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Originating from the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, whose collection is stored at Schaulager under optimal conservation conditions, Schaulager is an institution dedicated to contemporary art – its conservation, research and dissemination.
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The Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation was established in Basel in 1933 by Maja Hoffmann-Stehlin, later to become Maja Sacher (1898-1989), to commemorate her husband's commitment to contemporary art after his untimely death. The initially small collection was originally housed in Basel's Kunsthalle, but as early as 1941 it was transferred on permanent loan to the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel (Basel's Public Art Collection). The items in the collection were subsequently displayed in the Kunstmuseum Basel (Museum of Fine Arts Basel) and, since its opening in 1980, in the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel (Museum of Contemporary Art Basel). The collection has grown significantly, particularly in the last 20 years. A special feature of the collection is that, right from its early beginnings up to the present day, it has been open to unfamiliar formats and new media. Today it includes numerous room-sized installations. These include two works by Katharina Fritsch and Robert Gober which are so unusually large and challenging to install that they go far beyond the museum's available resources. The collection has become so extensive that today only a small number of the works can be placed on display in the Kunstmuseum Basel or in the Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel. Up until 2003 the works not on display were dismantled and boxed for storage in conservation conditions. This meant that the majority of the collection could not be viewed. Furthermore, the long-term effects of storage on the often unfamiliar materials and new media could not be predicted or checked – a situation that was neither good for the works of art nor the aims of the foundation. Maja Oeri, the current president of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, realized that the problem was a deep-seated one that could not be solved, but only deferred, by a conventional solution, i.e. more museum space. Her search for a solution commenced in the storage area itself, the unprepossessing home of art behind the scenes of a museum: if the works are stored unpacked and properly installed, they can be made accessible for both research and restoration purposes. The concept of a completely new kind of art institution – one that is neither museum nor traditional repository – was born. Maja Oeri called this innovative model a Schaulager ('viewing warehouse'). In 1998-99 Maja Oeri began to realize the project. To finance the building and maintenance of Schaulager, she created the Laurenz Foundation, named after her son, who had died young. She acquired a property in an area traditionally devoted to warehouses, at the southern tip of the so-called Dreispitz section of Münchenstein/Basel, and commissioned the architectural office of Herzog & de Meuron. Construction began in 2000; and in 2001 Oeri appointed Dr. Theodora Vischer director of the Laurenz Foundation and hence of the Schaulager. That same year she endowed the Laurenz Assistant Professorship for Contemporary Art at the University of Basel. On 24 May 2003 Schaulager opened with a retrospective of the artist Dieter Roth.
Building The architects Herzog & de Meuron designed an unusual space for Schaulager. Their task was to design a warehouse for the open storage of contemporary art that had optimal climatic conditions and was available by appointment. The building was also intended to be a site for conservation, research and dissemination. Rather than an anonymous warehouse, the spacious building was to be conceived so as to produce a specific and unique place.