Considered among the world's 10 best art museums, the Basel Kunstmuseum (Museum of Fine Arts) expanded its already rich collection of paintings and sculptures in 1980 with the creation of a remarkable new addition: the Museum fur Gegenwartskunst (Museum of Contemporary Art).
Well-lit, spacious, and housed in a completely refurbished former paper factory spilling over into a modern, high-windowed steel and concrete extension in the historic St. Albans Vorstadt quarter on the Rhine, the Museum fur Gegenwartskunst is a noteworthy example of Basel's refreshing attitude toward modern art.
While many towns tend to prefer dealing with established artists, Basel has taken the risk of supporting progressive or unorthodox tendencies often totally alien to the general public. ''By establishing a permanent exhibition, we wanted to be able to show people different aspects of truly contemporary art. The reactions have been surprisingly positive in the sense that many people have been curious enough to visit to see what it is all about,'' said Christian Geelhaar of the Kunstmuseum.
Concentrating on artists from the '60s to the present day - modernity at the Kunstmuseum stops with Rothko and Rauschenberg - the new contemporary art museum has already earned itself a reputation of being one of the leading institutions of its kind.
''We try to illustrate certain focal points by exhibiting selected artists rather than showing a little bit of everything,'' said Mr. Geelhaar.
Thus this still too-little-known museum excels in painters such as Jaspar John and Frank Stella and has dedicated an entire floor to the works of West German artist Josef Beuys. At the same time, it has not hesitated to provide an impressive cross-section of contemporary artists including Bruce Naumann, Hamish Fulton, Rainer Fetting, Mimmo Paladino, David Salle, and Salome.
In the Kunstmuseum itself, a '30s style ''cultural temple'' only a 10-minute walk from the Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, Basel boasts Europe's most all-encompassing collection of art ranging from Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Durer, and Urs Graf to Pissarro, Chagall, and Mark Tobey. The Kunstmuseum also has the distinction of being Switzerland's oldest museum and the first since the ancient Greeks to have been founded with public funds.
The museum originated in 1661, when the Basel Town Council bought the so-called Amerbach Cabinet -- a large collection of paintings and objets d'art -- to prevent it from falling in the hands of an Amsterdam dealer. The council presented the collection to the university to whom it still belongs. Since then, the collection has grown steadily, giving rise to other more specialized museums.
Until the late 1920s and early 1930s most new additions had been oriented toward the past. Foremost among the artists represented were the German romantics such as Arnold Bocklin, Basel's most significant 19th-century painter, and Ferdinand Hodler, in many respects the forerunner of modern Swiss art.
But then the museum made a conscious move toward French art, exhibiting Corot , Gauguin, Courbet, Delacroix, and Ingres to name but a few. As did several other Swiss museums, it benefited significantly from the flood across the frontier of ''decadent art'' in Nazi Germany.
The Basel Kunstmuseum now possesses one of Europe's best collections of impressionists, post-impressionists, futurists, German and Norwegian expressionists, and surrealists. Its cubist rooms portraying Braque, Leger, and others have no parallel elsewhere in the world, while its Picassos and Giacomettis rank highly on an overall scale, making this museum one of Basel's most pertinent assets.