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02/22/2012
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Frankfurt's Underground Landmark

Städel Museum Celebrates Bold New Extension

By Ulrike Knöfel
dapd

One of Germany's most important museums, the Städel in Frankfurt, opens its new underground wing on Wednesday. Frankfurt's financial world played a major role in financing the expansion, and the museum's director used skills developed during his time at the Guggenheim to persuade the city's wealthy to part with their cash.

The giant staircase does not go up, but down. It leads one underground, into a new hall at Frankfurt's Städel Museum that is impressively spacious and, thanks to the many skylights, amazingly bright. For weeks, workers at the museum have been hanging art on the walls. With abstract and figurative art, paintings and photographs, it is a memorable trip through the aesthetics of our time.

The art includes the works of well-known artists, as well as some works that one wouldn't necessarily expect. There are paintings from communist East Germany, and a host of abstract artworks made in West Germany as part of the Art Informel movement in the years after the war. There are other things from that time, such as the Konrad Lueg painting "Fussballspieler" ("Football Players") from 1963, and a dance picture by Sigmar Polke from the 1970s. In places, the selections seem a little unorthodox, which is fitting for the art itself.

The Städel Museum is one of the most famous art institutions in Germany, with its venerable collection of old masters. The museum's origins date back nearly 200 years, when Frankfurt banker Johann Friedrich Städel left his extensive art collection for an art institute bearing his name. On Wednesday, the museum celebrates the opening of the underground 3,000-square-meter (32,000 square feet) extension for postwar art. Aside from the skylights in the grassy courtyard, the addition is not visible from the outside, but inside it is imposing.

One of the best and most provocative German performance artists, John Bock, will appear on the opening night. The German president was scheduled to speak first, but when the initial request was filed in Berlin for the president's appearance, Horst Köhler was still in office. (He resigned in May 2010, while his successor, Christian Wulff, stepped down last week.) The mixture of the provocative performance and the dignified presence of the president was intended to correspond with the tastes of the Frankfurt guests.

Sensitive and Unconventional

Frankfurt is an important power hub, a place of money. These days it is also an important location for art, above all contemporary art. This art makes the city of bankers appear more sensitive and unconventional. Many in the financial world own contemporary art works, which adds to the interest in museums' opinion of such art, and in the museums themselves. At the same time, a willingness to donate money to the museums is growing.

Of the €52 million ($69 million) needed for the Städel extension and for the renovations to the existing building, €26 million came from private donations. The rest of the money came from the city and the state of Hesse, where Frankfurt is located.

The level of private contributions was an impressive achievement even for wealthy Frankfurt, because the fundraising drive started shortly before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008 and the financial crisis. Some supporters bailed out, but others jumped in. In the end, enough good citizens answered the call to make the numbers add up.

Max Hollein, 42, is the director of the Städel Museum. He also heads Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle and the sculpture collection at the city's Liebieghaus museum. He once worked at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he learned how to persuade patrons of the arts to make large donations or share the works they own. "One shouldn't take a 'no' as a 'no,'" he says. "Rather, it is a sign that the question has merely been formulated wrong."

'A Good Product'

In Frankfurt, the bankers and collectors like this attitude, even if they insist that the art culture in Germany is very different from the US. But the mindset comes across when they refer to the museum as a "good product" -- a comment that many German art lovers would find profoundly profane.

One collector sent Hollein, who had been persistent in his requests, a postcard with a picture of a vulture on it. Nevertheless, she donated four important paintings. The approach clearly works here in Frankfurt, even if it would be unthinkable in other, similarly wealthy German cities such as Hamburg.

In Hamburg, the arts have problems finding donors, which is why the euphoric support for the construction of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall was so remarkable. An unusual, almost explosive generosity took hold, and almost €70 million was donated. But the construction site has become a symbol of disappointment after a series of scandals involving rising costs and construction delays.

In Frankfurt, every supporter is made to feel that he or she is part of a success story. The museum has skillfully created a feeling of "Yes, we can," even if the actual slogan is a bit more prosaic: "Frankfurt is building the new Städel. Help build it!" Wannabe patrons of the arts can buy a "Städel drink" in selected bars, or purchase yellow rain boots to support the museum. Of the €26 million in private contributions, over €5 million was made up of small donations.

The idea was -- and again this is very American -- to make sure donors have fun when they give money. Even more importantly, they should feel like they are being taken seriously. All those who donate at least €25,000 a year for the upkeep of the collection will be put on the "Städel Committee for the 21st Century."

As Enthusiastic as Soccer Fans

One of the 60 members of that committee is Josef Lindenberger, an ear, nose and throat specialist, plastic surgeon and art collector. He knows more about art from the past and present than some museum curators, and he knows it. He refers to the early 20th century, when Frankfurt first became receptive to modernist trends, and he speaks of a certain "civic awareness," which he says is also very noticeable now.

Since its founding in 2007, the committee has financed 100 purchases. The members have a say in the selections, they travel together to visit the artists, sit in their studios and ask questions about what makes that particular piece art. Again, it sounds like fun.

Lindenberger himself owns, among other works, conceptual art from the 1960s. He says cheerfully that he forgives Hollein, the Städel's director, for acquiring pieces by the controversial German artist Jonathan Meese, even though, so he says, in 50 years' time probably no one will want to look at them anymore. Despite Berlin's reputation as a center of the art scene, he does not consider the German capital to be a serious competitor for Frankfurt. Instead, he compares the banking center to Paris, "because of the level of its institutions."

Lindenberger likens the Städel supporters to soccer fans, because of their enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the museum's various committees count some of the big names in Frankfurt society among their members. The financial world and its veterans are well represented. For example, Hilmar Kopper, the former chairman of the board of Deutsche Bank, sits on the museum's board of trustees.

Bank Connections

The banks in particular have played an important role. DZ Bank and Deutsche Bank have given the museum hundreds of works, without giving up their ownership rights. No one here views such deals as a problem, since all sides regard themselves as beneficiaries.

It would be wrong to say that culture represents a parallel universe where people from the financial industry can seek refuge. Instead, it is an extension of the bankers' own world. At times, it almost seems like there is an occupation by the bankers.

Funding the arts is not a kind of "selling of indulgences" for the members of the financial world, says Christopher von Hugo. The German-Canadian is the managing director of the Frankfurt branch of the US private investment firm One Equity Partners, and owns a castle. Most of the people in his industry spend their days traveling around the world, he says, but Frankfurt is where they always return.

"It is a small city," he says. "People see each other at events. It is easier to talk to people, to get them excited about something, to get them to take responsibility, even in these difficult economic times." But, he adds, "those who offer their support demand quality in return, and they get it here."

'Contemporary Aesthetic'

Städel director Hollein has benefited in particular from the help of the Metzler family, owners of the Frankfurt-based Metzler Bank. Sylvia von Metzler, a woman who enters her own bank wearing cowboy boots, is the Städel's most important benefactor. She directs the Friends of the Museum, and founded the Committee for the 21st Century. When she talks about the Städel, she speaks of "we" and "us." The family's forefathers knew the founder of the museum.

The Metzlers are transferring €3 million to the museum, and another €3 million to the museum's foundation. Germany's Hertie Foundation donated €7 million. The name Hertie has been engraved in the museum's floor. The massive letters are, unfortunately, the first thing one sees in the new extension, and are a distraction from the successful architecture of the Frankfurt firm Schneider + Schumacher.

Everything about the exterior is cool understatement. In this city of high-rises, this newest landmark is almost hidden. Sylvia von Metzler calls it "a very contemporary aesthetic." Just a few decades ago, she says, Frankfurt was a hideous and neglected place, whereas today the city can serve as an example.

"We have all won," she says.

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