Josef Helfenstein

For nearly thirty years, Josef Helfenstein has led some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, curated exhibitions, taught art history, overseen acquisitions of works by major artists and supervised expansions including the Menil Drawing Institute (opening in the Autumn of 2018) with architects David Chipperfield and Johnston Marklee. He has published widely on the art of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, including German Avantgarde, Surrealism, post II World War American and European art as well as the institutional history of the museums where he worked.

Among his more recent projects are the exhibitions and publications “Marc Chagall – The Breakthrough Years in Vitebsk and Paris” (2017),“Basel Short Stories. Von Erasmus bis Iris von Roten” (2018) and “The Music of Color. Sam Gilliam 1967-1973” (2018).

From 1983 until 2000, he worked at the Kunstmuseum Bern and in 1988, he became chief curator of the Prints and Drawings department and of the Paul Klee Foundation. From 1996 to 2000 he served as the museum’s deputy director. From 2004 until 2015 he took the direction of the Menil Collection and Foundation in Houston, Texas among many other significant roles.

He joined Art is Alive to talk about the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel, Pablo Picasso, the treasures in storage and future exhibitions. It’s an honour to run this interview.

As Director of the Kunstmuseum, what’s your biggest challenge: curating exhibitions, acquiring relevant works or making sure people come and return to the museum?

The challenge is always to keep the balance between multiple different tasks: managing a complex institution (four different buildings, three of them for art), with a comparatively very small staff. The collection, more than 300 000 works spanning 7 centuries, is our capital, our reason for existence. It is also often the departure point and inspiration when it comes to curating temporary exhibitions, of which we organize more than a dozen every year.

Tell us something we don’t know about the collection?

The collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel, the municipal art collection of Basel, counts as the oldest public art collection worldwide. It dates back to 1661. It was then that the city acquired the Amerbach Cabinet which held some works that are still considered among the highlights of our museum, like Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1521/1522).

Please select a few highlights in the museum collection and tell us why they are significant works?

Picasso’s “Deux Frères” from the Rose Period (1906) is among our most beloved paintings. It is well known from the events that led to the first public vote in which a majority of the people supported spending tax money to acquire this and another painting by Picasso, and this in 1967! Another significant moment of building the collection happened in the late 50s, when the Kunstmuseum Basel became the first European museum to buy works by the American abstract expressionists. Those paintings by Newman, Rothko, Still and Kline also belong to our highlights. We also have very strong holdings by Franz Marc, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Alberto Giacometti, Oskar Kokoschka, Robert Delaunay, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and many others.

Any treasures in storage that the public doesn’t have access to?

The collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel comprises 4000 paintings, sculptures, installations, video and film works and the collection of the department of drawings and prints alone counts more than 300 000 works, many of which are in storage. So there’s a lot to discover all the time. With our exhibitions we constantly bring some of these treasures to light.

Tell us about the architecture of the extension and how it was conceived?

The extension, our third art building, was inaugurated in April 2016. It was built by the local architects Christ & Gantenbein. The two buildings are connected by an underground passage. Construction of the Neubau was made possible by a public-private partnership: a private donation enabled the Canton of Basel-Stadt to purchase the building plot, and the Laurenz Foundation contributed CHF 50 million toward the building costs of altogether ca. CHF 100 million. Many elements of the Neubau quote the architectonic idiom of its older sibling across the street. The Neubau was designed to accommodate presentations of our vast and growing collections, but most importantly special exhibitions such as the show with Sam Gilliam’s works from 1967-1973 right now.

Was the Sam Gilliam exhibition an easy one to put together?

It was not easy, as most of the works come from different collections, primarily in the US, but it has been a fascinating experience to excavate works done 50 years ago that mostly haven’t seen the light of the day in decades.

Why was it relevant to show his work now?

Gilliam is in my opinion one of the most innovative painters of the 60s and 70s, and yet this is the first one man show in a large museum, especially in Europe. I think his work is a revelation for all of us, also for younger artists who were the first to rediscover his work.

What are the new acquisitions by the museum?

Among the latest acquisitions is one of Sam Gilliam’s works, “Rondo” from 1971. Like most museums the Kunstmuseum Basel has limited funds for purchase. That is why we are heavily dependent on donations to be able to expand our collection. In this way, we acquire many works every year, most recently an important painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 2017.

How do we explain that Basel is such a strong centre for collecting and displaying art in your views?

Basel has a long history and tradition as a cultural city. Its humanism is built on a history that begins with Erasmus in the early 16th century, moves on through famous intellectuals like Jacob Burckhardt and Nietzsche who taught here in the 1800s, on to Beuys, and continues into the present. Basel has always been as much a European as well as a Swiss city where education, research and culture are part of the local fabric.

Are you a collector yourself and who do you collect? – Contemporary artists you’re following closely?

I am not collecting myself, that would potentially be a conflict of interest. I try to put all my expertise in adding in a responsible way to these distinguished holdings of the Kunstmuseum Basel.

Future exhibitions at the museum / projects we should be aware of?

After various contemporary positions this summer, we will once again be showing a classical one in autumn: Johann Heinrich Füssli (Henry Fuseli) and his love for theatre and drama, followed by a large exhibition about Cubism in the spring 2019.


Ausstellungsansicht Kunst.Geld.Museum; Pablo Picasso:

Medienkonferenz The Music of Color. Sam Gilliam

Medienkonferenz The Music of Color. Sam Gilliam

Images: Portrait of Josef Helfenstein Director of the Kunstmuseum, Basel.
Views of Art.Money.Museum – The Picasso Story, 50 Years Later.
Views of Sam Gilliam, the Music of Color.