Besucher*innen der Artothek Köln beim Stöbern
Art lovers perusing the shelves at artothek Köln. Photo: Artothek

Art to go

For 50 years, artothek Köln has enabled people to borrow works of art for a symbolic fee.

arthotek Köln and the institutions that inspired it

Towards the end of the 19th century, librarians such as Charles Cutter from Northampton, Massachusetts, and John Cotton Dana from Denver, began purchasing reproductions of famous art works to lend to local schools for teaching purposes. This idea of making art more easily accessible caught on in Europe too.

It took a few decades, however, until the Graphothek picture-lending library opened its doors in West Berlin in 1968, followed by East Berlin’s Artothek, which was part of the city library, in 1969. Today, Germany has more than 100 similar institutions, mostly publicly owned.

artothek has plenty of space for art. Photo: Lothar Schnepf

Inspired by the projects in Berlin, art historian and then head of Cologne city library, Dr Horst-Johannes Tümmers, established another Artothek in Cologne in 1973. From its inception, it collaborated closely with the Kölnischer Kunstverein art society and the newly founded Museum Ludwig.

Looking back, artothek couldn’t have been launched at a better time. There were streams of artists moving to Cologne and innumerable galleries opening across the city. The unpretentious character that has always defined Cologne stimulated the art scene. The zeitgeist of the time and the art produced in the 1970s are the subject of an exhibition (Immer feste druff) being held at Haus Mödrath in Kerpen until March 2023.

50 years of artothek Köln: an anniversary exhibition

18 January 2023 will see the vernissage of the 50 Jahre artothek anniversary exhibition that begins the next day. “Up until the beginning of March, we’ll be showing portraits of artists that have long-established ties with us,” explains Astrid Bardenheuer, who’s been managing artothek – Raum für junge Kunst (to give it its full name) since 2014. The anniversary exhibition will showcase works by artists including Georg Baselitz, Heike Kati Barath, Michael Buthe, Marlene Dumas, Leonor Fini, C.O. Paeffgen, Bénédicte Peyrat, Arnulf Rainer, David Shrigley, Rosemarie Trockel and Tomi Ungerer.

The exhibition’s focus on portraits is by no means coincidental: “Portraits symbolise the fact that artothek has always been a place to engage with art – and with the artists,” adds Bardenheur.

Haus Saaleck: home to artothek

artothek has a superb location, not far from Cologne Cathedral and Museum Ludwig. The imposing Haus Saaleck has a history that can be traced back several centuries. Originally a stonemason’s house, in the 15th century it became a patrician’s house before a building in late Gothic style was erected in 1461.

The building was badly damaged in the Second World War but reconstructed using original parts found in the rubble and the wall sections that survived. It underwent careful restoration around ten years ago.

From an online catalogue to your own four walls: art from artothek Köln

The impressive historic surroundings contrast with the equally impressive collection of around 1,600 works of contemporary art owned by artothek. “We buy another five to ten works per year,” Bardenheuer tells us. Visitors who decide to borrow something can buy a membership pass for an annual fee of five euros.

Afterwards, they can browse the online catalogue from the comfort of their own home. If the piece they’d like is available, they can borrow it for a maximum of ten weeks. The price for borrowing is just seven euros, including professional framing and insurance.

Having a work of art in your home for a while gives you a much more intensive experience than on a short visit to a gallery or museum. And that’s exactly what artothek sets out to make possible for its visitors. People who want more detailed information about the artists and their works can get it here too, of course, but – unlike in conventional museums – that’s not the main priority at artothek.

Once you’ve got the bug, you tend to go back. Says Bardenheuer, “You’ve already got a nail in the wall – it would be a pity to leave the space blank.”

artothek – Raum für junge Kunst, Am Hof 50, 50667 Cologne, +49 (0221) 22122332, opening hours: Tues-Fri 1pm-7pm, Sat 1-4pm

Upcoming exhibitions

Jeehye Song: HALLO!
Friedrich Vordemberge Grant 2022
27 October – 19

Donja Nasseri: Durst
Chargesheimer Grant 2022
1–17 December 2022

50 Jahre artothek
19 January – 4 March 2023

Like to see some more art in Cologne? Then take a trip to one of the city’s galleries.

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