Ernst Beyeler’s museum opens

One of the world’s greatest collections of modern Impressionist and post-Impressionist art goes on view this month in a $37 million building by Renzo Piano


Ernst Beyeler, one of Europe’s most prominent dealers in modern art, has just opened his own museum in Riehen, outside Basel, in a building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Inside are nearly 160 paintings and sculptures from Mr Beyeler’s private collection of modern, Impressionist post-Impressionist and Abstract Expressionist work from Cézanne and Van Gogh to Tapiès, Rauschenberg and Kiefer. The collection also includes a selection of pieces from Africa, the Pacific and Alaska.

Ernst Beyeler studied economics and art history before taking over the premises of an antique dealer in the Bäumleingasse in Basel, in 1945 when he was twenty-four. In 1951 he began showing leading modern artists and achieved commercial success very quickly. His small gallery was rapidly transformed into a gathering place for museum curators and international collectors.

Between 1959 and 1965 Mr Beyeler acquired the Thompson collection from Pittsburgh with100 works by Klee (eighty-eight of which are now in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf), eighty by Giacometti (some have since been sold to the Giacometti Foundation in Zurich and the Kunstmuseum in Basel); and 340 paintings by Cézanne, Monet, Matisse, Léger, Mondrian, and Braque. He met Picasso in 1966 and in 1972 became the representative of the Kandinsky estate. With Trudi Bruckner he founded the Basel International Contemporary Art Fair and he has also been responsible for landmark exhibitions in the museums of Basel.

The collection built up by Mr Beyeler and his wife Hildy was first exhibited publicly in 1989 at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. The museum’s director at the time considered it “one of the best private collections of contemporary art in the world”. Ownership of the collection was transferred to a foundation in 1982 and it is now on permanent view in the new museum.

The Renzo Piano building is in the Berower park, an English-style garden designed in 1832 by Caillat, and given to the Beyeler Foundation free of charge for eighty years. It will be maintained by the municipality of Riehen. The local authority of Basel has agreed to provide an annual subsidy of SFr1.75 million (£730,000; $1.2 million). The foundation paid for the construction of the museum and the development of the park around it, at an estimated cost of SFr55 million (£23 million; $37 million).