from its leading citizens and university, purchased the Amerbach collection in 1661 at a lower price than was offered by the city of Amsterdam and put it on public display a decade later in a building that was the earliest precursor of the Kunstmuseum. The Amerbach collection, including 15 Holbeins, still hangs in today’s vastly larger Kunstmuseum.

Zurich’s Kunsthaus is not quite as old as its Basel rival. It began in 1787 as a meeting place for an association of artists and their patrons who put works on public view. Today the association, known as the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft, claims more than 20,000 members. “This is our real employer—not the city or canton of Zurich,” says Becker.The figures bear him out. The municipality and canton account for 40 percent of the Kunsthaus annual budget, while entrance fees and private donations make up the rest. In most cases, individual benefactors cannot write off more than 20 percent of their donations from their income. Corporations are allowed to report their gifts to museums as part of their operating expenses.

Private-sector generosity foots most of the bills for temporary exhibitions. Recent highly acclaimed blockbuster shows include a huge retrospective at the Kunsthaus of Alberto Giacometti’s masterpieces in plaster and other materials besides his signature bronze and a large exhibition at the Kunstmuseum of rarely seen figurative paintings by Jackson Pollock from the years before his famed abstract drip paintings.

Donor contributions also play an outsized role in financing capital projects for museums. Across the avenue in front of the 1910 neoclassic Kunsthaus, construction is underway for a Sf210 million ($207 million) extension that will double the museum’s floor space when completed in 2020. There was no big, single private-sector donor among the individuals, companies and foundations that shelled out Sf84 million for the project. And none of the galleries in the extension building will have donor names.

Basel’s Kunstmuseum counted on strong private-sector financial support to open its own extension in 2016. Half of the Sf100 million cost was borne by a single donor, Maja Oeri, through her family’s Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, created from the Hoffmann-La Roche pharmaceutical fortune. Yet the structure, which houses the Kunstmuseum’s extensive contemporary art holdings, is known simply as The New Building. “Zurich isn’t Basel,” comments Kunsthaus director Becker about his rival museum’s deep-pocketed donors. “People here can be rich, though not immensely wealthy like some families in Basel.”

But affluence characterizes much of Switzerland. The country came late to riches compared to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, places where the industrial revolution took hold at least a half-century earlier. But by the 1880s, St. Gallen’s fine fabric looms brought mounting export revenues. In subsequent years, chemical and pharmaceutical firms flourished around Basel, and by the early 20th century, Zurich emerged as a banking and insurance center. “Money creates taste,” notes Becker, “and when the Swiss had money, they acquired art. They did not consciously build art collections. They simply accumulated art and held on to it over generations.”

Eventually, these collections ended up in museums, small and large. In Winterthur, the Oskar Reinhardt Museum opened to the public in 1970 in the refurbished villa of the former scion of a merchant family whose art holdings were especially strong in 19th-century French paintings. The much larger and more varied collection of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation has made its works available on permanent loan to Basel’s Kunstmuseum since 1941.

Besides works from local collections, Swiss museums also benefited from foreign holdings brought over during Europe’s tumultuous 20th century. In 1939, at the notorious Theodor Fischer auction in Lucerne, Expressionist works confiscated from German museums and deemed “degenerate art” by the Nazis were sold off to Swiss museums and private collectors. The Lucerne auction acquisitions by the Kunstmuseum included such prized works as Portrait of the Artist’s Parents (1921) by Otto Dix, The Nizza in Frankfurt am Main (1921) by Max Beckmann, and The Wind’s Bride (1913) by Oskar Kokoschka.

To this day, the Kunstmuseum defends its Fischer auction purchases for possibly having saved the artworks from destruction. “No doubt there were people who didn’t think this art deserved to be in the collection of the Kunstmuseum, but history has shown how decisive and important it was,” says Helfenstein. However, critics point out that Fischer and other Swiss dealers went on to become agents for the sale of art looted by the Nazis from public and private collections in countries occupied during World War II.

The Rietberg Museum in Zurich owes its remarkable collection of non-Western art to the Nazi era and its aftermath. The bulk of the artworks were owned by Baron Eduard von der Heydt, a German-born banker who moved to Zurich in 1937, possibly on orders from the Nazis, and acquired Swiss citizenship. When World War II broke out, he became a secret paymaster for German agents in Europe and the United States. Once peace returned, the Swiss authorities arrested von der Heydt on charges that his wartime activities violated the country’s neutrality. But in 1948, a Swiss military court dropped the charges. By then, von der Heydt had promised to donate his prolific East Asian, Polynesian, and African collection to the city of Zurich as the foundation of the future Rietberg Museum, which opened in 1952.

Despite these controversies, philanthropy by Swiss citizens has always played the predominant role in swelling the collections of local museums. Becoming a member of a local association of museum patrons is a mark of cultural and civic pride. Markus Altwegg, president of the Foundation for the Kunstmuseum, the main private fundraiser for the Basel museum, explains how he goes about recruiting new donors. He and his fellow foundation board members cast a wide social net and invite likely candidates to temporary exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum, where they meet curators and administrators. If candidates accept visits to three or four additional exhibitions, they will be asked to donate a minimum of Sf10,000 annually for at least three years. “Many of them continue to do so for many more years,” says Altwegg.

For the most part, donors give a free hand to museum directors and curators in the purchase of new works—even those they personally dislike—as long as they are made to feel part of the decision-making process. “They must be convinced that acquiring a work is important not only for its quality, but also because of their own input,” says Becker. “Once that happens they will agree very willingly and generously.”

Occasionally, however, it takes donors a long time to be convinced. That was the case in 1972 when the Kunstmuseum, already renowned for its strong collection of contemporary American art, proposed to its fundraising board that the museum purchase two works by Walter De Maria—Suicide (1966–67) and Bed of Spikes (1968–69). When donors balked, the museum director, Franz Meyer, purchased the two pieces for himself. More than a generation later, the board finally came around. So, in 1996, Meyer, no longer the director, sold Bed of Spikes to the Kunstmuseum for its original acquisition price and two years later also donated Suicide to the museum, free of charge.

By Jonathan Kandell

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: August 2017

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