Andreas Bechtler grew up with modern art, and then he became a collector. Now in his sixties, he's on a mission to find a home for a collection estimated to be worth more than $20 million. He talks about his childhood, his collection, and what he wants
A large water buffalo stands in the hall of Andreas Bechtler’s SouthPark home. It is a mechanical buffalo, an extraordinary sculpture by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Comparing a collector to what he has collected—in this case, a man to a mechanical beast—is, of course, absurd. And yet, the enigmatic artwork reveals some striking clues to a man few people really know.
Le Buffle, like Bechtler, is complex. Tinguely was a magpie artist: He gathered the refuse of nature and society and turned it into wonderful, sometimes whimsical art—machines that churn and turn and charm children as well as adults. The sculpture in Bechtler’s home is a carefully constructed hodgepodge of rusty chains and metal bars fronted by an enormous skull, whose dark, smooth horns slope majestically from its crown. Step on a big red button, and the contraption begins to crank, bringing the animal to awkward life.
For all its magnificence, Le Buffle does not dominate the center of Bechtler’s spacious, sunlit foyer; instead, it enlivens a corner of the room, preferring, like its owner, to work in the background.
Bechtler is intensely private, but these days, he finds himself the topic of much public conversation. In 2002, he received a large collection of modern art from his parents, Hans and Bessie Bechtler. Combined with his own acquisitions of contemporary art, the collection contains more than 1,300 pieces, and there is talk of it becoming the basis for a new museum in Charlotte. It would be the first modern-art museum in the region. A proposal to construct several cultural facilities, including museum space for the Bechtler collection, is before the Charlotte City Council.
Public funding for the arts is a controversial subject, and the cost of the cultural facility plan to the city would be substantial—perhaps more than $100 million. Consequently, the newspapers and nightly news have been dutifully recounting the twists and turns of the various proposals and negotiations. But one crucial story has been largely missing from the reports—that of Bechtler and his vision for the art collection he loves.
Bechtler is commonly identified in the press as a "retired businessman." While the phrase is accurate—in 1998 he sold his interest in Pneumafil Corporation, the air filtration company where he was an executive for more than twenty years—the two words fall short of a full description.
He is a musician. Every Tuesday night for the past fifteen years, he has gathered with friends to play in a quintet called Nuzulu. The band, which includes Charlotte artist and gallery owner J. Paul Sires, plays improvisatory music inspired by historical events, literature, and the visual arts. With Bechtler on keyboard, they jam until two in the morning.
He is an artist. In his studio north of Charlotte, Bechtler uses digital techniques to manipulate striking photographic images, the most recent fruits of an artistic career that began with his first show at the age of fifteen. Long hours of productive privacy appeal to him, and his appearance and demeanor are more suited to the creative solitude of a studio than the strategic hustle of a boardroom.
Bechtler is tall and slim. His slightly shaggy, sand-colored hair boasts more gold than gray, which, along with his jeans and collarless shirts, gives him a boyish look for his sixty-three years. He is not shy, but he is a gentle and thoughtful man. Though he has been in Charlotte for more than three decades, he still speaks with a soft German accent from his native Switzerland. And Switzerland is where he first began what would become a lifelong relationship with art.
Hans and Bessie Bechtler began collecting art about the same time that their son, Andreas, was born. (It was also at that time that Hans and his brother Walter founded Pneumafil Corporation, the company that would bring Andreas to Charlotte in the early 1970s.) Hans’s mother had been a painter and his father, a jewelry maker for the Indian maharajas, and Hans had an early love for art.
"My dad was interested in collecting," Andreas says of Hans. "They started going to galleries and started to meet artists and were lucky to find some pretty special pieces in the beginning. It was not collected for what was in, or for capital investment—and I don’t collect, either, like that; I collect what I like. It was not so much a concerted effort—now we have to buy this piece, and now we have to buy that. It all came together in a very relaxed way," says Bechtler.
The Bechtlers lived in Zurich, and although one thinks first of Paris, Vienna, and Berlin as centers of European modernism, Zurich was also a cauldron of artistic avant-gardism. The Dada movement had begun there during World War I. During the first half of the twentieth century, anti-Semitism and political upheaval in Europe led some artists to seek refuge in neutral Switzerland, creating a vibrant artistic culture in the small country.
About the time Bechtler was eight, his parents bought a summer home in the Swiss countryside, an area that nurtured an international arts community. Noted artists such as the English Ben Nicholson, the German Julius Bissier, and the Italian Italo Valenti had studios there. Those artists and others in the area became family friends, and as Bechtler developed more interest in art, they became his mentors.
"It was an important phase in my life. I could go and show my work and talk about philosophy and what it takes to be a serious artist."
Winters were spent in Zurich and, during adolescence, at a Swiss boarding school. While there, Bechtler formed his first band, a Dixieland ensemble called the Hot Potatoes. He played piano and trumpet and occasionally bass.
"During school dances, when I played piano, I had to play against the wall; I couldn’t see with whom my girlfriend was dancing. So I would play bass, as well, so I could watch." On their own time, the Hot Potatoes played the sophisticated jazz of Chet Baker and J. J. Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Bechtler home in Zurich had become a gathering place for artists and a showplace for their work. A bright rug by the surrealist Joan Miró lit up the living room floor. Bronze and glass tables by Diego Giacometti (brother of Alberto) stood nearby. Imposing abstract paintings loomed from the walls.
Soon after he began to collect, Bechtler’s father adopted a mission to introduce the artists he admired to the larger public. He established the Giacometti Foundation, and as chairman of Zurich’s art museum, the Kunsthaus, he helped organize many important exhibitions of contemporary art, hosting receptions for artists after show openings.
"My parents knew how to be generous and genuine, good-spirited and sincere. It was not an artificial thing."
The Bechtler collection is extraordinary. Beginning with a large pastel-and-charcoal drawing by the impressionist painter Edgar Dégas, it spans more than 100 years of modern art, with excellent examples of works by artists such as Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, and Mark Tobey.
"It is a wonderful collection of works that represents artists working in different media," says art adviser Elizabeth Szancer Kujawski. "For example, there are three works by [Alberto] Giacometti of the same subject in different media—a sculpture, a painting, and a drawing of his wife, Annette." Kujawski and a team of experts from Sotheby’s in New York evaluated the Bechtler collection a year ago. Sixty of the most important works were appraised at $13.5 million, and while the entire collection has not been appraised, its estimated value is well over $20 million.
"We were very impressed. There is a painting by Le Corbusier—it’s superb, one of the best works by that artist in private hands. A 1952 painting by Nicholas de Stael embodies what that artist is all about; it’s all there. Ben Nicholson—the collection has his most widely published work, Mycenae."
What makes this collection unique, says Kujawski, is the context in which it was, and continues to be, built.
"It would be impossible to re-create such a collection. It is a very personal collection, built on a premise of friendship and respect for the artists, the result of strong relationships built over time. It makes the artists real and provides a truly educational opportunity for the public."
It also gives the collection its vitality. Many of the pieces have fascinating stories behind them. The buffalo in Bechtler’s hallway is just one of them.
A few years ago, Bechtler received word from a Swiss gallery that three Tinguely machines were available for purchase. He was eager to see the pieces, having enjoyed a friendship with the Swiss artist that had begun almost fifty years before. So he flew to Basel, Switzerland and made an exciting discovery: The buffalo head, and the skulls on the other two sculptures, were hunting trophies from his father.
"My dad had shot the buffalo in Africa, and it was mounted with his initials on it. My dad was a hunter, and our attic was filled with trophies. It was a good resource for Tinguely, who was always interested to come by and get a few things for his collection."
By the 1970s, Bechtler’s father was not as able to climb up to the attic, so when Bechtler was home, he would take the artist up. It was during one of those rummages, in fact, that Tinguely chose the buffalo skull and the other trophies that Bechtler found in the Basel gallery some thirty years later.
"I have a letter from Tinguely to my dad thanking him for the trophies. But the thought had never occurred to me that I would find sculptures that had these skulls from my dad. So, of course, I bought it—how can you not buy that? [He bought two, in fact, and his sister bought the third.] Of course, it’s heartwarming because Tinguely was such a good friend, and to find it like that…that was a nice gift from heaven."
The family’s friendship with Tinguely led to the commission of Cascade, the mammoth mobile that fills the lobby of the Carillon Building downtown on Trade Street. The Bechtlers developed the office building, and from the beginning, public art was part of the plan: an exhibition gallery and three large art pieces, including Cascade. Tinguely, however, was reluctant to participate. A previous experience in the United States had been unpleasant, and he did not want to come to Charlotte. Bechtler and his parents went to Tinguely’s Swiss studio to convince him, where Bessie Bechtler noticed that the artist had wrapped his feet in towels to keep them warm. Come to Charlotte, said Bessie, and I’ll make sure your studio stays warm. It was a deal.
"We wanted to build something in downtown Charlotte with the art in mind," says Bechtler. "A private space, but open to the public, with exhibitions that would stimulate thoughts and conversation. I was very proud of what we were able to do."
The buffalo is one of more than 150 Tinguely works, both two- and three-dimensional, that Bechtler owns. It is one of the largest collections of Tinguely outside of the Tinguely museum in Basel.
"A lot of those pieces were given to me, as a gesture of friendship, knowing that I’m probably a good steward for this art, and that it would be in good hands. There are many artists that have given pieces to the collection. It’s very serious that I do the best I can do to give them an extraordinary home in a city that I feel deserves that."
When he inherited the collection three years ago, Bechtler began to ponder how to best provide that extraordinary home. He describes the planning as a "journey" that has "evolved over time." The Mint Museum at one time proposed that Bechtler donate the works to the museum. That is a common practice, acknowledges Bechtler, and as a former Mint board member, he supports the Mint’s role in the city’s cultural community. But Bechtler is convinced that the collection and the city would benefit from a small museum devoted strictly to modern art.
"A larger museum is a different animal; it has its vision on many different elements. It is very much needed to have museums like that, but at the same time, it is very much needed to have little, singly focused museums that add color to the cultural fabric—a little jewel that the city could be proud of."
The intimacy of the collection demands an intimate space, says Bechtler. In addition to the artworks, there are superb "artist books" (bound sets of lithographs, prints, or etchings that illustrate texts) and artists’ photographs, letters, and books.
"I feel that we need to have a specialty museum, a way of showing the art pieces that does justice to the way they were collected. Knowing artists personally, over many years, we can show the community the art in context, how an artist would produce work over years and evolve." For example, the collection contains more than forty years’ worth of Giacometti works: sculptures, paintings, drawings, and artist books created from the 1930s to the 1970s.
And, adds Bechtler, he wants the space to have architectural distinction.
"It’s part of my mission to have also a house for the collection that is designed and built with very high quality in mind, a building that makes a statement and connects to the art inside it. The building itself should be a piece of art." That concept—a modern-art museum as a work of modern art—is well established. In the 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the now-famous Guggenheim Museum in New York; more recently, the city of Bilbao, Spain, hired Frank Gehry to design its Guggenheim, which opened in 1997.
So, Bechtler began to contemplate building his own museum. In doing so, he joined a long tradition among art collectors. Henry Clay Frick, Solomon Guggenheim (both of New York), Duncan Phillips (of Washington, D.C.), and Albert Barnes (of Pennsylvania) are among those who bequeathed or financed buildings to make their art collections available to the public. For the location of his possible museum, Bechtler chose land north of Charlotte, 300 acres at Mountain Island Lake that he bought in 1997. Called "Little Italy" because of its boot-shaped peninsula, the tract is the site of an informal artist colony—large, rustic cabin studios where, currently, seventeen artists, invited by Bechtler, work in a peaceful, idyllic setting.
To develop a distinctive design, Bechtler chose Swiss architect Mario Botta, the internationally acclaimed architect of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tinguely museum in Basel.
"Botta is a friend of mine and he was a friend of Tinguely," Bechtler says. "He would do it [design the building] for the cause, because he sees that it is a meaningful collection for a city." But as Bechtler was making plans, Mark Bernstein, then co-chair of the Arts and Science Council, and Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the Foundation For The Carolinas, approached him with another idea.
"We thought the uptown area would be a much better venue, that a lot more people would be exposed to it than in the lake area," says Bernstein. "We also thought that Bechtler might need help at some point in maintaining the museum. If it were uptown, the community might be willing to help support it."
Bernstein and Marsicano made a proposal: If the city would build the facility and the private sector would come up with the money to endow it, would Bechtler consider moving the museum downtown? Bechtler became intrigued with the idea.
"My interest is to work on this collection," says Bechtler, "so I was not concerned at first with how many people would see it. But allowing more people to have access grew in importance. And having the collection endowed—that was a new concept." Bechtler calls himself a "temporary caretaker." An endowment would provide the collection with future security.
"I want to do justice to what we have so that this community can have something really outstanding. Part of that is to make sure that we don’t venture into something that could only last a little bit."
If the city were to build a museum, the collection would become the property of a nonprofit foundation, overseen by a board of directors. (The Mint Museum is operated similarly: The city owns the building, and the art is held in trust by a board of governors.) As long as the building and the endowment are there, says Bechtler, the art would be there, too. His three daughters, he adds, support that plan completely.
Although Bechtler believes the city and the collection "would benefit so much from a little, self-standing building," he and the Mint Museum, which hopes to move downtown, are discussing the possibility of a shared facility. Bechtler agrees that shared space would be financially beneficial. The two museums could use the same cafe, office, and educational spaces. Still, he maintains the need for the modern-art museum to have a distinctive architectural style, designed by Botta.
"We’ve worked really quite diligently to try to find ways to share a common facility," says Bob Lilien, executive director of the Bechtler Arts Foundation. Lilien has requested that the Mint’s architect meet with Dave Wagner, Bechtler’s local architect, to develop a mutually agreeable plan, but as of early March, the Mint had declined.
Lilien adds that the Bechtler Arts Foundation has also considered making the modern-art museum part of a mixed-use building separate from the Mint, if negotiations with the Mint do not produce an agreement on shared space. And, if public funding falls through altogether or the private sector is unable to raise money for an endowment, Lilien says Bechtler "would definitely consider other cities and other museum sites." Bechtler has been approached by other communities and museums interested in his collection, but Lilien declines to name specific places.
Bechtler continues to build the collection, and while his vision for a museum does not include hosting big traveling exhibitions, his family’s connections in the art world would allow for loans from other museums, such as the Kunsthaus in Zurich or the Tinguely museum in Basel, to complement the works in the museum’s collection. And other Bechtler family members, such as his sister and cousins, have outstanding collections that might also be available for exhibitions.
But, even as it stands now, says Bernstein, the collection is "an extraordinary offer" to the city.
"It’s an incredible opportunity to ratchet up the community’s vision of art. It would be a terrible, terrible mistake for the city to overlook this opportunity, and if it does, we will regret the failure of leadership for many years to come."
As for Bechtler, he says he has "a lot of patience."
"Life is not always what you want or what you think is best. My concern is to see this collection well cared for. A lot of artists have entrusted their work. It’s a serious responsibility. I want to fully develop all the options. They ask us to consider coming downtown, and we do. We want to give it a true shot. But if that doesn’t work, something else will. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be here and have an artist colony and perhaps a museum downtown, I would have said, ‘You’re out of your mind!’"
And ten years from now, if the Bechtler collection is drawing thousands of visitors a year to its landmark museum in Zurich or Raleigh or Atlanta, people in Charlotte might look back and say something similar.