Joseph Beuys would have celebrated his hundredth birth- day in 2021. The anniversary is a reminder that the meaning of “contemporary” is always shifting, as Beuys himself was acutely aware, noting that “as museums welcome other people come, they will also keep changing the way they handle things.” He imagined that museums might become venues for “permanent conferences.” It is a vision that serves as the working hypothesis of the new presentation and a collaboratively conceived program that builds on the Kunstmuseum Basel’s own holdings. In a contemporary perspective, Beuys’s untiring dedication to concerns that are widely debated today seems no less impor- tant than his legacy as a visual artist: he wrestled with questions of democracy, ecology, economics, and pedagogy, and the ability of the broader public to participate in shaping all these fields.
The Kunstmuseum was one of the first institutions of its
kind to exhibit the work of Joseph Beuys (1921–1986). At the time—this was 1969—the artist had made a splash with public performances that had caught the attention of the media, he was popular with his students at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, leading galleries championing the art of postwar West Germany represented him, and his work had been featured in two editions of the major international art exposition documenta. The shows in
Basel (two of them in 1969 alone) likewise garnered considerable press coverage and public interest and prompted fierce controversy.
The urgent need to talk was manifest, and so the Kunstmuseum invited the public to what turned out to be a well-attended evening of discussion—the beginning of a yearslong engagement with Beuys’s art and person at the museum and in Basel. What stands out in retrospect is that the artist and his work were a crucial source of inspiration on how to think the Kunstmuseum as being
“truly of today,” as its director Franz Meyer put it. It was an aspiration that was nurtured by the close cooperation with the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation and eventually realized with the inauguration of the “Museum of Contemporary Art” in its own home on St. Alban-Tal just over forty years ago.