Art dealer Paul Maenz regards Cologne as "not a beautiful city. It is big, dirty, but it works." The city's vitality and open-mindedness is what he and others in the art world believe is attracting artists and art lovers in growing numbers.

In fact, this fall the most popular public attraction in all Germany is Cologne's new art museum. The modern structure, located between the massive Gothic cathedral and the mighty Rhine River, has been drawing thousands of visitors a day since it opened Sept. 6. Its enormous popularity gives new impetus to the blossoming of this 2,000-year-old Roman city as the liveliest and most important arts center in the country since the 1960s.

City fathers are hoping to turn Cologne into the cultural center of Germany. The city has eight major museums, 12 Romanesque churches and 120 art galleries, as well as an opera house, theaters and a new concert hall. Cologne, in the view of many urban observers, has surpassed Dusseldorf and Berlin as the center of the German art world.

"Cologne is the place for foreign art dealers to come," said Marianne Holtermann, a London dealer who makes frequent trips to the Continent. "It's the most active and alive arts city in Germany."

An avant-garde German artist named Chris Werner, who exhibits in Cologne, said: "The artistic ferment here is stronger than in other cities. People are much more experimental here and open to new ideas."

Art dealer Maenz put it this way: "This is definitely the center, in terms of the art market. Cologne has attracted artists from all over Germany. It used to be Dusseldorf and Berlin, but now Cologne, like New York City, is where the art action is. Cologne is a magnet for new galleries, new artists and new collectors."

Cologne's galleries are estimated to have generated about $35 million in sales last year.

As the meeting place of artists, dealers and collectors, the city has attracted such contemporary German painters as Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz and Joerg Immendorff.

"It is strange," said Maenz, "but Cologne's artists have pretty much done it on their own, with a minimum of subsidies. Some cities seem to have spent more on the artists, but spoiled them."

If Cologne has not gone out of its way to subsidize artists, it has certainly subsidized the arts themselves--to the extent of about $87 million a year--in contributions for museums, opera and the theater.

With help from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the city has provided a spectacular fund of $250 million to reinvigorate its old city center.

The jewel in this crown is the new museum complex, which benefited from public contributions of $140 million. The building houses the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, named for two 19th-Century benefactors, and the Museum Ludwig, named for chocolate maker Peter Ludwig.

Ludwig's collection of modern art--it includes works by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Ernst, Klee, the German Expressionists Kirchner, Heckel and Nolde, and the American moderns Johns, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Warhol and Lichtenstein is considered second only to that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Wallraf-Richartz collection ranges from 13th- and 15th-Century Cologne masters to Rubens, Durer, Cranach, Rembrandt, Hals, Ruysdael, Murillo, Renoir, Van Gogh and Munch.

The museum, designed by the Cologne architects Busmann and Haberer, was envisioned by city officials as "an area of noble, intellectual, stimulating and internationally attractive urbanity."

The building is of dramatic modern design, with north-facing skylights. It is sheathed in zinc, which reflects the color of the sky, from austere silver in winter to the blazing orange sunsets of summer.

There is a succession of large spaces alternating with smaller rooms of varying height. It also includes a concert hall that seats 2,000.

When the dramatic design was first proposed, some critics suggested that it might be out of harmony with the Gothic lines of the famous cathedral near the river.

However, Germany has been receptive to innovative museum design since World War II, as exemplified by a Mies van der Rohe building in Berlin, and British architect James Stirling's addition to the Stuttgart museum, which has won wide acclaim.

Since its opening, the consensus among architecture critics seems to be that the design of the new Cologne museum is very successful: While radically different from the lines of the cathedral, it nevertheless does not detract from that religious monument. Indeed, many writers have commented that the new building, with its reflecting exterior, adds color, life, and light to a long-depressed area between the church and the iron work of the great Hohenzollern railroad bridge across the Rhine.

Indeed, the museum has helped to revitalize central Cologne around the great Gothic cathedral, the Bahnhof, Germany's busiest railroad station, and the Old City along the west bank of the Rhine. Much of the Old City, including five bridges that span the river, was destroyed by bombing in World War II. But the area has been rebuilt, and industry has returned--petroleum products, chemicals and autos, along with the chocolate industry and the famous scent that is named for the city, Eau de Cologne.

Many people, among them art dealer Gerhard F. Reinz, attribute Cologne's emergence as an art center to the Kunstmarkt, the annual art fair that was started 20 years ago. Reinz, who has run a gallery here for 28 years, said: "Very important galleries from all over the world came to this market. New galleries were established here. The city offered studios to artists, and the museums had an additional attraction for them."

According to another observer of the art scene, the fact that partition of Germany left West Germany with no proper capital also helped Cologne's rise as an art center, just as finance gravitated to Frankfurt, movies to Munich, fashion to Dusseldorf.

Robert Hackenberg, a city official who has been dubbed the city's "Culture Boss," pressed Cologne's government to provide a permanent exhibition hall for the Kunstmarkt, and he pushed for the grouping of several museums around the cathedral, to create a focus for visitors.

Another city official, Erhard Schlieter, said Cologne's attraction was partly sheer chance.

"Cities can't plan everything," he said. "Some art-minded cities might try to provide subsidies for artists which simply don't work out in the long run. Here, it just seemed to happen, beginning about 15 years ago. Today there is a new pride in the city, in its museums and artists."

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