Building for art

Building for artOnce upon a time, in the year 1982, a small and unprepossessing German city called Monchengladbach opened a controversial new museum for contemporary art. Designed by the Viennese enfant terrible Hans Hollein, the Abteiberg Museum heralded an unprecedented era of museum-building in the Federal Republic. Hollein's postmodern extravaganza, which seemed more intent on showcasing the architecture than the art it contained, drew international attention to a city whose name only insiders felt confident to pronounce. Indeed, one might easily make the case that the so-called "Bilbao effect" actually had its genesis in Monchengladbach.

Other municipalities were quick to follow suit: Stuttgart with James Stirling's Neue Staatsgalerie (1984), Frankfurt with Richard Meier's Museum fur Kunsthandwerk (1985), Dusseldorf with its Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen by the Danish team of Dissing + Weitling 0985). Frankfurt, which boasted the largest cultural budget in the country, planned a comprehensive museum initiative, which included not only Meier's dazzling ensemble but also institutions devoted to film and to architecture. The latter was ingeniously inserted into a classic riverside villa by Oswald Matthias Ungers, who would later design museums for Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Cologne, as well. As the first of its kind in Germany and one of the first in Europe, the architecture museum helped to sharpen awareness of the built environment, but the true spur to popular engagement was the spate of new museums rising throughout the country.

The economic boom that fueled this phenomenon has long passed, cultural budgets have been decimated, and yet the museum-building trend shows remarkable tenacity. The statistics speak for themselves: in 1970 some 1,500 museums were registered in Germany; in 2000, the last year for which official figures are available, the number had risen to 6,000. In the year 2000 alone, more than 200 new entries were registered. Even allowing for a certain inflation resulting from the unification of the two Germanies, the growth rate is imposing. And while many newcomers are dedicated to themes like glass-blowing, bread-making and local history, the most substantial single category is museums of fine arts, which last year hosted some 10,000 special exhibitions.

In the 1980s, at the peak of the republic's museum-building fever, the cultural establishment never tired of reiterating the fact that more Germans visited museums each year than attended soccer matches. Specific sources for those statistics were never cited, but the numbers set the tone for the cultural politics of that decade. In such a context, it is interesting to note that a much-needed expansion of the Monchengladbach complex (part of Hollein's original concept) was recently rejected by the city council in favor of erecting a new soccer stadium. Yet the impact of those postmodern museum buildings erected in the 1980s should not be underestimated. First of all, they spotlighted the museum--above all, the museum of contemporary art--as a vital, progressive institution with a broad social mandate. No less importantly, they sensitized the society to the issues of architectural quality and originality as Germany became a regular destination for what Stirling once described as "the international flying circus" of contemporary architects. Some of the crucial issues they raised are currently being explored by Dusseldorf's Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in an imaginative exhibition entitled "The 21st Century: New Museums," which will move on to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebeck, Denmark, and other venues.

New Museums: A Richly Varied Spectrum

If the Golden Age of museum-building in Germany has passed, the current scene is far from stagnant. Older collections in Berlin, Leipzig and Munich have lately been handsomely rehoused. Private collections like those of Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden or Marianne Langen at Hombroich Island, near Dusseldorf, have gone public. Others will soon follow, including those of Siegfried Weisshaupt in southern Germany, near Ulm, and of Wuppertal-based Christian Boros, who is presently converting a gigantic World War II-era bunker at the center of Berlin to house his own vision of the cutting-edge art of our time.

The native-son phenomenon is also at work here. At the cultural museum in Osnabruck, for example, Daniel Liebeskind has constructed a bridgelike extension whose varied materials, sloping floors and partially transparent ceilings comprise a spatial homage to the local painter and graphic artist Felix Nussbaum, who died in Auschwitz in 1944. In the town of Bruhl, midway between Cologne and Bonn, the Max Ernst Museum is expected to open in September. Here, the elements of a 19th-century Benedictine cloister have been consolidated and elegantly extended by a "floating" glass entrance hall conceived by the Cologne firm of Thomas van den Valentyn. A few miles to the south and directly overlooking the Rhine, Meier's castlelike extension to the Arp Museum at Rolandseck is currently under construction following decades of bickering and delay. Meanwhile, plans are back on track for a museum honoring the achievements of the masterly Informel painter Emil Schumacher, to be located in Hagen, the nondescript Westphalian city of his birth.

In the sheer variety of their locales, their mandates, their architectural idioms and their financing, Germany's new museums amount to a casebook of the issues raised by such institutions in our time. To the recurrent question of whether the museum structure should compete with its contents, one finds answers as varied as Tadao Ando's minimalist pavilion for the Laugen Foundation (2004) and Frank Gehry's cheerfully extroverted "MARTa" complex, a center for art and design that recently opened in Herford with former Stedelijk Museum director Jan Hoet as artistic director. An unconventional mix of public and private financing made MARTa possible, as it did the spacious Museum Kunst Palast (2001) that Ungers designed for Dusseldorf. With public funding drastically reduced, many German commentators decry, what they see as "American practices" infiltrating cultural institutions traditionally financed by the government. Until recently, virtually any form of corporate sponsorship for the arts was regarded with acute suspicion--as was the blockbuster show, now becoming increasingly popular.

In Germany, as elsewhere, private collections are often the carrot dangled before those who shape cultural and financial policy, and in times of straitened budgets, free root vegetables appear particularly tasty. The accommodation of the controversial Flick collection of contemporary art in an annex to Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof is a recent case in point [see "Front Page," Nov. '04]. In exchange for a seven-year loan and with hopes for eventual bequests, the city placed a former railway storage facility at the collector's disposal, and he personally funded the renovations, which carried a price tag of roughly $10 million. The city, in turn, picked up the tab for a needlessly elaborate, neo-brutalist bridge between the former train station and the storage facility.

For some art-watchers, wooing collectors can easily get out of hand. Take Munich. From the time of its inauguration in 2002, the city's Pinakothek der Moderne--a triumph of wasted space, pompous staircases and cunningly concealed elevators, designed by Stephan Braunfels--was scheduled for expansion. Those plans have now been shelved in favor of an additional building to house the collection of Udo and Anette Brandhorst, which boasts more than 700 works by major 20th-century artists. Where the Pinakothek der Moderne makes a somewhat clumsy attempt at creating a synthesis of painting, sculpture and design from the last century, the Brandhorst Collection is distinguished by its in-depth ensembles of works by such seminal figures as Cy Twombly, Mario Merz and Bruce Nauman. Designed by the firm Sauerbruch Hutton, the three-story home planned for the collection, with more than 30,000 square feet of exhibition space, is financed by the state of Bavaria and scheduled to open in 2006.