Art Museums: Basel and a collector named Ernst Beyeler

Per capita, Basel probably has the highest percentage of quality art of any city its size in Europe. And you better believe that Baselers take that distinction seriously.

The Tinguely Fountain is a permanent fixture in Basel, Switzerland (

BASEL, SWITZERLAND, February 11, 2017 – Where will you find the oldest public art museum in the world? Italy has three of the top ten, but cannot claim the oldest. The Louvre in Paris is also among that list as is the British Museum in London.

If you chose one of those three, you would be wrong. Not only that, you might be surprised then to learn that Basel, Switzerland takes the honor with the opening of the Amerbach Collection in 1671. In fact, per capita, Basel probably has the highest percentage of quality art of any city its size in Europe. And you better believe that Baselers take that distinction seriously.

Basel’s geography on the Rhine helped to make it a cultural center (Taylor)

Nearly three centuries after Basel went “public” with its art, it became the first city in history to hold a public referendum for the purchase of art when the Fine Arts Museum bought several works by Pablo Picasso in 1967.

In many ways, it was the alignment of the stars, geography and history that played a significant role in Basel’s love of art.

Basel’s Fine Arts Museum is perhaps the best “unknown” museum of its kind in the world (myswitzerland,.com)

Situated at a bend in the Rhine River where Germany, France and Switzerland meet, Basel became a major crossroads in the commerce of the day along the river.

Switzerland is also one of the oldest, if not the oldest, democracy in the world, which gave the country a strong commitment to making things public for all of its citizens.

The Ernst Beyeler Foundation has a collection worth nearly $2 billion (

With the advent of the printing press and mass communication now a viable commodity, literacy rates increased dramatically throughout Europe and personal philosophies began to change with the Protestant Reformation from an emphasis on religious ideals to a greater awareness of the humanities.

Der Teufelhof is an art hotel in Basel complete with a theater (Taylor)

By 1970, three gallerists, Trudi Bruckner, Balz Hilt and Ernst Beyeler conceived the idea of establishing an international art exhibition in Basel. This year marks the 47th anniversary of Art Basel which presents 20th and 21st century art from the world’s premier galleries and their patrons.

Today, the Basel art fair has expanded to Hong Kong and Miami Beach as well with a reputation for showing the highest quality work from international galleries and collectors throughout the world.

In its inaugural year in Basel, 90 galleries participated from 10 countries attracting over 16,000 visitors.

Sculpture in a window at the Beyeler Foundation (wikipedia)

By 2015, Art Basel accounted for 98,000 visitors over a six day period with 284 galleries presenting works from 33 countries in Basel alone. The exhibition represented the contributions of more than 4,000 artists.

The Tinguely Fountain has been a favorite spot since 1977 (

With 77,000 visitors in Miami Beach and 70,000 more in Hong Kong, the combined patronage for the three cities amounted to approximately 245,000 patrons in 2015.

Basel native son Ernst Beyeler, one of the founders of Art Basel, was not always an art a collector. He had originally intended to become an economist but, in another quirk of fate, World War II kept him from leaving Switzerland. As a result, Beyeler became and apprentice in an antique book store in Basel and, when the owner Oskar Schloss died, Beyeler took over at the age of 24.

One of the unique rooms at Art Hotel Teufelhof (

Beyeler had a natural instinct for artistic quality and, within two years, he held his first exhibition of Japanese woodcuts.

In the early 1960s, Beyeler purchased 340 works of art from American collector G. David Thompson. The collection included art by Braque, Cezanne, Paul Klee, Matisse, Monet, Picasso and Mondrian. Beyeler later purchased 70 more pieces by Alberto Giacometti from Thompson.

By 1970, Ernst Beyeler and his two colleagues opened the international art fair in Basel, and it has been a resounding success ever since.

Oddly enough, over the years, Beyeler’s personal collection had grown so vast, that there was no place for him to display his exhibition. After spending several years searching the world for an appropriate exhibition space, Beyeler came to the conclusion that he should create the museum in his home town of Basel.

Augusta Raurica on the outskirts of Basel was once a Roman outpost (wikipedia)

When the Beyeler Foundation opened its doors to the public, the sheer size of the collection astonished the art world and made it an overnight sensation. “The Washington Post” valued the collection at more than $1.85 billion and the “New York Times” called him “Europe’s pre-eminent dealer in modern art.”

“The Daily Telegraph” described him as “the greatest art dealer since the war”, who “assembled one of the world’s most impressive collections of 20th-century paintings.”

Ernst Beyeler died on February 25, 2010 at the age of 88. He, along with countless other artists and collectors from the city of Basel, Switzerland, have established a reputation for presenting world class modern art that transcends the meaning of creative genius.

This year, Art Basel in Switzerland runs from June 15-18.

In a city where art thrives for art’s sake, Basel is one of the best kept secrets in the world.

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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