Berlin Beyond the Myths. A Round Table Discussion
/ ArtReview

Berlin has an almost mythical reputation as a centre of artistic licence and creativity, powering the European art scene, but is there any truth in all this? ArtReview convened a panel of experts representing the various constituencies of the local artworld – an artist, an established gallerist, an emerging gallerist, the director of a public institution, a critic and the director of a foundation – to find out.

ArtReview – April 2013

Berlin: from the 1990s onward, the city’s name stood for cheap rent, subculture, freedom. A place for artists not just to work, but to live. An open laboratory, raw and trashy and somehow different. That was the case until the late 2000s. And now? What remains of the myth in a city that is becoming increasingly normalised, in which art has become a part of the mainstream? Time for an assessment – so ArtReview corralled a roundtable of local experts representing established and upcoming commercial venues, institutions, collector-run spaces and, of course, artmaking itself. Here, Alexander Schröder of Galerie Neu, a cofounder of Berlin’s Gallery Weekend and abc art fair; Heike Tosun of Soy Capitán; Thomas Köhler, director of the Berlinische Galerie; Heike Fuhlbrügge, curator of the Salon Dahlmann; and the artist Katja Strunz consider where the Berlin scene is heading. 

ArtReview: I think we can all agree that Berlin has changed a lot recently. Heike, you opened your gallery two years ago and prior to that you witnessed the rush to Berlin for over five years at another gallery, Guido W. Baudach. How do you see the city now?

Heike Tosun: Well, of course Berlin is different today than it was back then. When I started at Guido’s in 2004 the two of us jumped at every email that came in. Then the tempo suddenly picked up and we grew to a high level. Then came the market crisis in 2008, and I left one year after that – and as a young gallerist, it doesn’t affect me at all. I simply accepted the given circumstances. My artists live here and I am actively involved with them. Financially, I cannot afford to travel constantly. But I also don’t have to: Berlin is very international and everyone comes by at some point.

So fundamentally it hasn’t really changed?

Heike Tosun: The big hype is definitely over. But just as the number of galleries continues to rise, so does the number of artists and collectors who are moving in from elsewhere. And Berlin has become very professional. Most of the young gallerists know what they are getting into and communicate with each other – perhaps more so than the established generation. 

I have the impression that the galleries are constantly trying to redefine the city through their location. Some move three times within five years. Why?

Alexander Schröder: This keeps the city exciting. Earlier, everything happened on Auguststrasse, now it is moving to Potsdamer Strasse and Kreuzberg 36. And there are still many blank spots on the map. The attractiveness of the city grows through this
movement and attracts new people. Obviously they " find it interesting that new neighbourhoods are constantly being discovered, and it is through this that Berlin continues to grow together with the art scene. This is also why Gallery Weekend is so successful.

Heike Fuhlbrügge: What I find so great about Berlin is that everyone has the feeling that they can shape it. The prices are indeed rising, but they are still not as high as in other big cities. This attracts everyone who wants to shape things – regardless of whether they’re an artist, gallerist or collector. We are sitting here in the rooms of Salon Dahlmann, which the Finnish collector and patron Timo Miettinen started a few years ago. As the curatorial trio A Private View, we have found a platform here for exhibitions with private collections. So, someone invested here and was open to ideas and collaborations.

This is really the exception. In the last few years many collectors have moved here, especially from the Rhineland, and if you want to put it bluntly, it is obvious that a lot of navel-gazing is going on – collectors showing what they’ve previously bought. But who is succeeding them? Who is supporting the museums or nonpro!t spaces?

Alexander Schröder: Yes, first of all the collectors from the Rhineland had to demonstrate their collector’s attitude so that West and East could find their place. But actually there are more and more young Berliners who are engaging in their first buying experiences. And perhaps this creates a dynamic in which the collectors are giving something back and supporting a local institution, which is much more common in other countries than it is in Germany.

Thomas Köhler: My impression is that not much has changed from an economic perspective since the 1990s – at least my institution has not yet profited. But there is a big process of social transformation. On one side of the art scene is the clientele from old West Berlin and on the other side one-third new Berlin residents. And they are good! This exchange was good for the city. Berlin was a city spoiled by subsidies, in which the involvement of citizens was rather limited. The collector Erika Hoffmann [who opens her collection, the Sammlung Hoffmann, to the public every Saturday] was the first who came to the city witha new attitude. I think this trend is still growing.

How do you all explain, then, the fact that international players are missing – why does Okwui Enwezor go to the Haus der Kunst in Munich, why didn’t Massimiliano Gioni stay in Berlin?

TK  Well, others think it’s right to be here, for example David Elliott or Corinne Diserens. Of course there is still an osmotic situation. But these kinds of people don’t come to take on a permanent position right away either. That’s not what they want anyway. When Okwui Enwezor came to the Berlinische Galerie, he said, “Oh, this must be a brand new place!” simply because the institution is really just now making its presence known. The curators are constantly discovering something new in Berlin and always need to come back.

On the other hand the curators of Berlin’s museums are not really omnipresent on the scene at the moment. Katja, what is your take on this?

Katja Strunz: Well, I have been in Berlin since 1999 and just now have my first solo exhibition here – in the Berlinische Galerie, thanks to the Vattenfall Contemporary art prize. Before that I hardly had any exchange with these houses. I see this with a lot of artists: we go to galleries, but to hardly any museums. Mostly big artists are shown there – I don’t go to any Gerhard Richter exhibitions. I have seen things like this too often. The galleries are much more in touch with the artists.

What role does the Berlin Biennale play in this context today? In 1998 it kickstarted the city’s art scene. There were many artists present whose names still come up when Berlin is mentioned: Jonathan Meese, Thomas Demand, Olafur Eliasson. In the 2006 edition, the myth of Auguststrasse – where the Berlin Biennale, and many galleries, began in 1998 – was revived once again. Yet there were many disappointed reactions to the other instalments, especially the last one. At the same time the Biennale is still exactly the event from which one can expect the most.

Thomas Köhler: Well, I think that is viewed too critically. Each biennale in the world will be appreciated differently. And I cannot think of any that is as radical as this one – with all of its ups and downs. And where the sponsors support the curatorial concepts, however abstruse they might be. Despite this, the city has of course grown more normal. Its specialness is – seemingly – dwindling. Gaps are being closed by new buildings and the voids continually decrease. In 2006 the Biennale took place at the Jewish Girls’ School. Today you can eat lunch there. But it is normal that places disappear. Berlin is just not a city solely for art. That was a myth! And we are in a constant process of change.

And is this process bringing money to your museum?

Thomas Köhler: So far, no. In this regard I consider the city to be provincial and backward. And this has to do with the economic weakness. I have stopped begging the same midsize company three times for €10,000. These are structural problems that make life difficult in the city. No exhibition budget, no purchasing budget! Politically this is very imprudent. And it is frustrating – things are taking off around me and I cannot join in. I find it really devastating that there are no signs from either the political or private side. 

Katja Strunz: And because the artists are not familiar with this background, they can’t identify with the institutions. Communication is just lacking.

Thomas Köhler: At the same time a lot has also changed in the museum landscape. Simply that the houses talk to each other. This didn’t exist a few years ago. For this, Udo Kittelmann, who came to the city’s National Museums in 2008, was also very important. He supervised six out of 17 museums – this is, of course, not really a sustainable way of managing museums. But such structural problems in Berlin are still very apparent today.

Heike Fuhlbrügge: Yes, and then it is no longer a question of why international curators are not being contractually retained here. Not to mention the financial means – lack of means – of the National Museums.

Instead, the question remains: how does Berlin seek to maintain its position in the art market when money is still so hesitantly spent here. The end of Art Forum Berlin two years ago – which was certainly never an internationally relevant fair – but also the new, playful fair format of abc, are signs that the city hasn’t really found itself yet.

Alexander Schröder: Of course there are still some improvements to be made to abc. But Art Forum, as a fair, was simply not enough. Berlin offers unbelievable potential, which abc wants to unlock. Gallerists from all over the world represent artists who live here. So they come to Berlin regularly as it is. Through abc you can realise projects with them onsite without much effort.

Heine Tosun: Another difference to Art Forum is that abc is in motion – and therefore it reflects the essence of Berlin much more. Art Forum was a classic, static fair. But classic things generally do not work in Berlin. I think the transition of abc from a curated trade show to an open fair is in line with the city, because new ideas are constantly developing here – and they need an appropriate platform.

So there are two trends: on the one hand Berlin is becoming professional and is attracting a new class of buyers – who will hopefully one day also support the museums. On the other hand we are insisting on the city’s improvised character and on Berlin as a place of production: the myth since the 1990s. At the same time the prices are rising. Katja, many artists are moving out of your atelier building because it is being refurbished. What is the advantage of living here as an artist today?

Katja Strunz: There are still gaps. Berlin is never boring or stuck. And it is still not overcrowded like New York, where I have to fight for a seat in every bar. You can act very spontaneously. I can store my metal in a huge shed and work freely. And there are many stores right around the corner. I once had a grant in London and I was supposed to produce something within three months. But I didn’t know how since there were no hardware stores nearby. Here, everything is right at your doorstep. If at one point I couldn’t afford my atelier in Kreuzberg any more, where I have been for many years, this would definitely have an influence on my work.

Are there specific trends that are emerging here today? A Berlin generation after the 2000s? Where is the Jonathan Meese, the John Bock, the Monica Bonvicini of today?

Heike Tosun: It would be pointless to look for them. Once there are names then they are always immediately linked internationally and are no longer distinctly attributed to Berlin. 

Katja Strunz: This is a big difference to the time when I came from Karlsruhe to Berlin. We were a group of artists who always sat in the same bars. Everyone knew each other. At some point everyone found a place at a different gallery – then everyone had less time and fought for different ideals or played for different teams. Today everything is much more complex.

In the meantime some galleries have had to shed some feathers – and with them many artists. How do you all feel the effects of the crisis?

Alexander Schröder: Well, in Berlin you always ask yourself which crisis is actually meant…

Heike Fuhlbrügge: An example is the gallery quarter on Heidestrasse behind the Hamburger Bahnhof. Prior to 2008 many small galleries opened there, but also Juerg Judin from Zurich and Haunch of Venison from London, who showed Damien Hirst – that was like a gangster scene! The men in suits, the women’s necklines to the floor – great! Where else did you have this in Berlin? Now this area is basically dead.

Instead Juerg Judin opened spaces twice as big on Potsdamer Strasse.

Alexander Schröder: The rent there is also only € 5 per square metre.

Heike Tosun: Not any more! Now you can’t get anything for less than € 10. Not even free spaces.

Aside from the galleries, where are Berlin’s experimental places?

Alexander Schröder: In addition to the many project spaces, Susanne Pfe!er comes to mind, she did a great job at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art [she left to go freelance at the end of 2012]. It will be interesting to see which direction Ellen Blumenstein will take. And of course we can’t forget about the Schinkel Pavillon. 

Thomas Köhler: Yes, Cyprien Gaillard just showed there – that was a borderline experience, with all the photoflashes. I think it was positive even though you couldn’t see anything any more because of the crowd. That shows the power of these spaces.

And who is the Berlin art audience today?

Thomas Köhler: I think this is very special here. There is simply huge interest on a very high level. This is, of course, also because of the universities. And it has to do with the city’s lack of economic pressures: the people have time. Our events are getting an incredible response. Right now we are hosting a discussion panel with Humboldt University. Each time at least 250 people come. You can’t help but love Berlin for this.

Heike Tosun: But even with all of the interest, the ability to focus is also often lacking. Good things quickly lose momentum and are replaced before something proper can develop.

Heike Fuhlbrügge: In my opinion it is good that there is so much going on in Berlin today. This is exactly what constitutes the movement.

So where will Berlin be in ten years?

Alexander Schröder: The popularity of Gallery Weekend and abc shows that Berlin has established itself as a site for art and culture. Of course you hear that the art community is already moving on to Warsaw or Istanbul, for example. People travel to such places, but they also leave again. 

Katja Strunz: With the increasing complexity, I hope that new networks will be established between Berlin artists and institutions. Otherwise everything will ultimately collapse because of individual interests.

Thomas Köhler: I see a positive development here. In the meantime exhibitions are realised in museums because gallerists contribute something, without everyone immediately suspecting that the museum wants to become a salesroom. This would not have been thought possible a few years ago. After the gold rush maybe there is now some sort of consolidation going on in Berlin – but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Heike Tosun: I actually think we are already leaving this phase again.

Translated from the German by Emily Luski

© Gesine Borcherdt