PRINT Summer 2003


the Schaulager

SAY YOU’RE WILLING to drop a few million on a piece of art built out of cheese and chocolate, or maybe Vaseline and honey. Well, you’re not alone, and you’ll probably be happy with your new acquisition so long as it’s nicely installed and cared for. But the moment it goes into storage, the problems begin. In a matter of weeks dust is mucking up the honey, and before you know it, insects have turned your masterpiece into a maze of grottos scarcely recognizable as the work you remember. These are problems you share with virtually every museum of contemporary art. So what do you do? My suggestion: Consult the experts at Basel’s Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, founded by Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin in 1933 in order to collect, as the charter specifies, “works of artists who use new, future-oriented means of expression generally not understood by the present in which they work.”

Given this mandate, they know of which they speak: This summer, the foundation unveils an innovative solution to their aggravated storage problem—the Schaulager, or “viewing warehouse.” The organization’s charter has always dictated that “a permanent exhibition should make the foundation’s purchases public.” Thus, during the ’30s the collection was shown at the Kunsthalle Basel; since 1941 it’s been on permanent loan to the public art collection of the city of Basel, which means that some of its works have been on view at the Kunstmuseum and, since 1980, also at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst. This loan will continue, but now those of the collection’s 650 works that aren’t already on display will see the light of day in new quarters in the Dreispitz area of Basel. Designed by Herzog & de Meuron and majestically capacious at some 160,000 square feet, this is storage deluxe.

I take the tram from Basel’s central station and less than ten minutes later disembark at the Schaulager stop, an established public-transportation address even if its namesake institution is still under construction. The art bunker is massive but also so basic that it appears to have always been there. (In fact, the pebbly, clay-and-concrete walls were made from the very soil on which the building stands.) It’s not elegant but not clumsy, either; with very few windows, it’s simply a mountain of a building.

“Would the collection survive a nuclear attack?” I can’t help but ask Schaulager director Theodora Vischer, formerly of the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, as she shows me around the spectacular, sprawling, but still nearly empty interiors. “No, no,” she replies, yet her sincere tone indicates that the thought has indeed crossed a few minds. On the ground floor, we find two tremendous works being installed: Katharina Fritsch’s Rattenkönig (Rat-king), 1991–93, which looks exceptionally well-proportioned having finally found a space big enough to accommodate it, and Robert Gober’s monumental Madonna, Untitled, 1995–97, still hidden beneath layers of wrapping.

These works and others will be on public view on fixed days, but how will the rest of the building function, and whom for? “Schaulager is intended pri- marily for specialists,” according to the brochure. But “specialists” is interpreted generously enough to include not only museum personnel, restorers, and curators but students and academics as well. And, I assume, artists. Jean-Christophe Ammann, former director of Frankfurt’s Museum für Moderne Kunst and one of two consultants on new acquisitions (the other is Charles Esche, director of the Rooseum in Malmö), says the Schaulager will be a kind of “think tank.” Toward this end, Maja Oeri, president of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, recently instituted the new Laurenz Foundation, which will support conferences and lecture series and also finance a professorship for contemporary art at the University of Basel. The Schaulager will also host one large-scale exhibition each year, starting this summer with a Dieter Roth retrospective, organized by Vischer and traveling first to Cologne’s Museum Ludwig and then to MoMA QNS and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center.

On departing the Schaulager, I’m beset with a vague sense of unreality, deeply baffled and entranced by this Alpine mecca of secret bank accounts and private collections, of foundations committed to the future of art. I cross the border into Germany, where we, alas, know nothing of such philanthropic bounty.

Daniel Birnbaum, a contributing editor of Artforum, is director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt and heads the institution’s Portikus gallery.