While the besuited power players in town for Art Basel still vie to hold court at the five-star Hotel Les Trois Rois, across the river a cooler crowd is gathering at the Basel Social Club (BSC)—a free-to-enter, roving events and commercial arts organisation that has set up shop for this week in a vast former mayonnaise factory, a 20-minute walk north of the Messeplatz.
BSC was launched last year by a group of gallerists, artists and curators, who staged a programme in a 1930s villa in the city’s south, to coincide with Art Basel. For its second iteration, operations have scaled up considerably: across five floors of cavernous rooms with rough concrete walls, more than 100 commercial galleries and project spaces are showing works, almost all for sale. These vary wildly in size and price, from Sara Gruetter's woodcut and rope works, shown by the Basel non-profit Kasko, to the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth offering a hanging sculpture by Pipilotti Rist for $60,000, and Gallery Knoell from Basel presenting a large painting by A.R. Penck. Alongside the art is a film and performance programme, plus pop-up restaurants, bars and a nightclub room.
The 12,000 sq. m factory that BSC temporarily occupies was, until recently, owned by Nestlé Switzerland. Last December, 75% of the site was purchased by KULTQuartier Immobilien—a company established in Basel last year by the Swiss siblings Corinne, Dominik and Gabriel Eckenstein. They have since handed over the building rights to the property developer Franck Areal; much of the main building will be turned into a permanent cultural venue focused on contemporary dance and the performing arts.
This might feel like a squat party but you can tell it’s funded by Swiss money
“Basel lacks cutting-edge cultural venues for less traditional art forms—especially ones that can attract young people,” Corinne Eckenstein says. As the director of a dance theatre in Vienna focused on younger audiences, she is particularly invested in broadening engagement in the arts: “We have world-class museums and a fantastic theatre—but experimental dance and the performing arts need more investment.” Current plans for the venue include multiple performance halls converted from the building’s silosand residential spaces for international performers. Eckenstein says that a visual arts programme will likely run alongside, as “merging artistic disciplines makes a lot of sense”.
The project will take from “seven to nine years” to complete, says one of the developers, Pascal Biedermann. He describes it as a “public-private partnership” with the canton of Basel, which, he adds, is likely to provide funding at some point. Both Biedermann and Eckenstein decline to give a budget or reveal how much the site was purchased for.
The Rheinhattan project
The project is part of Klybeckplus, a wider regeneration plan launched by the canton of Basel in 2016 to redevelop the riverside district of Klybeck, associated with Basel’s world-leading pharmaceutical industry, as well as its shipping ports. In recent decades, a number of companies have reduced their operations or moved partially overseas, causing some buildings to fall into disuse. “Most of these former factories and warehouses have been turned into high rises or destroyed. It’s extremely rare to find anything of this size any more in Basel,” Eckenstein says.
New plans for the district will provide housing for 8,500 people—around a quarter of which will be affordable. Twelve high rises will also be built, leading locals to dub the project “Rheinhattan”. Part of the purpose of the project is, according to Biedermann, to help change the image of Basel as “a somewhat sedate and conservative city”.
“Our programme is a sign for what is possible for a space like this in Basel,” says Robbie Fitzpatrick, a Paris gallerist who is one of BSC’s founding members. The Eckensteins have given BSC full use of the site this week free of charge—a gesture that has no doubt paid off by the sheer foot traffic to a venue previously unheard of by many regular attendees of Art Basel.
It is not hard to see why Basel stands to benefit from investing in a project that is, at least anecdotally, helping the city appear vibrant and cool: “Basel really needed this, especially after Liste fair shifted venues,” says the artist Matt Copson, who is showing a work at BSC. A number of visitors also remark that despite its DIY aesthetic, the organisation and facilities—as well as the art on show—are very professional. “This might feel like a squat party but you can tell it’s funded by Swiss money—the toilets are so clean. In Belgium we’d be pissing in a hole in the floor,” says Damîen Bertelle-Rogier, a Brussels-based gallerist.
Warming up Basel
Promises of an exciting new cultural chapter come as Art Basel increases efforts to make the city a “warmer place”, by arranging for hotels and restaurants to lower tariffs during the fair week, Noah Horowitz, the fair’s chief executive, told The Art Newspaper in an interview last month.
“There have always been complaints that Art Basel week feels a bit dead past Wednesday, after all the big collectors have left,” says Peter Steinmann, founder of Basel art organisation Space 25. “Keeping things going till the end of the week encourages people to stay. And if you can make the city fun all year round, obviously that’s even more lucrative.”
While Basel has long touted itself as Switzerland’s cultural capital, maintaining, or even raising its profile, as well as diversifying its audiences, appears increasingly essential. The art scene of its long-standing rival Zürich continues to grow, while the inaugural Paris+ par Art Basel fair has similarly raised concerns as to whether Basel’s cultural cachet is waning.
Locals say that initiatives such as BSC have not emerged from out of the blue but rather represent how public interests are increasingly meeting an existing, and exciting, contemporary art scene.
Many Baselers refer to the non-profit venue Salts, established in 2009, as an example of a local space that platforms contemporary emerging art. Some also identify an inflection point for the city’s contemporary art scene around seven years ago, after a handful of commercial galleries, such as Weiss Falk, began opening around Rebgasse. Others say that since the pandemic, the city has a new energy, with several programmes and spaces opening in the past 18 months. This includes the experimental exhibition space Civic, which is attached to the Basel Academy of Art and Design, and was founded by the curator Matylda Kryzkowsky. Gesturing to the packed crowd at BSC, gathered on Wednesday evening to watch a performance by the musician Mykki Blanco, she says: “Half of these people are locals: art students and professional artists. There is a great contemporary art scene in this town that people tend to overlook.” When asked why that is, she says: “The Swiss are quite silent about this sort of thing. Maybe now they will have to be less so."