Delayed Gratificaton

When officials in a German town proposed a Gehry museum, residents balked. Now they love it.

The sleepy, conservative German town of Herford hit a few bumps on the road to becoming the next Bilbao. The town hired the right architect—Frank Gehry—and got one of his signature curvaceous designs. And in May, the MARTa Herford, a contemporary art and design museum, officially opened in the small city, an hour west of Hanover on the banks of the Werre River. However, the objections of local residents and a lengthy fund-raising process made for a challenging beginning.

The project was initially proposed by the economic minister to revive the region’s fortunes. Jobs in the area—a traditional center of furniture and textile production—have been threatened by Eastern European and Asian outsourcing. “Most of the inhabitants were against the museum because it was so expensive,” MARTa director Jan Hoet says. Despite its relatively modest $38 million price tag (Gehry’s museum projects sometimes cost upwards of $100 million), the drawn-out financing and building process tested the patience of locals.

By 2004—eight years after the government’s initial proposal and three years after breaking ground—the parcel of land by the river was still a construction site. “It took far too long,” says Heiner Wemhöner, a businessman who helped raise funds for the museum. “People wrote angry letters to newspaper editors saying this money could be used for schools.” Last fall, the debate over the museum was so heated that it became a key issue in the local election, and the mayor—a supporter of the project—was voted out of office.

Because MARTa is both state-funded and privately financed—notable since Germany’s institutions have historically been mostly government-supported—construction of the 75,000-square-foot structure depended on businessmen such as Wemhöner to secure the private funding. According to Hoet, “MARTa reaches back to the idea of art not as a product but as a coproduction of all participating”—including businessmen, politicians, and townspeople.

But as the building neared completion, economic growth and evolving attitudes became evident. The old factory across the street, renovated as shops and a restaurant, reopened last fall. About the same time, Hoet, a curator of Documenta IX, strategically staged an accessible exhibition of drawings by James Ensor—less edgy than those he’d previously staged in temporary spaces downtown—in the partially completed museum.

Having previously hired him for the 1995 EMR building in nearby Bad Oeynhausen—which attracted 15,000 visitors in one day—Manfred Ragati, former head of the electricity company EMR and an early museum supporter, commissioned Gehry for MARTa largely because of the attention and visitors he draws. But the architect also delivered a design that is sensitive to the site. Clad in red brick to echo the region’s buildings, the new structure creates a strong visual presence on the banks of the river without overwhelming the town. After a turn in a typically narrow European street, the museum appears as a series of dark red hills—more elegant sailboat than stainless-steel ship. “I’ve sat out on the back terrace of the museum already, overlooking the river, and it is all quite nice now,” Gehry says.

Perhaps the best evidence of the town’s acceptance is the fact that residents are now sending in tributes rather than angry letters. Hoet just received an enthusiastic letter from an 80-year-old local doctor who acknowledged, “It’s a fantastic opportunity for the city to have the museum here.”

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