NRW-Forum Düsseldorf is part of the Ehrenhof ensemble built in the 1920s, today a listed monument, which also includes the Museum Kunstpalast and the Tonhalle Düsseldorf. Characteristic features of the architecture are strict symmetry, archaic monumental forms and expressionistic brick façades.
The complex was built in 1926 for the GeSoLei exhibition according to the plans of Wilhelm Kreis (1873–1955). In 1908, Kreis succeeded Peter Behrens as director of the Kunstgewerbeschule Düsseldorf (School of Applied Arts). The school’s architecture department became part of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Art Academy) in 1920, where Kreis was professor for architecture until 1926.
The building that today houses NRW-Forum Düsseldorf was originally home to the Reichsmuseum für Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftskunde (Reich Museum for Social and Economic Sciences) starting in 1928. From 1951 until the beginning of the 1990s, the premises housed the Landesmuseum Volk und Wirtschaft (State Museum for the Nation and the Economy), a museum of technology that focused on the interaction between man, nature and economics, and between work and leisure, in the course of sociological changes, in particular specific developments within North Rhine-Westphalia. A walk-in coal mine in the basement was the museum’s main attraction.
Threatened with closure, the museum reopened on 9 October 1999 after a complete overhaul as the NRW Forum Kultur und Wirtschaft (NRW Forum for Culture and Economy). The institutional infrastructure was put under the charge of a board of trustees whose members included the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the State Capital of Düsseldorf, the Düsseldorf Trade Fair, and further institutions and Düsseldorf companies. Petra Wenzel and Werner Lippert were responsible for exhibition management. Exhibitions were devoted to figures including Herb Ritts, Peter Lindbergh, Anton Corbijn, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Bruce Nauman and Mario Testino.
When in 2013 the State of North Rhine-Westphalia cut off funding for the institution, Petra Wenzel and Werner Lippert resigned. The Lord Mayor at the time, Dirk Elbers, decided that a new legal entity would be formed under the name NRW-Forum Düsseldorf as an independent institution.
During an interim period, the building served as an exhibition space for the art festival Quadriennale Düsseldorf 2014, for the Düsseldorf Photo Weekend and for the international dance fair. In addition, the IKS – Institut für Kunstdokumentation und Szenografie (Institute for Art Documentation and Scenography) showed a Joel Meyerowitz retrospective here.
In December 2014, the State Capital of Düsseldorf announced that it had appointed Alain Bieber as new artistic director of NRW-Forum Düsseldorf effective 1 April 2015. NRW-Forum Düsseldorf thus began a new life as an international cultural centre and an idea factory for culture, showcasing contemporary photography, pop and digital culture.