150 YEARS OF HISTORY
OF THE MUSEUM
The Musée des beaux-arts in La Chaux-de-Fonds can be traced back over 150 years to the establishment of the Société des amis des arts (SAA, now SaMba), which aimed to develop art appreciation across the region and place art at the service of industry by acquiring works and holding exhibitions.
Early in the twentieth century, the SAA collection had no premises of its own. It was scattered across various sites in the town and soon ran out of space. Plans for a new museum had long been mooted but it was not until 1923 that the land was purchased and a competition launched to design the building.
The winning design by Charles L’Eplattenier and René Chapallaz was inaugurated in 1926. The architects, known widely as admirers of Heimatstil and Art nouveau, came up with a project allying modernity and classicism. The building’s remarkable polychome façade, symmetrical design and volumes, layout, and clear, airy interior all gestured to Art deco.
The monumental entrance was dominated by L’Eplattenier’s high-relief sculpture Pegasus or Spirit of the Arts. The building also showcases works by François Morellet, Günther Förg, Olivier Mosset and Lawrence Weiner. The mosaic decor in the lobby, dating from 1929, was by the painter Charles Humbert.
In 1993, the museum was given a discreet underground extension by the architect Georges-Jacques Haefeli, marrying harmoniously with the original building. More recently, it has undergone a series of renovation projects to restore its original polychrome exterior while meeting the highest modern standards of museum design.
The Société des amis des arts held it first exhibition in 1864 and purchased four of the works on display, forming a fledging collection. It continued acquiring works in the following years. The history of the collections mirrors the museum’s exhibitions: its biennials initially presented works by artists from across Switzerland and elsewhere, but then came to focus on artists from the region. The post-war period saw more temporary exhibitions devoted to a single artist or theme, often featuring contemporary art, some of which was then acquired for the collection.
Over the decades, the museum has received a number of significant bequests and gifts, most notably from René and Madeleine Junod (1986), Olivier Mosset (2007) and Erwin Oberwiler (2017).