Museum Barberini Germany's Latest Art Jewel

While Hamburg paid millions to build its magnificent Elbphilharmonie concert house, Potsdam got its latest jewel, the Museum Barberini, for free – courtesy of billionaire software entrepreneur Hasso Plattner.
Quelle: dpa
(Source: dpa)

This article was originally published on January 29, 2017, and republished without changes in February 2018.

After amassing billions of euros as a co-founder of business software maker SAP, Europe’s most valuable technology company, Hasso Plattner has been looking for worthy causes to spend it on. And he's found a few.

A slice of his wealth, estimated at €8.3 billion ($1.9 billion) making him the world’s 113th wealthiest person according to Forbes, has gone to a professional passion: technology. In 1998, he founded the Hasso Plattner Institute, an information technology college affiliated with the University of Potsdam near Berlin.

Another slice has gone to a private passion: art. For years, Mr. Plattner has been collecting paintings. He has major works by impressionists, including Monet, Renoir and Sisley. He also has a passion for 20th-century German art, particularly by artists from the former East Germany.

And now he is spending yet another slice of his considerable wealth on displaying and sharing that art with the wider public.

A brand new museum in Potsdam, an attractive city on the outskirts of Berlin, is showing works from his vast collection as well as paintings on loan from major international art museums.

In late January, his privately financed Museum Barberini opened its doors, becoming the latest attraction in the former imperial city. Potsdam was the summer residence of the Prussian kings, who lived in splendor in the sumptuous Sanssouci palace, and it is now the capital of the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin.

For me, it’s clear that if there is a place I need to invest, it’s the former GDR. Hasso Plattner

The new museum is a reconstruction of the former Palace Barberini, built in the 18th century by Frederick the Great and intended as a sibling to the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. The original building was destroyed, like many other historical buildings in the city center, during a bombing raid in the final days of World War II. With a facade true to the Baroque original, the building rounds off the reconstruction of Potsdam’s historic Old Market Square.

Mr. Plattner spent an estimated €60 million on the reconstruction project. He also financed the Baroque facade and copper roof of the refurbished historical City Hall, which has served as the seat of the Brandenburg state government since 2013.

Quelle: dpa
The reconstructed Palace Barberini opened its doors on January 23.
(Source: dpa)

The 73-year old engineer and entrepreneur is a member of the Giving Pledge group of billionaires who promise to give half their wealth to philanthropy. Technology and the arts are the primary recipients of his donations, and he has shown a preference to funnel them in the former East Germany.

“For me, it’s clear that if there is a place I need to invest, it’s the former GDR,” said Mr Plattner, who was born in Berlin. He believes East Germans need a break, after losing their factories and business under Communism and later after reunification.

But investing in the region, Mr. Plattner admits, is easier said than done. He originally proposed to build the art museum on the site of an East German-era high rise but dropped the plan following a local backlash. Not all Germans raised behind the Iron Curtain, he learned, thought every structure from that era should see the wrecking ball.

Quelle: dpa
Visitors to the new museum admire a Claude Monet painting.
(Source: dpa)

Bringing over paintings from his collection in Palo Alto, California, where Mr. Plattner maintains a residence, has been another challenge. Under the country’s controversial heritage protection law, he risked having his works confiscated by German authorities. Extensive discussions with the federal cultural ministry and amendments to the law eventually helped overcome the restrictions.

Museum Barberini will be home to a permanent collection of Mr. Plattner's 80-plus paintings by East German artists completed before 1989, including Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke.

The debut exhibition features 92 impressionist paintings, 41 alone by Claude Monet, in addition to works from Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Max Liebermann. Many of the paintings are from Mr. Plattner’s own collection, with 32 on loan from international museums and collections, such as the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the National Gallery in Washington D.C.

Embracing Mr. Plattner’s technology affinity, the museum includes a “smart wall,” a video screen that allows visitors to compare pictures of landscapes that inspired the impressionists.

The museum is certain to be a visitor magnet, if its opening event on January 20 is any indication: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Chancellor Angela Merkel and John Fogerty, the former guitarist with the rock band Creedance Clearwater Revival were among the first visitors to pass through Museum Barberini’s historic arched entrance.


John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]