The death of an important cultural figure is always an occasion for sadness, but the passing of the artist, costume designer and philanthropist Sibylle Piermattei-Geiger from cancer in July 2020 is all the more tragic. It came just a month before the cultural foundation she set up, the Kulturstiftung Basel H Geiger (KBHG), opened in Basel.
Piermattei-Geiger was the granddaughter and heir of the Swiss pharmacist and entrepreneur Hermann Geiger. She and her husband, Rocco Piermattei-Geiger, set up the foundation in 2019, having previously run 30 free exhibitions over a period of 10 years in Tuscany, Italy. Her vision for the foundation was simple: to provide interesting and different art exhibitions for free, with every visitor receiving a complimentary catalogue.
The director of the foundation, the former arts journalist Raphael Suter, is committed to taking her vision forward.
The gallery opened in August on the site of a converted former factory and aims to make waves in the crowded cultural landscape of Basel with an ambitious launch exhibition co-curated with the Basel-based not-for-profit Caribbean Art Initiative.
The exhibition, which ran until 15 November, featured 11 artists from across the Caribbean and its cultural diaspora. Following an open call for submissions, the curators – Yina Jiménez Suriel from the Dominican Republic and Pablo Guardiola from Puerto Rico – selected works that explore ideas of a shared Caribbean identity against a historic backdrop of political division, as well as contemporary political and geographical challenges. Along with a free catalogue, the exhibition was accompanied with an online public programme of podcasts, films and music.
Museums Journal spoke to Suter a week before the gallery opened to find out more about the foundation and its aims.
How did Covid affect your plans to open this new cultural space?
Raphael Suter: The biggest impact was that our opening was delayed from June to August. We have needed to be strong – when the pandemic hit, a lot of people were unsure how they could continue. But we took the mindset that this would work. We launched our open call for artist submissions for our exhibition with the Caribbean Art Initiative in May, moved our work online and accepted that we would have to do things at a slower pace. We never gave up and always believed it would be possible to open. Of course, social distancing means we had to adapt our launch plans and how we welcome visitors to the space. We decided to have six small openings for about 50 people – we sent free catalogues out along with the preview invitation and had a great response. Now that we’re open to the public, we can have 100 people in the space at any one time and of course everyone has to wear masks.
What makes you stand out in Basel?
The foundation’s remit is simple – we have to organise two or three interesting exhibitions a year, they have to be free and every visitor gets a free catalogue. So we are a bit different and we have to find a place in the Basel art scene. We are not a commercial gallery or a museum, but rather than trying to compete with the big institutions we want to offer something different, like our opening exhibition. Our building is a former factory and interesting in its own right – it is one of the last industrial buildings in the city. We hope it will attract a lot of people.
In Switzerland, where most museums charge an entry fee, it is unusual to be free and there is the preconception that when things are free they might not be worth going to. So we have to respect our founders’ wishes and make sure we organise exhibitions that people want to see. That’s our mission.
How important are collaborations to the way you work?
We are a small team – just four of us work for the foundation – so for each exhibition we will work with a different curator and take a collaborative approach.
What are your future plans?
After our collaboration with the Caribbean Art Institute, we will be opening a new exhibition in December featuring 55 lithographs, which are from a private collection in the city and have not been seen publicly before.
After that, we have a show with the artist Klaus Littmann, who is famous for his For Forest works, where he transforms stadiums into forests. We are also planning an exhibition ahead of next summer’s Art Basel, which will ask artists from all over the world to exchange favourite songs, recipes and works.
We are fortunate in that Sibylle put all her money from her inheritance and her estate in Tuscany into the foundation. She was in her 70s when she inherited it and was living a comfortable life so didn’t want the money to change her.
I cannot spend all that money. Maybe in 100 years it will run out, but until then we will do interesting things. In the short term we feel fortunate that we don’t have to discuss funding and sponsorship.