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PRINT Summer 2000

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the New Swiss Guard

IT WILL COME AS REASSURANCE that Switzerland, the national cliché of clockwork orderliness, is awhir with all the messy passions that make the rest of us tick. So it turns out from the recent affair at the Kunsthaus Zürich, one of two prominent Swiss institutions facing a changeover in directors, where there was sufficient intrigue, spite, and stifled ambition to pack a tawdry novel—minus, unfortunately, the sex.

In the spring of ’99, the announced retirement of Felix Baumann, the twenty-three-year director of the Kunsthaus, spurred an executive search committee into sputtering action. The president of the board, Thomas Bechtler, hunkered down with a small group of board members that included artist Peter Fischli, the city’s mayor, a local collector, and Jacqueline Burckhardt, a publisher of the art journal Parkett, whose coequal Bice Curiger happens to be an adjunct curator at the Kunsthaus as well. An expert advisory panel was mustered, with Nicholas Serota of the Tate; Suzanne Pagé of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Uwe Schneede of the Hamburger Kunsthalle; and Stanislaus von Moos, a professor of art history at the University of Zürich (though their counsel would prove to be little more than words in the wind). Six months of duly methodical Swissness brought the board committee to the point of assembling its list of qualifications for the new director—not an easy task, apparently, for an institution with some 5,000 works spanning art from the twelfth century to the present; a building in need of renovation and more display space; an exhibition program long considered sleepy at best; and a meager yearly acquisitions budget of about 1 million Swiss francs ($583,000), half of which must be raised from private sources.

Bechtler recalls placing ads for the job in seven Swiss, German, and Austrian papers—a German-speaking director was a must—and Burkhardt says, “There were thirty names on our wish list. Then we asked quite a few more to talk with us. It took from May till Christmas to get to a final three.”

And that is when cool method gave way to the familiar smack of tabloid malice. A Swiss Deep Throat was born, rumored to be the museum’s deputy director, Guido Magnaguagno, himself spurned for the directorship. However, Magnaguagno publicly denied leaking two finalists’ names to the press, where on January 7 the first low blast was fired in the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger. There Bernhard “Mendes” Bürgi, the director of the city’s contemporary-art Kunsthalle, and Christoph Heinrich, the curator of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, were revealed in print and promptly smeared as avant-garde insiders unfit to run a historical museum. For denizens of the contemporary scene, Bürgi’s pillorying in particular could not seem more an act of local envy. Lars Nittve, director of Tate Modern, calls Bürgi “one of the best curators of contemporary art in my generation,” and Bürgi’s work with a vast range of artists, from Ross Bleckner to Pipilotti Rist, over the last decade has brought him international renown among curators and artists alike. Yet spite is a piquant force, and an entirely public voice quickly joined Deep Throat’s dark murmur. Franziska Müller, a member of the Kunsthaus’s exhibition committee, wrote a poison-pen letter about the search, then sent it to local collectors, cultural types, and journalists. “Bürgi or Heinrich?” Tages-Anzeiger asked. “Both are part of the Zurich art mafia through the magazine Parkett. The composition of the search committee . . . took care that only Parkett-conforming candidates had a chance.”

Bechtler and others denied the charge of nepotism but refused to name names under consideration, thus heightening the drama. Yet no soap opera is ripe without the low-hanging fruit of a little blackmail, and it arrived swiftly in the January 8 edition of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a prominent national paper, in an article that began by accusing the search committee of insularity and the unmasked hopefuls of inexperience, while mourning various older candidates—including Magnaguagno—left out in the cold. Then came the coup de grâce, when the paper noted with saber-rattling clatter that “important collectors like Gustav Zumsteg have spoken with the NZZ, [asserting] that should the Kunsthaus become subordinate [to contemporary-art interests] they will retract their legacy.”

The fix was in. Bürgi resigned in outrage from the competition, while a third man came to the fore: Christoph Becker, forty, a curator of nineteenth-century art at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Bechtler points out that Becker had been in the running all along and had in fact been among the first to answer the ad. With calumny heaped on his competitors, Becker must now have seemed all the more attractive—locally unknown, historically grounded (he brags that his Gauguin survey was “the most successful show ever, in every way, at the museum”), supposedly diplomatic, with an aptitude for management. On January 28, three weeks after the public burning of Bürgi and Heinrich, he was announced as the new director, to begin September 1.

Becker dismisses the entire business as “the sort of gossip that happens in such situations. Mr. Mendes”—he calls Bürgi by his nickname with a small laugh—“should have been prepared. Do you know Zurich? It is just 300,000 people; it is like a village. The collectors became hysterical. They didn’t know any better. But do you think the situation will be any different in Basel? Just wait and see.”

But so far in Basel the long knives have been sheathed; it has not been the same at all. The Kunstmuseum Basel’s director, Katharina Schmidt, must retire within the year at the mandatory age of sixty-three, and the candidates for her job have not been leaked to or savaged in the press. Schmidt’s replacement will be chosen this summer by the city’s board of seven department ministers under counsel from the museum’s search committee.

Schmidt hardly bemoans her departure. She pauses when asked whether her eight years as director have been a happy time. “Well, let me say this,” she begins. “Female, German, Catholic—I would say it is exotic here. Not easy. And for five years I have been fighting to renovate the building, which is far along now. For an art historian to fight for years for air conditioning and a new alarm system isn’t a dream, but it is done.”

Then she turns the conversation. “There is so much pressure for directors here to become more like American directors, who must think the whole time about money. There are people who are born to think about money, but they cannot distinguish a good Dürer drawing from a fake. People are being hired who are more entertainers than museum directors.”

Who will be hired in Basel may be unknown, but it is true that there is gossip, with one name repeated often: Theodora Vischer, curator of the Kunstmuseum’s contemporary-art collection. Will her candidacy face the same fire as Bürgi’s? Asked to comment, Vischer demurs, quickly shifting to say “what an exciting time this is for the museum.” And that is true. Maja Oeri, a board member and an heir to the Hoffmann–La Roche pharmaceutical fortune [see “Dream Houses,” below], recently donated $15 million to buy a former bank building close to the museum, into which its administrative offices and library will move so that the museum’s exhibition space can expand. She is also on the selection committee for the new director but refuses to divulge candidates, nor rise to the bait of Vischer’s name. “Well, you never know,” Oeri says, her smile somehow audible on the other end of the phone. “After all, there was a surprise in Zurich.” Evidently, not all of Switzerland has lost its cool.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.