Berlin Enters a New Art Age

Berlin Enters a New Art Age

Berlin might be known for being in a constant state of flux, but the latest changes in the local art scene seem like a turning point - as a look at this year’s Berlin Art Week schedule reveals.
Berlin might be known for being in a constant state of flux, but the latest changes in the local art scene seem like a turning point - as a look at this year’s Berlin Art Week schedule reveals.

B erlin has always been a better place to see art than to sell it. But while it is safe to say the capital city won't be replacing Cologne as the centre of the German art market anytime soon, change is afoot in post-pandemic Berlin, with a new wave of energy coursing through the city's art landscape.

Historically, Berlin has never been a financial powerhouse, nor has it had any particular aspirations to being one. But now, it’s not just the influx of the tech pioneers, and other moneyed newcomers with an appetite for art, driving change. Nor is it the conservative party’s takeover of the Culture Senate and its avowed intent to counter severe cuts to arts funding, by insisting on increased productivity and accountability from recipient artists. It’s a more fundamental change, most visible in a wave of new initiatives across the city, from private institutions and project spaces focusing on new developments in art that are not yet being accommodated by existing spaces. These initiatives are responding to new audiences, demonstrating an attitude of openness and inclusivity. And now, even well-established art-scene players are taking note.

Yoram Roth (Photo© Fotografiska)

The schedule of this year’s Berlin Art Week (13 - 17 September), a week-long festival organised by the city’s own culture marketing agency, Kulturprojekte Berlin, and encapsulating the best Berlin’s art world has to offer, reflects that change. Take Fotografiska, the international cultural platform with an emphasis on photography, with branches in New York, Stockholm and Tallinn and soon, a Berlin branch housed in a former cultural centre and infamous party venue.

As Fotografiska chairman Yoram Roth explains, 'A building of historic significance and public relevance comes with the responsibility to include that building’s biography and involve the public in the development of future narratives. That’s why we started to invite neighbours and representatives of different communities, long before the opening, to show them the construction site and invite them to share their perspectives and add to our vision.'

Elke Buhr (Photo © Wolfgang Stahr)

Extending invitations, rather than waiting for visitors to just show up is a concept increasingly adopted by Berlin institutions. And a significant number of directorial changes at some of the city's most influential institutions, from time-honoured museums such as Brücke Museum in the city's far West, to the Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum in Mitte, might play into that.

As Elke Buhr, Editor-in-Chief of Germany’s largest art magazine Monopol observes, 'From the reopening of House of World Cultures (Haus der Kulturen der Welt/HKW) under new director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, to a different type of audience at the openings of Gropius Bau, that change is evident everywhere, and it feels like a turning point.'

'From the reopening of House of World Cultures to a different type of audience at the openings of Gropius Bau, change is evident everywhere - it feels like a turning point'
- Elke Buhr Editor, Monopol

And this change is being felt across the board. Veteran collectors Ingrid and Thomas Jochheim, whose famous post-war art collection includes a focus on the oeuvre of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, respond positively to the fresh energy coursing through Berlin’s art scene.

'We are art lovers, but not experts, which is why approaching art through the eyes of art professionals such as curators is very important to us. We try to see as many institutional exhibitions as possible and enjoy how the recent changes in programming have introduced us to so much art that is new to us.'

Ingrid and Thomas Jochheim with Christo on the Floating Piers at Lago d’Iseo in 2016.

The many events in Berlin Art Week's schedule stretch from a 'Prize for Virtual Art' to a 'Pickle Bar', operated by artist duo Slavs and Tatars. Amongst the week's programme, two initiatives by Berlin galleries deserve closer attention.

'Hallen #4' brings together some 20 galleries on the vast premises of a former foundry, in a format that manages to merge different gallery profiles into one collective showcase. Meanwhile, Berlin Gallery Weekend (under new director Antonia Ruder, taking over from former head Maike Cruse, now director of Art Basel) will partner with Berlin Art Week for the first time, to stage a new ‘Gallery Festival’, taking place at a defunct hotel on Kurfürstendamm - Berlin’s slightly less glamorous version of the Champs Elysées - thus extending its presence beyond its annual spring edition.

Both formats are experimenting in ways that go beyond the familiar gallery concept, a trend that Silke Neumann, founder and director of culture communications agency Bureau N (that counts Gallery Weekend among its clients), has observed among galleries for a while now, an approach that ‘obviously increases their visibility beyond their exhibition programmes and makes them appear less elitist’.

Opening of the summer exhibition programme, courtyard of KW Institute for Contemporary Art. Photo© David von Becker.

Less elitist, more user-centric - this formula is increasingly visible in Berlin these days. As Yoram Roth acknowledges, 'We need to adapt to the realities of people’s everyday lives, such as staying open until 11pm, so they can come and enjoy the place after work.'

'We need to adapt to the realities of people’s everyday lives'
- Yoram Roth, Fotografiska

These new initiatives, applying novel ways to bring art to people, are proliferating. Nomadic platform 'Super Super Markt' is building a community around young positions in unusual locations, while 'The Fairest' stages art fairs without galleries, complete with performance nights and parties. Meanwhile, 'Auktionshaus am Grunewald' speaks to entry-level art lovers, new to the business of collecting.

This influx of new players has driven fundamental change, as the Jochheims have observed. And the collector couple have been doing their bit to keep things fresh. While the majority of their collection is based in their private home in North Rhine-Westphalia, the art in their Berlin apartment can be viewed upon request, or by invitation to one of their private events where the hosts have made it a rule to avoid 'inviting the same people and to make sure that at least half of the guests don’t know each other' - which ensures ideal conditions for successful networking. And lately, the they have had no difficulty in finding new guests.

Berlin Art Week opening event at Uferhallen, 2022 (Photo © Clemens Porikys/Berlin Art Week)

Of course, external sources have always impacted the city. The local art scene’s claims to have triggered Berlin’s return to international fame as a city of art in the Nineties might have been somewhat overconfident, as collector Manuela Alexejew, a Berlin native, clarifies. 'Actually, Berlin has always been an international city, even in Prussian times under the reign of Frederick the Great. Much of what has made Berlin great was lost during World War II, especially the rich cultural and intellectual influence of the Jewish community. But the spirit of that never fully vanished. We see it being reanimated today and Berlin’s art scene is heavily profiting from that.'

In another sense, this reanimation of the city's spirits might explain the return of Klaus Biesenbach to Berlin in 2021. Having made a lasting mark on the city by co-founding the renowned arts hub Kunst-Werke (now KW Institute for Contemporary Art, also partnering with Art Week) and the berlin biennale, it looked like Berlin had lost him for good when he left for the United States. But, not unsurprisingly to some, he returned in 2021 from Los Angeles, where he had been director of MOCA, to head the Neue Nationalgalerie. Here, he stages exhibitions with old companions from his time in Berlin such as the recent Isa Genzken retrospective (a beautiful work, from her Weltempfänger sculpture series is included in the upcoming Modern & Contemporary Discoveries sale at Sotheby’s Cologne) while also opening up the house through performance and concert nights and surprises, such as getting his friend Patti Smith to perform for free.

Silke Neumann (Photo © Julia Autz)

Still, not everything is perfect in Berlin. 'While we see significant budgets being allocated to new projects such as Humboldt Forum or the Museum of the 20th Century, smaller but innovative institutions lack funding.' says Silke Neumann.

The Museum of the 20th Century is planned to augment the neighbouring Neue Nationalgalerie. It is being designed by Herzog de Meuron, is currently under construction and is already being heavily scrutinised by officials for its costs, design and even, necessity. The conversations taking place in the city's government, pivoting on the allocation of space and budget for art, is an increasingly conflicted topic, despite the obvious success Berlin-made art has generated over the past few decades.

'While we see significant budgets being allocated to new projects such as Humboldt Forum or the Museum of the 20th Century, smaller but innovative institutions lack funding'
- Silke Neumann, Bureau N

'On one hand, that freedom for experimentation that Berlin’s art scene was known for - due to an abundance of space and low living costs - is shrinking,' Elke Buhr explains, 'But on the other hand, this scene has managed to firmly establish Berlin-based artists on an international level.'

(Once such artist is Alicia Kwade, whose 'Time Out' (2008) features in Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary sale. The piece marks a crucial phase in the artist’s career, dating from when she was recognised as being one of Berlin’s most promising artists, on the cusp of international fame).

Berlin has always managed to ingeniously incorporate art into its landscape, as Silke Neumann, whose agency services not only art clients, but also architects, confirms.

'Art and architecture seem to form an organic symbiosis, with art making use of spaces that are deserted - because no one knows what to do with them - still being a Berlin specialty. Take ICC, Berlin’s monstrous conference centre, that stood almost forgotten until a festival managed to revive attention last year and spark a discussion around its future use. And art is considered an important ingredient when it comes to new property development, as well. A good example of this would be Atelier Gardens, a campus for regenerative entrepreneurship, overlooking the famous Tempelhof airfield.'

Regardless of the many changes in Berlin, the city will continue to maintain its unique identity as an arts incubator, as editor Elke Buhr confirms. 'The magazine [Monopol] couldn’t be based in any other German city.'

And as long as the local art scene will hold on to one thing collector Manuela Alexejew finds essential.

'I have always had both an international and a local art world perspective, but my perspective on collecting and that of my husband has always been based on passion. I hope people starting to engage with art understand that, because regardless of how scenes and markets change, art only matters if there is passion for it.'

Manuela Alexejew (photo © Andrea Ferrari)

With its thriving art academies, gallery assistants working at minimum wages or less, and project spaces somehow surviving without funding, a lack of passion has never been a problem in Berlin - at least not on the creatives' side. Likewise, the city’s art lovers have enjoyed a lively and dynamic art scene for decades, to the extent their engagement is often primarily passive, rather than active.

But the growing recent trend of involving that audience, motivating art lovers to proactively engage in discourse, help to make space for art and purchase works transforms passion into a solid contribution to an art ecosystem that doesn’t just live off its image but enables its members to make a living from art. It's about time Berlin shed its 'poor but sexy' image, and by continuing on that path, it will succeed.

The ICC Auditorium (photo© Andreas Gehrke)


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