Museum Folkwang was founded by Karl Ernst Osthaus in the Westphalian industrial town of Hagen in 1902. From its beginnings as an art collection supplemented by natural history and arts-and-craft pieces, it soon developed into a pioneering modern art museum in Germany. As the first public collection in Germany, Museum Folkwang purchased and exhibited works by trailblazers in Modernism such as Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh and Matisse. Following the death of the museum’s founder in 1921, the newly-founded Folkwang-Museumverein e.V., a progressive initiative formed by art aficionados from Essen, purchased the Osthaus collection for the city of Essen and consolidated the collection with the Municipal Art Museum, established in 1906, to create Museum Folkwang.
Together with his friend, director of Essen’s art collections and later director of Museum Folkwang in Essen, Ernst Gosebruch, Osthaus put a great deal of effort into the promotion of the artistic avant-garde of the time: a manifestation of a reform movement that encompassed all areas of life and aimed to provide the “industrial district in the west” with a new aesthetic constitution through an affiliation of art and life.
Within just a few decades Museum Folkwang was able to build a global reputation as collector and mediator of new and innovative art, making it the target of Nazi hate campaigns during the Third Reich. More than 1400 works were branded “degenerate” by the party, subsequently confiscated and in some cases sold to buyers all over the world. The phenomenal loss of irreplaceable paintings and the destruction of both museum buildings during a war-time air raid razed Museum Folkwang and its important collection to the ground, leaving nothing but ruins post-1945. In the 1950s and 1960s, the museum’s directors at the time, Heinz Köhn and Paul Vogt were able to fill the most significant gaps by repurchasing some works and acquiring new ones based on those lost. With the expansion of the collection to include contemporary art, by the 1970s they were able to present a larger collection than ever before.
Today Museum Folkwang is one of the most prominent art museums in Germany with outstanding collections of painting and sculpture from the 19th century, Classical Modernism and the post-1945 period, as well as photography, to which Museum Folkwang has dedicated its own department since 1979.
The museum sees a fantastic opportunity to develop even further in this direction, maintaining and advancing the museum’s tradition of presenting a diverse range of mediums and a combination of visual and applied art, for which Museum Folkwang was so famous up to 1933 and which lent it the title “the most beautiful museum in the world”.
In August 2006, Professor Berthold Beitz, Chairman of the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen and Halbach-Foundation’s Board of Trustees, announced that the foundation would act as the sole sponsor and supply Museum Folkwang with the funds required for a new building. David Chipperfield Architects then emerged as the winners of an international architectural competition tendered by the city of Essen in March 2007. The building was constructed by Neubau Museum Folkwang Essen GmbH, a member company of the Wolff Group, and opened its doors in January 2010.