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The Grieder Contemporary Gallery and Other Forms of Private Art in Zurich

The Grieder Contemporary Gallery and Other Forms of Private Art in Zurich

Monica Bonvicini Not For You, Grieder Contemporary, Küsnacht, Photo by Axel Linge

The suburbs on the right bank of Lake Zurich have been dubbed the ‘Gold Coast’ by the city’s residents. The gold they are alluding to is not only the golden evening sun which bathes the villas on the slopes in warm light from late afternoon to sunset. Gold has a figurative meaning here, too – districts like Küsnacht are home to some of the highest earners in the whole of Switzerland. The place is noted for famous residents such as the founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung and the German winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Thomas Mann, who left Nazi Germany as a precaution in 1933 and spent six years in tranquil Küsnacht before settling in California.

Four years ago, the discreet charm of this idyll amidst Alpine vistas and lake scenery prompted Damian Grieder to open a somewhat unusual gallery here, high above Lake Zurich. Beyond the hectic and overcrowded city centre and a far cry from the much-vaunted hip of some of the Berlin courtyards or Zurich’s red-light district, Grieder bought and converted a modernist villa in Küsnacht, an amply proportioned flat-roofed house originally built in 1956 by the Swiss architect Theodor Laubi, with period details in red brick, white stucco and overhanging terraces designed by Andreas Fuhrimann and Gabrielle Hächler.

Grieder, who is Swiss but worked for a long time in Berlin as a gallery owner, is entering into new territory with Grieder Contemporary. Those who enter the gallery are also visiting the private house that he shares with his wife Melanie, otherwise known as the artist Melli Ink. Grieder Contemporary holds four exhibitions per year, and there is also Grieder Contemporary Projects in Berlin. Recently Küsnacht played host to the German artist Christian Jankowski and his video projects, photographs, protest banners and a neon installation. Before him the gallery space, terrace and flat roof were given over to the Swiss artist Kerim Seiler and his colour woodcuts, wall hangings and sculptures made of wooden slats, mirrors and neon lights, transforming the space into a neo-situationist ensemble.

Can a gallery in a private residence possibly work? Damian and Melanie Grieder obviously think that it can. Their house contains a studio where their artists can stay. Ideally, all of their exhibitions are developed on-site, with an eye to the architectural specifications of the place. If the artists wish, they can make use of the roof, the garden or even the swimming pool in their work. Grieder Contemporary seeks to be a place of production, exhibition and trading for contemporary art. Beyond that it also aims to be a kind of salon where sophisticated people from diverse backgrounds can exchange ideas about art and other cultural phenomena. It is a unique concept, albeit one that could soon catch on in other places given the increasingly palpable tedium of gallery-hopping in big cities – provided that suitable buildings can be found.

Zurich likes things smaller, subtler and more refined than elsewhere. Snobbish posturing like in New York, London or, increasingly, Berlin, has always been alien to the Swiss. Understatement and lasting social engagement are prized here, even when it comes to art. The city contains a number of private or entrepreneurial initiatives for supporting, purchasing and publicly exhibiting contemporary art.

The Walter A. Bechtler Foundation dates back to 1955. Bechtler, an entrepreneur, having built up a high-quality sculpture collection, including works by Alberto Giacometti, Jean Tinguely and Constantin Brancusi, created the Foundation to mark his fiftieth birthday. Now it is run by his sons Thomas and Ruedi Bechtler, who agree on all decisions after brief, close discussion with one another. The idea behind the Foundation still drives it today: works chosen from the collection are exhibited to the public and also loaned out to museums all over Switzerland. This is why key pieces by Fischli and Weiss, Roman Signer, Tacita Dean and Pipilotti Rist can be found in the Kunsthaus in Zurich, or why work by the Zurich-born whizz-kids Lutz and Guggisberg are on display in the Aarau Kunsthaus. Besides all this, Ruedi Bechtler has a space specially set aside for parts of the collection in the Castell Hotel in Zuoz, St Moritz. Alongside works by Simon Starling, Lawrence Weiner and Tadashi Kawamata the hotel also boasts the spectacular Piz Uter sky space by James Turrell. In collaboration with the local municipality, the Bechtler Foundation is also making more art projects by famous international artists such as Ken Lum, Martin Kippenberger and Bethan Huws accessible to the public under the label ‘Art Public Plaiv’.

The special thing about the Bechtler Foundation is its close collaboration with its favourite artists. Of course, occasionally the finished works are bought. Yet Ruedi Bechtler, who is himself an artist and oversees the artistic process with great insight, simply loves this direct, amicable relationship with the artists: “We develop most of the projects together. We know a lot of artists, and we build on that.”

The collection of the private bank Julius Bär, founded in 1890 and steeped in tradition, is markedly more institutional. Every year an art commission made up of interested employees and an expert choose works by young, predominantly Swiss artists. Over the years the collection, which is based on the core stock amassed by the Bär family back in the 1930s, has reached around three thousand pieces. The great thing about this is that any employee of the bank, be they the director or a secretary, is allowed to go to the storeroom and choose a piece of work for his or her workspace without any kind of restriction. Direct democracy is, in fact, something typically Swiss. This is also borne out by the business philosophy of Migros, the biggest cooperative supermarket chain in Switzerland. Migros sets aside the ‘Migros Cultural Percentage’ from the proceeds of all sales in order to finance, among other things, its constantly growing collection and the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst (Migros Museum for Contemporary Art) in Zurich’s Löwenbräu area, which is filled with galleries and art institutions. The director, Heike Munder, has access to a core collection of 450 works. In addition, she puts on at least five temporary exhibitions every year with contemporary artists; most recently these have included Josephine Meckseper, Karla Black and Tatiana Trouvé.

The influence of another private art institution with its own exhibition space in the Löwenbräu area has spread far beyond Zurich. In its classic-looking “white cube”, Daros Latinamerica AG holds a well-funded programme of exhibitions, featuring pieces from its own collection. The opening of the Casa Daros in Rio de Janeiro is planned for the end of 2011. The Daros collection focuses solely on art from Latin America and incorporates important works by artists such as Helio Oiticica, Ernesto Neto, Luis Camnitzer and Alfredo Jarr. The owners of the Daros collection, the Swiss Schmidheiny family, made their fortune with the internationally sought-after building material Eternit. The new Rio exhibition house, at the point where the old town and Copacabana meet, is also intended to be a place where artists, city-dwellers, children and the culturally aware can come together. It is hoped that restaurants, cafés, workshops and an artist-in-residence programme will make the Casa Daros a new, open space for art and art outreach for the whole of Latin America.

“Daros Rio will be quite different from Daros Zurich,” says the collection director Hans-Michael Herzog. “Zurich is much cooler – a classic “white cube” used for exhibitions, tours and outreach programmes. Casa Daros in Rio, on the other hand, will become a key cultural player in the city. You can feel the zest and happiness there.”

For the time being, however, Daros and Migros share a common fate: due to extensive building works, including the construction of a twenty-storey high-rise in the Löwenbräu area, they will have to leave their established exhibition space for about two years and move to markedly smaller temporary quarters in the industrial Albisrieden district.

Writer: Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas are freelance art critics and writers based in Hamburg and Berlin. They specialize in contemporary art and art-market issues and work regularly for art magazines including Artist Kunstmagazin, Photonews, Dare, Kultur & Gespenster, Monopol and Art – Das Kunstmagazin. They also contribute to titles like Spiegel Online, Artnet and Die Welt.