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IT WILL COME AS REASSURANCE that Switzerland, the national cliche of clockwork orderliness, is awhir with all the messy passions that make the rest of us tick. So it turns out from the recent affair at the Kunsthaus Zurich, one of two prominent Swiss institutions facing a changeover in directors, where there was sufficient intrigue, spite, and stifled ambition to pack a tawdry novel--minus, unfortunately, the sex.

In the spring of '99, the announced retirement of Felix Baumann, the twenty-three-year director of the Kunsthaus, spurred an executive search committee into sputtering action. The president of the board, Thomas Bechtler, hunkered down with a small group of board members that included artist Peter Fischli, the city's mayor, a local collector, and Jacqueline Burckhardt, a publisher of the art journal Parkett, whose coequal Bice Curiger happens to be an adjunct curator at the Kunsthaus as well. An expert advisory panel was mustered, with Nicholas Serota of the Tate; Suzanne Page of the Musee d'Art Moderne de Ia Ville de Paris; Uwe Schneede of the Hamburger Kunsthalle; and Stanislaus von Moos, a professor of art history at the University of Zurich (though their counsel would prove to be little more than words in the wind). Six months of duly methodical Swissness brought the board committee to the point of assembling its list of qualifications for the new director--not an easy task, apparently, for an institution with some 5,000 works spanning art from the twelfth century to the present; a building in need of renovation and more display space; an exhibition program long considered sleepy at best; and a meager yearly acquisitions budget of about 1 million Swiss francs ($583,000), half of which must be raised from private sources.

Bechtler recalls placing ads for the job in seven Swiss, German, and Austrian papers--a German-speaking director was a must--and Burkhardt says, There were thirty names on our wish list. Then we asked quite a few more to talk with us. It took from May till Christmas to get to a final three."

And that is when cool method gave way to the familiar smack of tabloid malice. A Swiss Deep Throat was born, rumored to be the museum's deputy director, Guido Magnaguagno, himself spurned for the directorship. However, Magnaguagno publicly denied leaking two finalists' names to the press, where on January 7 the first low blast was fired in the Zurich daily Tages-Anzeiger. There Bernhard "Mendes" Burgi, the director of the city's contemporary-art Kunsthalle, and Christoph Heinrich, the curator of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, were revealed in print and promptly smeared as avant-garde insiders unfit to run a historical museum. For denizens of the contemporary scene, Burgi's pillorying in particular could not seem more an act of local envy. Lars Nittve, director of Tate Modern, calls Burgi "one of the best curators of contemporary art in my generation," and Burgi's work with a vast range of artists, from Ross Bleckner to Pipilotti Rist, over the last decade has brought him international renown among curators and ar tists alike. Yet spite is a piquant force, and an entirely public voice quickly joined Deep Throat's dark murmur. Franziska Muller, a member of the Kunsthaus's exhibition committee, wrote a poison-pen letter about the search, then sent it to local collectors, cultural types, and journalists. "Burgi or Heinrich?" Tages-Anzeiger asked. "Both are part of the Zurich art mafia through the magazine Parkett. The composition of the search committee ... took care that only Parkett-conforming candidates had a chance."

Bechtler and others denied the charge of nepotism but refused to name names under consideration, thus heightening the drama. Yet no soap opera is ripe without the low-hanging fruit of a little blackmail, and it arrived swiftly in the January 5 edition of Neue Zurcher Zeitung, a prominent national paper, in an article that began by accusing the search committee of insularity and the unmasked hopefuls of inexperience, while mourning various older candidates--including Magnaguagno--left out in the cold. Then came the coup de grace, when the paper noted with saber-rattling clatter that "important collectors like Gustav Zumsteg have spoken with the NZZ, [asserting] that should the Kunsthaus become subordinate [to contemporary-art interests] they will retract their legacy."

The fix was in. Burgi resigned in outrage from the competition, while a third man came to the fore: Christoph Becker, forty, a curator of nineteenth- century art at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Bechtler points out that Becker had been in the running all along and had in fact been among the first to answer the ad. With calumny heaped on his competitors, Becker must now have seemed all the more attractive--locally unknown, historically grounded (he brags that his Gauguin survey was "the most successful show ever, in every way, at the museum"), supposedly diplomatic, with an aptitude for management. On January 28, three weeks after the public burning of Burgi and Heinrich, he was announced as the new director, to begin September 1.

Becker dismisses the entire business as "the sort of gossip that happens in such situations. Mr. Mendes"--he calls Burgi by his nickname with a small laugh--"should have been prepared. Do you know Zurich? It is just 300,000 people; it is like a village. The collectors became hysterical. They didn't know any better. But do you think the situation will be any different in Basel? Just wait and see."

But so far in Basel the long knives have been sheathed; it has not been the same at all. The Kunstmuseum Basel's director, Katharina Schmidt, must retire within the year at the mandatory age of sixty-three, and the candidates for her job have not been leaked to or savaged in the press. Schmidt's replacement will be chosen this summer by the city's board of seven department ministers under counsel from the museum's search committee.

Schmidt hardly bemoans her departure. She pauses when asked whether her eight years as director have been a happy time. "Well, let me say this," she begins. "Female, German, Catholic--I would say it is exotic here. Not easy. And for five years I have been fighting to renovate the building, which is far along now. For an art historian to fight for years for air conditioning and a new alarm system isn't a dream, but it is done."

Then she turns the conversation. "There is so much pressure for directors here to become more like American directors, who must think the whole time about money. There are people who are born to think about money, but they cannot distinguish a good Durer drawing from a fake. People are being hired who are more entertainers than museum directors."

Who will be hired in Basel may be unknown, but it is true that there is gossip, with one name repeated often: Theodora Vischer, curator of the Kunstmuseum's contemporary-art collection. Will her candidacy face the same fire as Burgi's? Asked to comment, Vischer demurs, quickly shifting to say "what an exciting time this is for the museum." And that is true. Maja Oeri, a board member and an heir to the Hoffmann--La Roche pharmaceutical fortune [see "Dream Houses," below], recently donated $15 million to buy a former bank building close to the museum, into which its administrative offices and library will move so that the museum's exhibition space can expand. She is also on the selection committee for the new director but refuses to divulge candidates, nor rise to the bait of Vischer's name. "Well, you never know," Oeri says, her smile somehow audible on the other end of the phone. "After all, there was a surprise in Zurich." Evidently, not all of Switzerland has lost its cool.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.


Lest you think that all is Sturm und Drang in the Swiss scene, two building projects--one coming to completion this summer, the other just breaking ground--are happy occasions, replete with star international architects and promising programs.

The Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, long a partner with the Kunstmuseum Basel, recently established the Laurenz Foundation to support a curious hybrid building there called the Viewing Warehouse. "The project came to me out of a bad dream I've been having about poodles," Maja Oeri says mischievously. Oeri is the president of the Hoffmann Foundation--actually a third-generation president. "My grandmother, Maja Hoffmann, created the foundation and made a contract with the Kunstmuseum in 1941 that they show whatever they want of the collection. The two crucial mandates are conservation and to not just collect but to exhibit our art. But with about 400 works, we can only display five percent at any one time in the Kunstmuseum."

Oeri hired her childhood friends, the architects Herzog & de Meuron (who just designed London's massive Tate Modern, where Oeri sits on the council for the museum) to create a novel structure that is essentially a 190,000-square-foot holding space for uncrated artworks, hung or situated in the open on its five floors. That is where the poodles come in.

"I wake up in the middle of the night with this fear about Katharina Fritsch's Installation Child with Poodles," Oeri says. Each of the 224 sculptures of poodles is stored in a separate crate, she adds, so "you have no idea what's happening to them, whether each one is all right, what the climate is doing to them. It is really a bad dream. And our collection goes from an 1890 Ensor oil to video works by Gary Hill to our latest acquisition, a new painting by Elizabeth Peyton. So you can control the works' conditions better if you can see them."

Scheduled for completion in 2003, the Viewing Warehouse is designed as an imposing mass with a chiseled facade and three large LED screens on its front. Professionals and students will come by appointment to study the collection. The public can visit two cavernous galleries showing Fritsch's 1993 Rat King and Robert Gober's Untitled, 1995-97.

Meanwhile, in Lucerne, the prominent French architect Jean Nouvel's new building for the Kunstmuseum Luzern opens June 19. Ulrich Loock, the outspoken director of the Institution since 1997 and a vocal champion of contemporary art, intends to create "interventions," as he puts it, juxtaposing new art with works from the permanent collection going back to the sixteenth century. He unveils his 20,000 square feet of pristine exhibition space with a maiden show called "Mixing Memory and Desire," which includes Brice Marden, Vanessa Beecroft, Franz West, and Marlene Dumas, among some thirty-five others. The theme, pondering the "construction of (dis-) identity," sounds somehow hopeful, with a jigger of wormwood thrown in to give it a wicked edge. The Swiss art world today to a tee?
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Publication:Artforum International
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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