Kunsthalle Basel has been a major venue for art in Basel ever since its foundation stone was laid in 1869. The Kunsthalle was initiated and established by the Basler Kunstverein (Basel Art Association), the private institution still behind the Kunsthalle today.
On the occasion of its inauguration in the spring of 1872, the President of the Basler Kunstverein, Johann Jakob Im Hof, outlined the aims of the new Kunsthalle: it was to provide a place for the fine arts that would foster friendly relations between artists and art lovers and would stimulate, promote and spread artistic interest in its hometown.
The neoclassical building at Steinenberg 7 was built to plans by the Basel architect Johann Jakob Stehlin. Situated in the immediate vicinity of the Stadttheater and the Stadtcasino, which serves as a concert hall, it forms the third pillar in a cultural ensemble unifying theatre, music and the fine arts.
In the early years, the Kunsthalle’s galleries and rooms were used primarily to house and present the art collection of the Basler Kunstverein. The direction of its art policy, which at the beginning was still indebted to nationalistic ideals, was soon revised. The appointment of a curator to take over the running of affairs, which up to the end of the 19th century had been coordinated by volunteers, paved the way for a flourishing, modern programme of exhibitions.
It is not without pride that Basler Kunstverein looks back on a long succession of exhibitions which not only provided stimuli for the development of art in the 19th and 20th centuries but can, in retrospect, undoubtedly be seen as pioneering events. Solo exhibitions dedicated to the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde and Piet Mondrian are among the more illustrious examples testifying to the early and open-minded reception given to these artists in Basel. Kunsthalle Basel further broadened its perspective when it became the first institution to introduce the European public to ‘The New American Painting’ by organizing a comprehensive presentation in 1958.
The Kunsthalle Basel sees itself today as an interface between artists and art agents, a meeting place for local and international contemporary art and a hub for critical discourses about creating art and bringing it to a wider public.
The Basler Kunstverein and the origins of the Kunsthalle
The desire for permanent exhibition premises was being separately expressed within the spheres of the Basler Kunstverein and the Basler Künstlergesellschaft (Basel Society of Artists) in as early as the 1840s.
The foundation of the Basler Kunstverein in 1839 came at a time when great efforts were being made to promote the arts in Switzerland as a whole. Thus the Kunstverein’s statutes demanded that it should contribute to the “elevation of Swiss art” through art exhibitions and the “acquisition of art products”. The Kunstverein therefore launched the “Allgemein Schweizerische Kunstausstellung” (General Swiss Art Exhibition, 1840), a touring exhibition that subsequently became known simply as “Turnus”. The exhibition, held every two years in different Swiss cities, always began in Basel. The inaugural show had to be staged in the Markgräflerhof building, which was converted not long afterwards into a hospital. In 1841 the Kunstverein redeemed its pledge to show regional art with a retrospective of Basel art of the past three centuries, this time held in the Baslerische National-Museum. For its “permanent” shows, organized on an ad-hoc basis and designed to give local artists a showcase and sales platform for several months at a time, the Kunstverein had to resort to rooms in the Stadtcasino, the “Rotes Schulhaus” in Rittergasse and the premises of the Allgemeine Lesegesellschaft reading society. Not until 1864, following its merger with the Basler Künstlergesellschaft was the Kunstverein’s desire for its own exhibition premises for the first time brought within reach.
The Kunsthalle building and its use
In 1854 Johann Jakob Im Hof, at that time still a member of the board of the Basler Künstlergesellschaft, had started up a ferry service across the Rhine at Basel. The profits went into a fund intended to finance the building of a clubhouse and gallery. With the merger in 1864, the fund was transferred to the new founded Basler Kunstverein. The plans for a new Kunsthalle could now be put into action. The area between Steinenberg and Klostergasse was chosen as a suitable construction site.
The building, which was originally designed on a rectangular ground plan, has its main entrance on Steinenberg. The ground floor initially contained the permanent collection of the Kunstverein, the library and conference rooms. The clubhouse was situated in the lower ground storey, which today houses the popular Restaurant Kunsthalle.The first floor, with its monumental gallery with overhead lighting, was used for temporary exhibitions. The artistic decorations by Arnold Böcklin, Carl Brünner, Ernst Stückelberg and Charles Iguel were intended to visualise, in the spirit of their epoch, the history and programmatic mission of the Kunstverein.
Stehlin’s building was subsequently extended by a sculptor’s studio facing the courtyard as well as some adjacent office rooms – today home to the Campari Bar. Several extensions have since been added.In 1885 the foundation stone was laid for a sculpture hall and in 1898 the garden wing above the studios was raised by one storey. With the elevation of the sculpture hall by one office floor in 1927, the Kunsthalle complex assumed the exterior appearance it presents today.
Over the course of the 20th century, the maintenance of the building placed the Basler Kunstverein under increasing financial strain. It was therefore decided to lease the main building and the side wings on a short-term basis to the State, which used the Kunsthalle to accommodate Basel’s public art collection, left temporarily homeless while the new Kunstmuseum was still under construction. The financial situation continued to be critical, however, and in 1950 even endangered the very fabric of the building when the Committee came very close to accepting a tempting offer from a major bank. According to the proposed deal, the Kunstverein would have sold the building and later rented premises in a new construction provided by the investors. However, the plans for a demolition came to nothing. Instead, the building was thoroughly renovated between 1969 and 1973.
Since June 2004, Kunsthalle Basel has appeared in its former grandeur once again: commissioned by Basler Kunstverein, the architects Miller & Maranta modernised the building to make it fit for present-day cultural activities. Although the overall proportions have remained untouched, the former rooms on the lower floor were integrated to form a larger entity. The technical infrastructure was also upgraded. These improvements allow more flexible use of the exhibition space. The light-filled and airy rooms laid out on one level are easy for visitors to negotiate and allow works of art to be experienced in rich and varied constellations that reflect and complement the curatorial concept underpinning each show.