Cultural pundits regularly note that Germany has the densest museum landscape in the world, with annual attendance exceeding that for soccer matches. Nonetheless, the new century is witnessing an unprecedented trend toward the establishment of private museums or public-private ventures like the Weishaupt Kunsthalle in Ulm or the Frieder Burda Museum in Baden-Baden.

Last year the nation’s first museum for video and photography was opened by a private collector, Julia Stoschek, in Düsseldorf. In a gigantic bunker at the center of Berlin, the advertising guru Christian Boros has recently made his cutting-edge collection of contemporary art available by appointment to small groups of aficionados. In Wuppertal, the British artist Tony Cragg has coaxed a derelict estate back to life, creating a public sculpture park along with indoor exhibition spaces.

By far the most ambitious of the newcomers is the Falckenberg collection, which recently moved into expanded quarters and is now known as the Phoenix Kulturstiftung, or Phoenix Cultural Foundation. It is testimony to the obsessive passion of the 65-year-old lawyer and businessman Harald Falckenberg, who in little more than a decade has assembled nearly 2,000 contemporary works. With 6,225 square meters, or 67,000 square feet, of exhibition space and open storage, this constitutes the largest private museum in Germany.

The stunning ensemble, spreading over five floors, is situated in the former Phoenix Tire Factory in Hamburg-Harburg, only a few minutes from the center of the city. The converted interior, finely orchestrated by the Berlin architect Roger Bundschuh, juxtaposes open areas with intimate, cabinet-like spaces and those, in turn, with expansive but self-contained galleries that house sprawling installations – by the likes of John Bock, Mike Kelley and Jon Kessler – that are one of the specialties of the collection.

Falckenberg thus enjoys a freedom denied to most directors of public collections…”I love outsiders,” Falckenberg explained, “and I want to show that there are alternatives to Caspar David Friedrich.”

Falckenberg also favors ensembles over single works, seeking to represent the full span of achievements by such favorites as Martin Kippenberger, Paul McCarthy and Christian Jankowski. (Most works not on display can be viewed in storage.) Typically, these are artists who share the collector’s own critical sense of humor and somersaulting verbal wit. A fascination with the grotesque runs throughout the collection, lending it a no-holds-barred irreverence that might be difficult to represent at public expense.

“I’m not interested in reaching a broad public,” he said, “and I have no official mandate. Instead, I can offer alternatives.”

Generous and gregarious, Falckenberg has become a near-legendary figure on the international art circuit. His ubiquitous, dervish-like presence as a collector-commentator includes frequent guest appearances as a curator, lecturer and critic. His collected essays on contemporary art, now in their third printing, are scheduled to appear in English next year as “Reports from the Boiler Room of Art.”
Given the expansive nature of the collector and his collection, it was clear that no conventional space would suffice for the museum. It was also clear that Bundschuh’s central task would consist in providing a flexible context for the art on view and not a showcase for his own personal aesthetic. Wherever Falckenberg’s collection was located in the past, he insisted on a minimalist setting from which the individual work could freely shape its own utterance. He has never had patience with the museum-building vogue for iconic statements by architectural superstars.

Nonetheless, his new museum is a far cry from an anonymous white cube. First of all, the harmonious grid of the original factory building lends an undulating rhythm to spaces large and small, while generous open areas provide multiple views into the exhibitions. Rather than a forced march, what is encouraged here is a provocative promenade.

David Galloway
International Herald Tribune