To Basel and Beyond: Contemporary Art and Design in Switzerland

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Above: The Museum Tinguely in Basel and the sculpture ‘Gwendolyn’ by Niki de Saint Phalle. Photo by Schuerpf
We love to talk (and write) about the sylvan beauty of small Swiss mountainside villages, pristine lakes and hiking trails, and the old traditions of the Alps. Don’t ever doubt our love of cows and their pastures. But remember the Swiss are at the forefront of modern and contemporary art and design, as creators and collectors.
Art Basel draws a high profile international art crowd in its annual multinational exhibits of modern and contemporary art and design. While that may not be your scene, here are some good suggestions for the art and design geeks in your travel party. 

Museum of Design, Zurich

The collection of the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich traces the evolution of design from 1875 to present. The museum houses over 500,000 design objects and art pieces. The four main collections include design, graphics, applied art, and posters. Graphic and print designers will appreciate the museum’s graphics archive and well documented print collection. Changing exhibits highlight photography, contemporary design, and typography, among other things. Join one of the regular guided tours for a better understanding of the museum’s vast holdings. 

Kunstmuseum, Luzern

Luzern’s art museum is a very easy day trip from Untour locations in the Oberland and Heartland. Their collection runs the gamut from Renaissance up to Swiss Contemporary. Their pieces on exhibit rotate, so check their website to see what’s on view before you hop on the train. While the museum’s holdings include art of all periods, they have a particularly strong collection of Swiss painters from the 1970s and onwards, including André Thomkins, Aldo Walker, Urs Lüthi, and Rémy Markowitsch.

Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Paul Klee is a pillar of modern abstract expressionism. This beautiful museum, the Paul Klee Center, houses some of his best works, over 4,000 of his paintings and drawings. A limited number are on view at any time, with conceptual exhibitions of his work rotating by theme. Because Klee was so ahead of his time, it is not at all jarring to find contemporary art exhibits in the adjacent galleries. Don’t miss this gem. It is an easy day trip from our apartments in the Swiss Heartland and Oberland.
MAMCO, Geneva’s Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art opened in an old factory in 1994. Photo by Schuerpf 

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Geneva

This grand 4-story space highlights well known modern and contemporary artists. MAMCO’s permanent collection is made up of Paris-based art collector Philippe Thomas’s acquisitions. A larger portion of the museum’s space hosts rotating exhibits. Check out the Centre for Contemporary Art next door, which hosts shows by lesser known artists, often with an interesting edge. If there are any Swiss watch enthusiasts in your group, the Patek Philippe Museum is also nearby, with its exhibits on watchmaking and some beautiful historic and contemporary timepieces.

Fondation Beyeler, Basel

Ernst Beyeler’s extensive collection of 20th century art finds an impressive and beautiful home here, in an airy building designed by Renzo Piano. The Beyeler Foundation‘s permanent collection juxtaposes modern art with African and Oceanic sculpture to dramatic effect. Impressive pieces represent a who’s who of art in the last century, with most of the best known artists and movements represented. From Giacometti to Warhol and Matisse to Pollock, you will find it here. Rotating exhibits round out the experience.
Fondation Beyeler, Basel. Photo by Schuerpf

The Vitra Design Museum, Basel

If you love design and furniture, the Vitra Design Museum is a must! Housed in a dramatic Frank Gehry building of spirals and angles, the collection inside does not disappoint. The Vitra holdings cover the full array of 20th century design and will give you a broad education. The collection documents the evolution of artful seating from Thonet to Starck, with all stops in between. Changing exhibitions focus on specific movements or designers and add much to your visit.

Other options in Basel

Because of Art Basel’s huge international pull, you’ll find an embarrassment of art riches in this mid-sized city. Here are just a few of many good ones you can explore if you make the pilgrimage:
Museum Tinguely – The museum houses Swiss modern artist Jean Tinguely’s work from the full length of his career, his whimsical sculptures to works on paper.
Kunsthalle – One of the oldest, most respected institutions in the city, hosting international contemporary art shows.
Stampa – An important gallery that has a reputation for showing up and coming artists.
Von Bartha – The Von Bartha Collection is based in a villa in town, with changing exhibitions. Its Garage annex host larger installations.
Carzaniga – This notable gallery focuses on works by contemporary Swiss, Italian, and German artists.
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