PRINT February 2001


Basel’s new director

IN THE LAST TWO turbulent seasons, the Swiss art world has shown a remarkable, if unenviable, penchant for the kind of intrigue and treachery more fitting for miniseries than museums. First came the Kunsthaus Zürich’s decision in January 2000 to appoint Christoph Becker as director—a politically safe choice in the face of the more adventuresome and prominent favorite, Bernhard “Mendes” Bürgi, the founding director and curator at the Kunsthalle Zürich. Now Bürgi, forty-seven, is the upset victor at the Kunstmuseum Basel, the oldest public art showcase in Switzerland, and with his appointment comes high drama: accusations and lies, a resignation and reprisals, and a bitter political struggle over the fate of the museum.

While the tawdry campaign of innuendo and threats rifled through Zurich in the fall of ’99, a quiet search had been under way in Basel for months. Katharina Schmidt, the Kunstmuseum's director since 1992, would need to step down by January 2000 at the mandatory retirement age of sixty-three, so the previous May the credentials of as many as thirty candidates began to undergo scrutiny by a committee of six, led by Peter Böckli, chairman of the Kunstmuseum’s art commission. Also on the committee was philanthropist Maja Oeri, the Hoffmann–La Roche pharmaceutical fortune heiress who had recently given the museum $15 million to buy a bank building to serve as a new, expanded exhibition space. Every museum board has its angel, and Oeri is the latest in a family of Kunstmuseum angels. The building that houses the museum’s satellite contemporary-art center was a product of her family's generosity, and the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, the family enterprise focused on collecting and showing art from 1970 to the present, has been in partnership with the Kunstmuseum since 1941.

The Kunstmuseum Basel is operated by the city, and also on the search committee was Andreas Spillmann, culture chief in the Basel Ministry of Education. On June 22, after an exhaustive, yearlong process of interviewing candidates and reviewing their past records, Böckli submitted three names to then-minister of education Veronica Schaller. Among the minister’s duties is to pick a candidate for the directorship, present the choice to the six other Basel ministers, and in a closed election select a winner. Heading Böckli’s list was the long-favored Theodora Vischer, curator of the museum’s contemporary branch since 1993, followed by two dark-horse candidates, Kunstmuseum Winterthur director Dieter Schwartz and Aargauer Kunsthaus head Beat Wismer.

Spillmann and Schaller then announced to Böckli that they would take two months to review the candidates themselves. “If you give someone a task, you check to see if they did a good job,” Spillmann explains. “We had to check if the list was complete or if somebody was forgotten, so we asked some experts—I won’t say who they are—and we found two missing from the list. One took a job in the midst of the process, the other was Mendes Bürgi.”

Spillmann and Schaller say they liked Bürgi, a longtime friend of Vischer, for his “enterprising imagination.” It didn’t matter to them that the Kunsthalle he oversaw has no permanent collection and is focused entirely on contemporary art, or that by his own count it has a staff of eight, tenfold fewer than the workforce he would lead in Basel. Ironically, one of the arguments against Bürgi for the Kunsthaus Zürich job had been his inexperience in running a big historical museum. Now, in Basel, Schaller found the committee’s candidates wanting and Bürgi attractive.

Though she acknowledges she knows little of art or the museum’s workings—her last job had been in the health ministry—Schaller states bluntly that “if you are a public institution, you are going to be decided on by public officials.” Which means politicians. In fact, she states she had known from Böckli as early as December ’99 that the leading choice looked to be Vischer. Ultimately, nothing had changed in the committee’s mind, or her own.

“To become a leading museum in the world, not just a beautiful jewel for a little group of rich people here, things have to be opened up,” Schaller says. The Hoffmann Foundation has had “influence at the museum for twenty or thirty years, and with a budget from the government of 420,000 Swiss francs [$250,000] for acquisitions you can buy almost nothing, so you need Maja and the foundation. But if you always play the same horse,” Schaller adds, “sooner or later you lose your money.”

On September 19, Spillmann and Schaller announced their findings to the astonished committee (notably, Oeri was out of town). The government had never rejected all the museum's choices before. Committee members were handed a fat dossier on Bürgi, who was waiting outside to be interviewed. After a delay, he was called in. The questioning, says Bürgi, was a mixture of neutral curiosity and aggressive interrogation. What kinds of shows would he mount, what would he collect, how would he run the museum? After half an hour he was excused.

In all of this, there were just two questions asked of the committee: whether they considered Bürgi eligible as a candidate and whether they thought the museum could work with him. Following some Clintonesque wrangling about what “eligible” means, they reluctantly agreed, though only after heated argument that they hadn’t been given time enough to get to know the surprise candidate.

Spillmann scoffs openly at the committee’s complaints over lack of time. “This isn’t like a test in school. The important thing is the candidates’ work, which is known. They’ve been known on the scene for years.” Indeed, Oeri acknowledges knowing Bürgi for fifteen years. But why hadn’t he come forward in August, when the government contacted him, to enter the committee’s review process? When I asked him this myself, his answer was one word: fatigue. Having been burned at the public stake in Zurich, he was loath to enter a process that could easily drag on for a year, he said. He told Schaller she must take him now, or he would withdraw. And what of his friend Vischer? “This was the most delicate part,” he says uncomfortably. “But I realized the government wouldn't choose Theodora anyway. They would just reopen the process.” In essence, Bürgi recognized the narrow aperture of opportunity and stepped through.

On September 26, Schaller brought the vote before her fellow ministers. The minister of finance recused himself—he is Theodora Vischer’s brother, a detail that hints at how close such dealings are in Basel. Whatever conversation took place, Schaller admits that the vote was not unanimous. But Bürgi won out, and his appointment was made public two days later.

In the end, the committee broke along a sizable fault line. Böckli insisted that the government’s decision is mandated by law and he would not enter “trench warfare pitting the museum against the state,” though he has maintained all along that his vote was with Vischer. Oeri, who is clearly the focus of Schaller’s political choice, took her outrage to the press. In an October 13 interview in the Basler Zeitung, she essentially accused Böckli of being a turncoat and Schaller a lying schemer whose Socialist politics and ignorance of art had turned the Kunstmuseum Basel into her ideological target.

Meanwhile Vischer, citing the unfairness that allowed Bürgi to sail through, resigned her job at the museum, her friendship with the new director (at least for the moment) over. “It was not about my professional credentials or Mendes’s,” she says. “We are so much alike in what interests us and what we do. This is about what the museum is and who, in a larger sense, will run it.”

Oeri makes the same point, though with considerably more force—and clout. “I will personally give nothing more to the museum, though the Hoffmann Foundation will continue its collaboration. If Schaller wants the government to make the museum’s decisions, let them start to pay realistically for its needs.”

But Schaller made a clever hire. She found someone who agreed not to get rid of the angels, only to find more of them to shift the balance of influence. “I need time to establish a good dialogue with Maja Oeri, I know,” Bürgi says, and quickly adds, “but of course it's important to get support from different private sources, new energies.” He changes the subject with a nervous laugh. “You know, last time the politics went against me. This time they went for me. This is my dream museum, and it absolutely stands on a political field. Now everyone will have to see how I handle it. I don’t start till August. Everyone will have to see what I can do.”

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.