The Swiss family behind the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art

Dec 29, 2009

Charlotte's first modern art museum opens to the public next week at the new Wells Fargo Cultural Campus. It bears a name that will be unfamiliar to many. It's not the Belks or the Blumenthals, which are all well-known arts benefactors in Charlotte. This new museum is named after the Hans and Bessie Bechtler family of Zurich, Switzerland. In 1979 their son Andreas moved to Charlotte to work in one of the family's manufacturing businesses. When his parents passed away ten years ago, Andreas inherited half of the family art collection and decided to donate it to the City of Charlotte. Today it's worth more than $60 million dollars. BECTHLER: "It's actually 70 years of collecting art. When my parents married, they lived in an apartment in Switzerland and as business-wise my dad got very successful, they decorated their home. You know, that was the first, you know, order of the day was let's put something on our walls, we have nothing." ROSE: Andreas Bechtler's father ultimately made a fortune with his heating and air conditioning company in Switzerland. Much of that wealth went into the art that is now on display in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. And 68-year-old Andreas Bechtler feels right at home, since much of it hung on the walls of his own home until just recently: ROSE: "Is it difficult to part with something like that? You have given this work to the city of Charlotte. Don't you miss it?" BECHTLER: "Of course, it's like children. They are fabulous for you but don't belong to you, you have to let them go. The collection has found such a beautiful building from Mario Botta and such beautiful location the city made available, so I could not feel better." ROSE: "Would you show me something you remember being hung on the walls of your childhood home." BECHTLER: "Sure, let's go." ROSE: He leads me up the elevator to a sculpture on the 4th floor by Gunther Haese. It's an intricate tangle of flattened springs about the size of a dinner plate. BECHTLER: "That piece stood on my mother's piano. And when she would play the piano, they would all have some movement vibrating with the sounds." ROSE: "That must have been mesmerizing for a child." BECHTLER: "Yes, it really was." ROSE: "You have been in Charlotte for several decades now. There are a few names people are familiar with when it comes to art in Charlotte - the Belks, the Blumenthals. And I can't help but wonder when people come here and see the Bechtler name, they'll wonder who you are. You've kept a low profile, why?" BECTHLER: "I'm a private person. Spotlight is not where I'm thriving so much." ROSE: "Does the Bechtler family have an endowment for making gifts, too?" BECHTLER: "This is the wealth that you see here. We are not the Rockefellers, but we have wonderful pieces of art." ROSE: "I understand your parents knew personally many of the artists from whom they collected?" BECHTLER: "I mean, there was Chagall, Miro, all the well-known artists. They knew they could always come to our house and come for a chat. And it was not just a cold purchase of a piece of art that would go on the wall and that's it. But it was a true interest in their lives and where could we help them to have another show or how can we support them?" ROSE: The Bechtler family was so close to these artists that you can actually spot their influence on many of the pieces here at the museum. Andreas leads me to a kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely built around a scary-looking animal skull. BECHTLER: "This was a trophy that my dad had in his attic. He shot this buffalo in Africa. Tinguely of course using skulls as part of his sculpture was always very happy when he could go to the attic." Look closely and you can see Hans Bechtler's initials on the trophy. On the opposite wall, there's a letter Tinguely wrote to Andreas many years ago that doubles as a colorful piece of art. But perhaps the most surprising piece - and easily the most personal - is on the wall of the museum lobby. It's a family portrait by none other than pop art icon Andy Warhol. It hung for decades in the Bechtler home. Now it hangs in Charlotte's Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, which opens to the public on January 2nd.