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Reinhard Ernst, an entrepreneur who built his fortune manufacturing precision gears and motors, was already in his 40s when he first discovered a passion for art. Now in his late 70s, he has founded a new museum to house his collection of post-war abstract art in Wiesbaden, Germany.

The Museum Reinhard Ernst, in a building designed by the Pritzker prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, who died on 6 June, is scheduled to open on 23 June. It will show Ernst’s collection, accumulated since the 1980s, of works by artists including Helen Frankenthaler, Tony Cragg, Lee Krasner, Frank Stella, Pierre Soulages and Yuichi Inoue.

With a gleaming white façade, 14m-high ceilings and granite-grey floors, the building offers more than 2,500 sq. m of exhibition space. It occupies a prime site provided by the city authorities near the art and natural history museum in the centre of Wiesbaden. Construction costs of around €80m were financed by the Reinhard and Sonja Ernst Foundation.

The museum commissioned glass works by Katharina Grosse, MadC and Karl-Martin Hartmann and an installation by Bettina Pousttchi for the foyer. A sculpture by Eduardo Chillida is on display in a glass-enclosed inner courtyard.

In 1981, Ernst and three of his colleagues acquired Harmonic Drive, the Japanese-American precision engineering company he worked for, in a management buyout. He bought the remaining shares in the company in the 1990s, then floated it on the stock exchange in 1999. Seven years later, he founded another company, Ovalo, which had expanded to France, the UK and Spain by 2016. He sold it to a Japanese company in 2017 and retired from his board position at Harmonic Drive.

Interior decorations to serious collection

Over the decades, his art collection grew as his professional life flourished. The first works he bought were by two German artists—Karl Otto Götz and Hubert Berke. On business trips to Japan and the US he began visiting museums and, in the late 1980s, started to buy Japanese and American art.

“I developed a love of abstract art,” Ernst tells The Art Newspaper. “I bought the first paintings for decoration to hang on the walls of my home. Over time I bought a lot of pictures, and at some point I had no free walls left—then I realised I had become a collector.”

Reinhard Ernst and his wife Sonja established a foundation in 2000 and have funded a community centre near Fukushima in Japan and a music school in Eppstein, near their home city of Wiesbaden. With no children, they view the foundation as “their personal legacy”, according to a statement.

Ernst says he offered his collection to two museums, but neither had enough space to hang more than a few pictures. “So the idea of founding a museum grew out of that,” he says.

In addition to more than 40 works by Frankenthaler, who Ernst says is his favourite painter, the collection spans artists such as Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Jackson Pollock, Richard Serra, Damien Hirst, Sarah Morris, Neo Rauch and Toko Shinoda.

Christoph Zuschlag, a professor of art history, described it in a report for the city of Wiesbaden as “unique in its international scope, far beyond Europe to Japan and the US; in its inclusion of all the important artist groups, and in the breadth and quality with which it documents a range of trends and currents” in abstract art after 1945. Zuschlag said he knew of no other collection, either in a museum or in private hands, that can equal it.

Ernst still collects. His latest acquisition, he says, is a painting by the German-British artist Michael Anthony Müller. He buys mainly at auctions and describes the New York November season as “a must.”

Katharina Grosse’s exuberant Ein Glas Wasser, bitte (A Glass of Water, Please, 2024) at the newmuseum

“I used to go to fairs a lot, but now much less,” he says. “What you see at fairs doesn’t necessarily reflect the art market. You see a lot of works that are sold to people who sell them again in a couple of years or who put them in the cellar. I am neither of those—I buy for a museum, to show to the public.”

The Reinhard Ernst Museum is counting on 60,000 paying visitors in the first year. Mornings will be reserved for schools and educational visits; from noon, the museum will be open to everyone.

Wiesbaden ranks among Germany’s wealthiest cities. A traditional spa and gambling resort, it attracted almost 600,000 visitors last year. Thousands of US troops are stationed in and around the city, a connection Ernst hopes to take advantage of. He says he expects the museum to attract visitors from the US and Japan, as well as from Germany and neighbouring France. He is also keen to loan works abroad.

“Contacts with foreign museums will be very important and we are in the process of developing these,” Ernst says.

• The first temporary exhibition in the museum focuses on its architect. Fumihiko Maki and Maki & Associates: Towards Humane Architecturewill run from 23 June to 9 February 2025

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