Swiss Curator Samuel Leuenberger Unlocks Local Art Secrets and More in His Guide to Basel and the Azores
Leuenberger oversees Art Basel’s Parcours sector as well as Switzerland’s Salts.
Basel-born curator Samuel Leuenberger spent years working at institutions in Europe, the U.K., and the U.S.—a chapter he now refers to as his “art world tour”—before realizing that, when it comes to culture, his birthplace was pretty much impossible to beat. A dozen years ago, he returned home and started Switzerland’s renowned non-profit art space, Salts.
Leuenberger is now also in his fifth year as curator of Art Basel’s ever-popular, public-facing Parcours sector, which presents site-specific artworks across the city center during the world-famous fair.
“Basel is culturally extremely rich; we have over 40 museums in Basel, which for a tiny place like this is just staggering,” he said. “There’s a reason why, considering it’s such a small country, there is such a high density of artists. From school to residencies to patronage, for young artists to established, it is a very rewarding cultural landscape.”
Of course, he does enjoy an escape, and these days, a very different sort of landscape has been calling him—that of Portugal’s volcanic Azores islands. And not only because of their otherworldly hikes and hot springs; notable art developments have been happening there, too.
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Gute Reise! Boa Viagem!
BASEL: Days 1–3
See and Do: Art Basel in Basel is back (June 16–19), welcoming 289 galleries from around the globe while also presenting art beyond the fair booths. As a proud partner, NetJets is returning again with a custom-built lounge to offer its exclusive guests a thought-provoking and insightful experience. Designed in collaboration with the Amsterdam- and Barcelona-based Moco Museum and the creative studio Six N. Five, its lighting mimics that of the sun, the moon, and the windows of a jet.
As for the art, “Unlimited is always my personal highlight within the fair, because it stretches our definition of how art can be perceived,” Leuenberger said of the sector dedicated to oversize installations. “And I’m very excited about the new curator, Giovanni Carmine.”
Carmine, the director of the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, is overseeing 70 large-scale projects at the fair, from a mural by Theaster Gates to a hanging sculpture created especially for Art Basel by Kennedy Yanko. A new Unlimited Night program on June 16 will also present performances by Ari Benjamin Meyers and Nora Turato.
Likewise, venues participating in Leuenberger’s Parcours sector will stay open late on June 18 for a special program of live art. During the day, expect 20 site-specific installations and performances from artists including Oscar Murillo and Puppies Puppies (Jade Guarano Kuriki-Olivo) under the theme “How to Grow in Times of Change.”
Aside from Art Basel, Leuenberger suggested “For a Brief Moment […] Several Times” (June 3–July 17, 2022), the collaborative project from artists and friends Latifa Echakhch and Zineb Sedira at Kunsthaus Baselland, which combines memories of moments from their pasts. The Morocco-born Echakhch is currently representing Switzerland at the Venice Biennale, while Sedira is representing France. “I’m a big fan of their work,” Leuenberger said.
Leuenberger also recommended heading to Kunstmuseum Gegenwart for “Heute Nacht geträumt” (until August 14, 2022), an exhibition from Aotearoa New Zealander Ruth Buchanan, who, he said, “is an overlooked but very important artist.” The museum’s new curator, Maja Wismer, invited her “to challenge our understanding and notion of what an institution is.”
Last but not least, Leuenberger’s own spaces must not be missed. The idea behind City Salts, by the river in Birsfelden, is to “show international artists who might have not shown in Switzerland yet, and vice versa: Swiss artists who are just about to take off internationally.” It will open two exhibitions during Art Basel: one from Brazilian artist Adriano Costa, and the other from Gina Fischli and Gina Proenza—a couple of young Swiss artists based between New York and Switzerland—the latter guest curated by the young, Basel-based Alice Wilke (June 16–September 30, 2022).
Meanwhile, Leuenberger and his partner, artist Claudia Comte, have turned two barns at their home on the city’s outskirts into a new sort of art center, with Studio Claudia Comte and Country Salts hosting exhibitions and workshops where “artistic participation happens in a more kind of organic group process,” he said. “We’re trying to work sort of anticlimactically and with the seasons, and have a strong reference to agriculture and the natural environment.”
“It’s only 20 car-minutes away from Basel, but it’s completely isolated on top of a hill, with no neighbors and its own water and energy sources,” Leuenberger continued. “The place is sort of jungly—very different than the usual Swiss landscape, which is very pedicured. In Switzerland there are hardly any wild areas left, so it’s quite special.”
They are opening Country Salts to the public for an Art Basel event on June 12, and then plan to start hosting artist residencies come fall.
Eat and Drink: Ever the curator, Leuenberger also looks for artful eating experiences—like that of the two Michelin-starred Restaurant Stucki, in the posh neighborhood of Bruderholzallee, where renowned chef Tanja Grandits creates menus inspired by seasonality as well as color. “For example, one dish is all in pinks, one is all in greens, one is all in blues,” Leuenberger said. “It’s quite beautiful, and the highest-end way of eating.”
For a classic Sunday brunch in the courtyard of a converted horse stable, he heads to Reithalle Wenkenhof, just outside of Basel in Riehen, leaving time to stroll through the baroque park where the restaurant is situated. Partly modeled after the gardens of Versailles, it is also home to an early work by Richard Serra. “It’s a gem that most people don’t know,” Leuenberger said.
“We have a couple of large-scale Serras [in Basel]: one right next to the Kunsthalle and then a private one on the Novartis pharmaceutical campus, which you can only see through a guided visit. But [another one has been] sitting here quietly for 40 years, consisting of 10 smallish, corroded-steel cubes, kind of just scattered in the lawn. And of course now, the works have sort of settled in the ground; they’re slightly crooked, and there is something very personal about it.”
Stay: “Der Teufelhof is one of the gems of Basel,” Leuenberger said. The property consists of three hotels, including the Gallery Hotel, which stages an annually changing art exhibition in its public spaces, and the Art Hotel, which has nine rooms, each designed by a different artist.
Fly from Basel to the Azores
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SÃO MIGUEL ISLAND: Days 3–6
See and Do: An avid scuba diver, Leuenberger is always looking for seascapes to explore, though it is the dramatic landscapes that draw him to the Azores archipelago, with its nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic. “It’s an almost Jurassic Park-ish sort of environment,” he said of the main island, São Miguel, “and at the same time there are hot springs all over.”
Leuenberger likes the saltwater inlet and nature reserve at Vila Franca Islet, the exposed remains of a Surtseyan volcanic cone, situated one kilometer from the coast. “It’s basically an open crater out in the sea, and you have to take the boat there,” Leuenberger said. It is popular destination for swimming and cliff diving.
São Miguel’s hiking is also pretty unreal, especially around the forested, protected landscape of Sete Cidades, an extinct volcano with two caldera lakes. “It’s quite crazy because you have moments where you almost think you’re looking at a Swiss mountain range, and then all of a sudden you’re in the tropics, and all of a sudden you’re at a lake, then you have the sea. On that terribly tiny surface, you have this incredible range; just wandering a little bit in country, it’s like you’re transposed into a completely different location. This is magic.”
A couple of curator friends, João Mourão and Luis Silva, initially turned him on to the islands; they are the co-founders of Kunsthalle Lissabon and co-curators of the Portugal Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Mourão recently moved to São Miguel to oversee Arquipélago – Contemporary Arts Centre, which hosts exhibitions and a residency program in stunning space carved from volcanic stone. “It’s a very engaging museum, considering it’s a fairly small place,” said Leuenberger. “I think it’s a very promising and daring move for the island to hire somebody like him.”
Meanwhile, his friends Àngels Miralda and Irene Campolmi are now overseeing Re_Act Contemporary, an art laboratory and residency program. “I think it’s interesting, who makes their way to the Azores. They’re both very fierce curators, and have had a very clear vision on things,” he said. “It’s nice to see that they are collaborating here, inviting artists to experience the island, and then work creatively out of this process.”
Eat and Drink: Leuenberger suggested Bar Caloura for its fresh-caught fish, low-key vibes, and “killer view” over a sheltered bay in Lagoa.
For brunch, he likes Louvre Michaelense, an old-meets-new taverna in Ponta Delgada. “I’m always interested in places that have heritage, but then give it a modern twist.”
Stay: Leuenberger is partial to Santa Barbara Azores by Singular Properties, a luxe eco-resort on a black-rock beach with garden villas, a wellness cabana, a pool bar, a beach club, a farm-to-table restaurant, even a farm.
He also likes the Art Deco Terra Nostra Garden Hotel. “There’s this overgrown tropical garden—it’s quite wild looking, and it has this beautiful hot spring.”
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