The long history of Basel's public art collection, the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, extends back to the 17th century. With its acquisition of the Amerbach Kabinett, a Humanist-inspired collection begun in the pre-Reformation era, Basel became the first municipality to possess its own art collection long before princely collections were made accessible to the public in other cities of Europe. At the death of Basilius Amerbach (1533-1591), grandson of the famous printer and son of a distinguished lawyer who had been a close friend of Erasmus, the encyclopaedic collection contained not only some 50 paintings (among them 15 by Hans Holbein the Younger) and a very large portfolio of drawings and prints, but natural objects, ethnographic artefacts and a library as well.
When the Amerbach Kabinett was in danger of being removed to Amsterdam in 1661, professors from the University of Basel intervened in the hope of saving the wonderful collection for their city. Mayor Johannes Rudolf Wettstein and the municipal parliament were sympathetic to the cause, and so the collection was purchased for the substantial sum of 9000 Reichstaler. Two thirds of the costs were borne by the Municipal Council, the remaining third by the university, which was to assume responsibility for the collection and associated library. In 1671 the art collection was transferred to the house "Zur Mücke" near Cathedral Square and opened to the public, becoming one of the city's major attractions.
In 1823 the Amerbach art collection, which had already been enhanced by donations from the Council and private donors, was joined by the holdings of a museum started by jurist Remigius Faesch (1595-1667). This brought not only further paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger, but also important works by 15th- to17th-century artists from the Upper Rhine region into the collection, also adding substantially to the holdings of the Kupferstichkabinett. The ever more obvious need for space was answered in 1849, with the removal to the late classicistic, multi-purpose building by Melchior Berri in Augustinergasse, which still houses the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Ethnography (Museum der Kulturen) today. The division of the territory of Basel into two half cantons, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Land, in 1833 posed a threat to both the university and the art collection. As university property, the collection was ultimately left to the city for the valuation price of 22,000 francs, which enabled it to stay together intact.
Although noteworthy gifts and bequests in the 19th century substantially expanded the holdings of 15th- to 17th-century Netherlandish art and German 19th-century art, it was 15th- and 16th-century art from the Upper Rhine region that remained at the heart of the Old Master collection. The eleven panels by Konrad Witz from the collection of the Margrave of Baden that gradually entered the Museum were donated by Basel families.
A bequest by Samuel Birrmann (1793-1847), a Basel painter and art dealer, was decisive to the introduction of a genuine acquisition policy: in 1855 a fund earmarked for contemporary Swiss art was established under the aegis of the Museum Commission, who continue up to the present day to make decisions about purchases, bequests and gifts. It was in this context that a large group of paintings by Arnold Böcklin - the most representative collection of his works to be found anywhere - was able to be assembled. Starting on a very modest scale, the Canton of Basel-Stadt, too, has been providing acquisition funding since 1903. Subsidies were last increased in 2002.
With the completion of a purpose-built building by architects Rudolf Christ and Paul Bonatz in St. Alban-Graben, the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung moved into the Kunstmuseum Basel in its present form in 1936. The building has been thoroughly refurbished over the past few years.
With the 1920s came a new trajectory: the development of an internationally oriented collection of modern art. Initiated by Otto Fischer, this new pursuit would alter the profile of the museum and have a shaping influence on its future. Georg Schmidt, in particular, rendered outstanding services to the museum by leading its efforts to enlarge the collection. In 1939, he acquired works the National Socialists had removed from German museums and vilified as “degenerate” art, saving numerous masterworks for posterity.
Though the acquisition budget remained comparatively modest - topped up by the occasional supplementary grant from the Basel government -, the representative collection of 20th-century art assembled over the years was to become one of the most distinguished in the world. But in this area, too, gifts from private donors were essential: for instance, Raoul La Roche's outstanding Cubist collection and numerous deposits by foundations such as the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, established in 1933, and the Im Obersteg Foundation (2004).
Thanks to a gift of the Swiss National Insurance Company in 1959, the Kunstmuseum became Europe's first museum to show the American Abstract Expressionists. Passed down from generation to generation, the Basel citizens' love of art and loyalty to the Kunstmuseum took on proverbial proportions in 1967, when a popular vote ensured that two seminal works by Pablo Picasso, which had been on loan from the Rudolf Staechelin Collection for many years and were regarded as integral to the identity of the Museum, would be able to remain there for good.
In the Sixties, under Franz Meyer, the modern art sector continued to expand, and contemporary art - with the accent on American art but also on Joseph Beuys - systematically gained in scope. Christian Geelhaar and Katharina Schmidt carried on this commitment to not yet generally accepted contemporary art and to the idea of collecting according to priority areas and along specific lines. Consistent development of the collection at a high standard of quality and due regard for the latest artistic media and artistic achievements: these are also the guiding principles of the current management and Museum Commission.
Thanks to a gift of Maja Sacher-Stehlin, in cooperation with the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation and the Christoph Merian Foundation, the Museum für Gegenwartskunst was established in a converted factory at St. Alban-Rheinweg in 1980, becoming the Kunstmuseum's gallery for contemporary art. In 2003, by way of the Laurenz Foundation, Maja Sacher's granddaughter, Maja Oeri, built the Schaulager for those works of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation that are not on show at the Kunstmuseum or Museum für Gegenwartskunst. In 1999 Maja Oeri gifted the former Swiss National Bank building (adjacent to the Kunstmuseum at St. Alban-Graben) to the City of Basel, to enable the expansion of the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung and the Department of Art History of the university. By moving the library, the administrative offices and the Department of Art History out of the main building, the Kunstmuseum has gained the new exhibition space and visitor-friendly areas that allow it to keep pace with the challenges of a new museum landscape.