Basel is a city of museums, but the industrial southern suburb of Münchenstein is not the first place you would expect to discover one of its great troves of art. Yet this is where you will find the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, in the imposing cube-shaped building known as the Schaulager, whose clay-coloured, roughened concrete facade looms like an ancient ruin against a commercial landscape of car parks and office blocks.

A hybrid building that is part storage facility, part research centre and, on occasion, part museum, the Schaulager takes on all three functions simultaneously this month, with the opening of Out of the Box, an exhibition celebrating 20 years of the institution’s category-defying existence.

“After all these years, people still don’t really understand what we are,” says curator Isabel Friedli during a tour of the building. In the labyrinth of rooms on the upper three floors, Friedli pulls back tall sliding doors to reveal minimalist spaces that are not quite galleries, not quite typical depots, but contain rich contemporary art holdings including surreal animated projections by Paul Chan, Elizabeth Peyton’s jewel-like paintings, Jeff Wall’s fluorescent light boxes and more.

A large box of a building, with one side visible which looks like roughly patterned clay
The Schaulager was designed by Herzog & de Meuron

Downstairs, in the cavernous lower levels reserved for exhibitions, are two permanent installations which speak to the Schaulager’s impressive ability to accommodate both technically complex and enormous works: Katharina Fritsch’s monstrous “Rattenkönig” (“Rat King”) and a sculptural installation by Robert Gober featuring a statue of the Virgin Mary and an elaborate water system that requires a drain to be built into the floor.

But the lights are currently dimmed over Fritsch’s rodent symposium and Gober’s veiled Madonna — a reminder that these spaces are usually closed to the public. Although the Schaulager has staged a number of ambitious exhibitions since opening — most recently a 2018 Bruce Nauman retrospective in collaboration with MoMA — it is foremostly a warehouse, open by appointment only to researchers and students. Yet with works kept uncrated and ready to view in a striking Herzog & de Meuron-designed setting, its stores ask radical questions about what it means to present an archive of contemporary art.

A large plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, in a robe with her hands outstretched, pierced with a large pipe through the stomach
Untitled (1995-97) by Robert Gober © Alamy Stock Photo

Behind all this is Maja Oeri, president of the foundation and the granddaughter of Emanuel Hoffmann, the collector and pharmaceutical magnate whom the foundation is named after. Following his death in a car crash in 1932, Oeri’s grandmother, Maja Hoffmann-­Stehlin, used their private collection as a germ for a project that would focus on acquiring, according to the original deeds of the foundation, “forward-looking” works. With its entire collection made available to the city’s Kunstmuseum as a permanent loan in 1941, it has had a massive impact on Basel’s cultural scene.

Yet despite this, when Oeri took over as president in 1995 she saw a problem of access. “A big part of our holdings were still mostly in storage, packed away in their crates and inaccessible to anyone,” she says.

A room filled with orange light; a brighter orange rectangle is cast on the floor
‘1st Light’ (2005) by Paul Chan © Tom Bisig

Oeri could have followed the many other collectors opening private museums during this period, but with an ever-growing collection which never sells works, she took a more pragmatic approach. “It was clear to me that yet another museum would not solve our problems in the long run,” she says. “This is when I had the idea to create a new kind of storage facility where artworks would not be in crates but installed and accessible to scholars, researchers and restorers. And the name I invented for it just literally describes what it is: [the German words] schau (look) and Lager (storage).”

At the time the Schaulager was the first of its kind, a sleek alternative to jumbled museum archives where artworks not on display were left to collect dust. Today it can be seen as a precursor to a trend for cultural institutions to commission cutting-edge buildings which make art storage more accessible to the public, like the recently opened Boijmans depot in Rotterdam.

Low white boxes spread with items such as orange juice cartons, wheels and dishes full of paint
‘Tisch’ (1992-93) by Peter Fischli and David Weiss . . . 
Close-up with some shoes, cat food and gloves
 . . . is available for scholars and researchers to study at the Schaulager © Tom Bisig (2)

This flexible model allows an artwork like “Tisch” (1992-93) by Swiss artists Fischli and Weiss to maintain its chaotic energy even whilst in storage. Hundreds of what first appear to be found objects — buckets, wood planks, rubber boots, soda cans — are strewn across a long platform at the centre of the room but, upon closer inspection, are revealed to be individual sculptures crafted from polyurethane foam.

As well as allowing academics to view the work in situ, this method of storage also aids conservation, a field in which the Schaulager has become a pioneer. Keeping artworks out of boxes enables its team of conservators to monitor some of the more fragile pieces in the collection, like those made of beeswax, chocolate or sugar. A large part of the research done at the Schaulager goes towards analysing how best to preserve such experimental materials. “As artists these days work with an ever wider range of materials, preservation gains more and more importance, too,” says Oeri.

Picture of a forest on fire
‘Wildfire (meditation on fire)’ (2019-20) by David Claerbout

As its title suggests, Out of the Box builds on these questions of display and conservation. It focuses on recently acquired time-based works, many of which are being shown for the first time since being bought thanks to the special spatial dimensions required to present them. During the tour, art handlers are busy installing monumental video works by Tacita Dean, David Claerbout and Anri Sala into custom-made screening rooms, cylindrical and cubic structures which echo the labyrinthine architecture in the rest of the building.

“For each exhibition, a new architecture is being created which responds to the specific needs of every work and the artist’s ideas,” says Oeri. “It’s possible because we do not follow the rat race which museums usually have to respect with one show following another in the quest for visitor numbers. At Schaulager, we don’t even count visitors. To me, each visitor who gets insight into art is meaningful.”

But soon the Schaulager will be constructing something much bigger. Herzog & de Meuron has been commissioned to design an extension for recent acquisitions. For Oeri, this expansion is a chance for the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation to circulate its valuable learnings more widely. “With the extension of our building, we will have even more possibilities to share the collection and our knowledge,” she says. The hope is that the new structure will be as unusual as the current one, an innovative box for original art and ideas.

‘Out of the Box’ runs from June 10-November 19,

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