Mario Botta: Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, exterior detail Photo courtesy of Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

To house his family’s spectacular art collection, the Swiss-born Andreas Bechtler has commissioned leading architect, Mario Botta to design a museum in his adopted country. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art was inaugurated this weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina with a selection from the collection’s 1,400 works by modern masters. With elegant volumes pierced by Botta’s hallmark shafts of light, the museum is considered a success.

An art collection started more than 70 years ago in Switzerland is poised to become a major attraction in southeastern United States. A consortium of public partners, including the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, has teamed up with Andreas Bechtler, the heir with his sister to a major art collection assembled mainly in Switzerland to create a space dedicated to great mid-20th century modern art.

“What an incredible journey this has been. I never thought I would have an art collection for which a museum would be built but here we are,” Andreas Bechtler says.

Andreas Bechtler, Firebird by Nike de Saint Phalle unveiling November 3, 2009 – Photo Nancy Pierce

When Hans and Bessie Bechtler began acquiring art in Zurich in the forties they were not looking for an investment, they were choosing what they liked and could afford.

“My parents were brilliant in their gathering of pieces. Some they bought, some were given,” Andreas Bechtler informed the collector’s magazine Apollo in an interview. “The engine was my dad, the brakes were my mum. Their daring was to go with their instinct,” he revealed.

The Bechtlers belonged to a new category of art collectors like the Guggenheims, Thyssen-Bornemiszas and Fricks before them whose wealth was created by industry, in their case more modestly with an air-conditioning company.

But Hans and Bessie did not simply buy art, they were intrigued by the creative process and sought to meet the artists behind the works. This lead them to visit them in their studios, befriend them and invite them to their home on Sonnenbergstrasse in Zurich or their holiday residence in Ascona in the Ticino.

Hans Bechtler with Alberto Giacometti, 1962 – Photo courtesy of Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

Andreas Bechtler, who was to become an artist and collector in his own right, recalls watching Oskar Kokoschka produce one of his intense expressionist paintings while staying with his family, Jean Tinguely improvise a sculpture with the head of a buffalo that his father had shot in Africa or popping over to Ben Nicolson’s place in Ascona to consult him on his own work as an artist.

The collection assembled over the years and now owned by the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is hailed for its clarity of vision, not least because the Bechtlers identified the main figureheads of the key art movements from Expressionism to Cubism to Pop art before they hit the mainstream.

Furthermore, they often acquired pieces in several media by the same artist (paintings drawings, prints, sculptures and decorative arts) to illustrate the scope of inventiveness.

Max Ernst, Andy Warhol, Juan Miro, Alexander Calder, Picasso, Nicolas de Stael and Barbara Hepworth, as well as the Swiss artists Alberto Giacometti, Le Corbusier and Jean Tinguely are present in the collection, as they were in the lives on the collectors.

Andy Warhol – Familie H.C. Bechtler (Hans, Bessie, Andreas, Dany) © 2009 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

But although his parents thrived on art “to be an artist was not an option,” Andreas Bechtler admits. He earned a doctorate in economics and moved to the States. “I fell in love with the power of freedom, whereas in Switzerland everything is so precise,” he says. A resident of Charlotte since 1979, Bechtler and his former wife have always been active members of the community.

When Andreas Bechtler received his part of inheritance from his parents’ art collection (his sister remains a resident of Switzerland), he originally intended it for the Little Italy Peninsula Arts Center in Mount Holly, North Carolina, a place that Bechtler had founded for artists to work in a natural environment.

Instead, thanks to an innovative public-private partnership initiated by Charlotte’s authorities, the collection was in essence donated to a public trust in exchange for a museum in which it would be housed.

Andreas Bechtler did however define an important requirement: the museum’s architect was to be the world famous Swiss architect, Mario Botta. As the author of the wonderful Tinguely Museum in Basel as well as iconic buildings throughout the world, the proposal was easily accepted. The only other building by Botta in the US is the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco.

Walter Bechtler, Jean Tinguely, and Hans Bechtler, 1989, two years before Tinguely died and seven years before his museum in Basel, designed by Botta, was inaugurated – Photo courtesy of Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

John Boyer, the president and CEO of the new museum describes the recently opened construction as a “cube of clay filled with light”. Clad in the terra cotta tiles that make Botta’s buildings instantly recognizable, a cantilevered fourth floor hangs gracefully above a plaza.

Mario Botta: Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, exterior detail – Photo courtesy Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, exterior detail

“We are sharing with a global audience works by major figures, works that have never been seen in an institutional setting before” Boyer declares.
The works will be displayed in rotating order – a little more than a hundred at a time – allowing for a degree of intimacy encouraged by Botta’s luminous architecture.

Mario Botta flanked by Andreas Bechtler on left and Anthony Foxx, mayor of Charlotte on right at inauguration on 2 January 2010 – Photo Nancy Pierce

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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