The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art celebrates one family’s art treasures.
Photo by Gary O'Brien.
The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art celebrates one family’s art treasures.
Photo by Gary O'Brien.
Inside the Stagecoach
February 24, 2016

Museum celebrates one family’s art treasures

A couple’s love of art lives on in their son and grandchildren – and in the North Carolina museum that now houses their treasures.

Hans and Bessie Bechtler started collecting art when they were young and living in a two-bedroom apartment in Zurich, Switzerland. Artists flocked to Switzerland after World War II – and the Bechtlers welcomed them with open arms. The couple forged lifelong friendships with many of the artists and collected their works, including Giacometti, Miro, Picasso, Calder, Warhol, and many others.

Today, works in the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art at the Levine Center for the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina, are valued in the tens of millions of dollars. The museum, and the art inside, was a gift from their son, Andreas, and his children, to the city.

The museum’s latest exhibit, by 20th-century colorist Sam Francis, is on display through March 7, thanks to sponsorship by Abbot Downing, a Wells Fargo business serving ultra-high-net-worth clients

“Just as the Bechtler family passed on its shared values – the love of art, collecting, and sharing – from one generation to the next, Abbot Downing focuses on preserving and growing the wealth of multigenerational families as well as their legacies,” says David Parker, managing director of Abbot Downing’s Charlotte office. “We’re honored to sponsor this exhibition of the Bechtler Museum.”

Central to the Bechtlers’ philosophy was that art should be shared and viewed – a philosophy they upheld at the many companies they founded, where they rotated pieces through their factories and workplaces.

“I thought that I would probably inherit a lot of art,” Andreas says. “In 2000, my mother died at the age of 99, so it came into my hands in 2001. And I felt a caretaker mentality: How could I keep it together and find a way to show and display it into perpetuity. We were looking for a home for the art – and in entered Wells Fargo. They have been the best partner.”

Andreas Bechtler created the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, which features the work of 20th-century colorist Sam Francis in its latest exhibit.
Andreas created the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.
Photo: Gary O'Brien

‘Cultural campus’ takes shape

Andreas and the family’s long-time advisor, Bob Lilien, a Charlotte-based attorney, connected with Wells Fargo Corporate Properties’ Bob Bertges, who was overseeing the construction of space for the bank’s capital markets business. Bertges had an even bigger vision: a cultural campus on South Tryon Street that could be subsidized with a land donation by Wells Fargo, public money from property taxes and rental car taxes, and an endowment raised by the city’s Arts and Science Council.

The Bechtler art was placed in a 501(c), a tax-exempt nonprofit that loans the art to the city for $1 per year – an approach that Bob Lilien says has been recognized as a best practice by the American Association of Museums. Made possible through this public-private teamwork, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art opened in 2010. By 2015, the museum had attracted 240,000 visitors in its first five years.

“It all came together,” Bob Bertges recalls. “How cool is this and how doubly cool for the city, the state, and the region?”

For Andreas, the museum sparks a range of emotions.

“The collection is for me like a photo album,” he says. “Over the years, the pages are filled with memories. My sister and I grew up with the artists – they were our mentors, they spiritually influenced us. Sometimes they would just give their work to us – so this is a way of honoring them. That’s why I didn’t want to split up the collection.

“Can you imagine your family album on display in a museum, open to the public? Everyone can see what was in your home? It has been to a certain extent painful, but I also feel great pride and joy. I felt a huge relief to find such a remarkable place for the collection. When you’re handed something so beautiful and valuable, you have a responsibility to take the best care of it that you can muster. I can take heart and walk away with joy.”