Exhibitions Fairs Collectors Switzerland

An art-lovers’ paradise

Visit six major collections within an hour of Basel

The Beyeler Foundation, Switzerland’s most visited museum. Photo: Mark Niedermann

Six private collections of Impressionist and Modern art are open to visitors around one hour’s journey from Basel. No other area in the world boasts such a concentration of paintings of this era housed in family villas or other appropriate settings. Three welcome fewer than 10,000 visitors a year. After the pace and size of Art Basel, a visit to any of them is a delightful way to unwind.

Wide variety

The Langmatt Museum, with the Brown collection, is in Baden, a small town on the Basel-Zürich railway line. On the outskirts of Zürich, there is the Bührle Foundation. The city of Winterthur, just north of Zürich, has an astonishing cluster of museums, including the collections of Oskar Reinhart (in his Am Römerholz home) and Arthur Hahnloser (in the Villa Flora). Lucerne hosts the Rosengart Collection. And just a short tram journey from Art Basel is the Beyeler Foundation, in its garden setting. The artistic strengths of these private collections are highlighted by the fact that no fewer than three (Bührle, Reinhart and Hahnloser) boast self-portraits by Cézanne.

Oskar Reinhart was among the most notable of the early collectors. He began to buy on a major scale in the 1920s, initially French art and Old Masters, and eventually built up an amazing collection of Impressionism. He hung these pictures in Am Römerholz, his villa on a hillside overlooking Winterthur. Upon his death in 1965, he bequeathed his paintings and house to the Swiss confederation. With government funding, the Am Römerholz Collection has long-term financial security, unlike some of the other private museums. (In 1940, Reinhart donated his German, Swiss and Austrian 19th-century pictures to the city of Winterthur, where they are displayed in a separate museum.)

Neither the Villa Flora (with the Hahnloser collection) nor the Langmatt Museum (with the Brown collection) has ever had central government assistance, and they are now facing financial challenges. Their domestic interiors mean that visitor numbers have to be limited, and they are largely dependent on family trusts to meet the running costs.

The Villa Flora, together with the Kunstverein Winterthur art association, is seeking financial support from the city of Winterthur, and the municipality’s decision is expected later this year. The museum needs better facilities for visitors and display space, which will cost around SFr6m. If funding is found, the building will have to close for a year for work.

The Langmatt Museum is in a similar situation. Although it gets some support from the canton of Aargau, it is now seeking financial assistance from the town of Baden. Its building also needs upgrading, at a cost of up to SFr10m.

An even more radical solution was negotiated for the Bührle Foundation by its director, Lukas Gloor, last year: moving the collection from a villa on the outskirts of Zürich into a new extension at the Kunsthaus, the city’s art museum. The Bührle pictures will get half of the second floor of the David Chipperfield-designed building, which is due to be completed in late 2017. This will ensure that Zürich has the best display of Impressionism in Europe, after Paris. Under a contract that runs until 2034, the Bührle family is committed to a donation towards the extension, and the Kunsthaus will bear the annual running costs.

Art robbery

Although it had already been under discussion for a few years, the Bührle decision was hastened by a robbery in 2010, when armed men seized four paintings by Van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne and Degas. Two were recovered shortly afterwards and the rest last year. All the private museums in our survey have since reassessed their security arrangements.

The final two of the six collections are rather different, in that they are in much larger, institutional settings. Both were established by successful art dealers, who began to hold back favourite works from stock to display at home. The Rosengart Collection was opened by Angela Rosengart in a former bank building in Lucerne.

The Beyeler Foundation is by far the most ambitious venture. Visitors pour in to see its outstanding 20th-century art, an ambitious exhibition programme and an inspiring building (its garden setting makes it a relaxing environment). The museum is properly funded, and it receives annual grants from the cantons of Basel City and Basel Country and the commune of Riehen (SFr4m). The collection is expanding, particularly in terms of works made after 1950 (recent acquisitions include pieces by Louise Bourgeois and Wolfgang Tillmans).

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