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Collecting art: Sam Keller on why experience is more important than quantity

The director of small fine arts museum Fondation Beyeler shares his approach to curation.

As director of the Fondation Beyeler – one of the finest small museums in the world – Sam Keller knows classic Monets and Miros and great Picassos from merely good ones. It would be an exaggeration, but only a mild one, to say that he lives and breathes top-quality art on a daily basis. From his office in the quiet Basel suburb in northwestern Switzerland where the Beyeler (pronounced BY-ler) is located, Mr Keller puts on the kind of eye-wateringly beautiful exhibitions and pleasing cultural programming that attracts visitors from around the world. He routinely plans five years ahead while negotiating with artists, private collectors and fellow museum directors on mutually beneficial loans and exchanges of some of the best Modern, Post-Impressionist, post-war and contemporary art that money can (and cannot) buy.

In many ways, it’s a job that Mr Keller, 53, was born to do. The museum, which opened in 1997, was founded by legendary art dealer and fellow Basel native Ernst Beyeler and his wife Hildy, who commissioned architect Renzo Piano to design a small-scale Modernist shrine surrounded by parkland to house his art collection. Just as Beyeler intended, the architecture was special, but the art was even better. By the time Beyeler died in 2010, the collection of about 180 paintings and sculptures was estimated to be worth around US$2 billion. His will provided an endowment for the museum and a portion of his collection was sold for a significant sum. Known for his ability to spot top quality art, Beyeler was also a co-founder of Art Basel in 1970 – now considered the premier contemporary art fair in the world, and is also where Mr Keller served as director from 2000 to 2007 before he was handpicked to head the museum in 2008. Fondation Beyeler is the most-visited museum in Switzerland and a leading player in the art world – it is a place where collectors and museums are eager to place their works, safe in the knowledge that the Beyeler name is synonymous with the best.

Even when the world can’t come to the foundation, the foundation comes to the world. Mr Keller was in Singapore recently to host an event, organised in conjunction with major sponsor UBS, at the National Gallery as part of the museum’s Artist Talks series – a discussion with Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija was live-streamed as a way to broaden the Beyeler’s international reach. Then he headed to Art Basel Hong Kong, ready to connect with fellow movers and shakers of the art world once more. “Contemporary art is a global language,” says Mr Keller. “Even in a city where I don’t speak the language, I understand partially through art.”

What is it that makes Fondation Beyeler a unique member of the museum world?

We know that Basel is not the centre of the world, so we produce quality content. The current show features early works by Picasso, it’s a historical show of great significance and the first time we have dedicated the whole museum to one artist. Picasso and Ernst Beyeler knew each other and the museum has done 11 solo Picasso shows. Beyeler built one of the great Picasso collections, so it made sense for us to do that. The way we think about the Beyeler is it’s not just the museum and surrounding park, it’s about a museum without walls, not limited to its own site. Basel is in central Europe, accessible to everyone, and we plan programs that are worth the trip.

It has a small permanent collection but the Beyeler punches above its weight as a must-see art museum.

The museum started with 170 to 180 works, now there are 400-plus works in the collection. In his lifetime Beyeler had over 16,000 works of art, but he came to the conclusion that if you make a museum about the experience, you don’t need so many works. The role of an art museum is not to document history – it should only have top quality works. Not every museum should look the same – high standards yes, but also diversity and serving the local community. The focus at the Beyeler is significant artists and masterpieces by them. We are the classic painting and sculpture museum, but that’s not the only thing – the more diversity the better.

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Most of your career has been at Art Basel and the Beyeler. How big of an influence was Ernst Beyeler?

He was a major influence on why I got into art. When I was in high school, I would often go to a local park. One day there was a big sculpture exhibition there, it was the first time I saw works by Miro, Brancusi, Giacometti. In the beginning, I didn’t dare to go into his gallery. I met him through the art fair and later, I started to work there. I often went to him for advice. He was famous, known for his eye, always looking for quality. He was also interested in making art accessible to others. Besides being a global player, he stayed in the city and showed he could be both global and local. He would meet celebrities like Greta Garbo but when he came home, he rode his bicycle and went rowing with friends, he never owned a car. He and his wife lived modestly, supported causes and were generous enough to donate the museum and endow it. He always said, ‘In anything you do, quality has to be the first, second and third thing.’ If you orient to quality, everything will follow.

When Art Basel started in 1970, only 14 galleries took part. Now the number is closer to 300.

What made Art Basel was Beyeler. He brought quality and internationality, the first guy to do so. He said art has no boundaries and the reason Art Basel became famous was because it had a rigid selection process. I asked him, ‘Why an art fair?’ His reply was that it is a way to democratise art. He paid record prices but said we should never forget that it’s just oil paint on canvas. He had a direct, human approach. I remember the first time I went to his office, it was full of stuff and he was on the phone. Next to my foot was a painting with the front facing the floor. He asked if I was nervous that I was might step on it – he turned it over and it was a Van Gogh landscape. He had a playful sense of humour. What he did for art and artists he liked was impressive, not just collecting but organising shows, producing beautiful publications. What you make as a dealer comes and goes, but what stays is the museum.

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You are working on a US$100 million museum extension designed by Peter Zumthor, adding galleries and also funding operations and programming for the next decade. What challenges lie ahead?

It’s full of challenges, thank God – that’s why I’m never bored. One big challenge is how to relate your museum to your time: it needs to have vision, credibility. You should not only channel zeitgeist or react to what is fashion, you have to play an active part in your community, relate with the past and also the future. This is why I love being a museum director, the connection to the past and history. We don’t always know why but it’s important not to forget that art doesn’t always need to serve a purpose – it is an essential part of being human.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: BT/SPH