Berlin's art scene: Are reports of its death exaggerated?

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Berlin's art scene: Are reports of its death exaggerated?
Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, It’s the Mother, 2008, video, 6′, color, sound. Video still. Julia Stoschek Collection. Courtesy of the artists and Gió Marconi, Milan.

by Kimberly Bradley

BERLIN (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It’s not looking good for Berlin’s art scene, if you believe the newspaper headlines. This spring, Die Welt, a German daily, called the city an “art metropolis in decline.” The Financial Times said the art world had “said goodbye.”

These dire proclamations stemmed from the announcement that three prominent art collectors with art on public view here — Julia Stoschek, Thomas Olbricht and Friedrich Christian Flick — were departing, taking their collections with them.

It was just the latest bad news: In December, the Art Berlin fair folded; in February international megagallery Blain Southern, which had a space in Berlin, announced it would be closing.

Yet art in Berlin goes on — perhaps in a more-established, less-hyped way than during the German capital’s cheap, come-one, come-all halcyon days. From the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 until the early 2010s, when rents began rising sharply, Berlin was a hotbed for unregulated experimentation and exuberant hedonism.

But along the way, the art scene here also grew up. Several once-scrappy gallerists, like Esther Schipper, who arrived in 1992, are now global art market players. Artists with bases here, such as Olafur Eliasson, Hito Steyerl and Tómas Saraceno, have become bona fide stars.

“There are great artists living in Berlin, so you can’t start saying that everything is dead,” gallerist Philomene Magers said in an interview.

The exhibition “Local Talent,” running through Aug. 22 at Sprüth Magers, a gallery Magers co-founded and operates with Monika Sprüth, is a direct reaction to the negative buzz, Magers added. The gallerists invited artist Thomas Demand to curate a show, on short notice, of works by artists living and working in the German capital.

On view are works by 25 Berlin-based artists, including longtime residents Eliasson, Tacita Dean and Thomas Struth, as well as a number of emerging artists. Exhibition logistics were easy, Magers said: “We drove a truck to the studios, picked up the works, and brought them to the gallery. Everyone was here.”

More than 5,000 visual artists from around the world are based here, according to statistics compiled by city authorities. Despite high-profile closures, there are still more than 300 galleries, and before COVID-19 restrictions, there were public art talks nearly every night. The postponed Berlin Biennial is going forward Sept. 5, and Gallery Weekend, an event in which about 50 local galleries court international collectors, has moved to mid-September from its usual springtime slot.

Many art world insiders blame Berlin’s policymakers, however, for failing to develop a solid institutional infrastructure for contemporary art, including securing real estate for its display. According to Klaus Lederer, Berlin’s top culture official since 2016, the city has depended too much on private collectors to purchase and show art. Museum budgets for buying new works remain too low, he said.

That isn’t the only problem facing Berlin’s state-funded museums: The New National Gallery, a glass-box museum by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, has been closed for renovation since 2015, and its reopening has been delayed. The Humboldt Forum, a huge new museum under constriction in the city center, is also running late.

There are difficulties for private exhibition spaces, too, with some collectors expressing frustration at local bureaucracy or taking shots at politicians.

The lease on Stoschek’s Berlin venue, where she has mounted extensive exhibitions of video art, ends in 2022. The building will then undergo overdue renovations. Olbricht, who has exhibited his collection in Berlin since 2010, has said he will be returning to Essen, in western Germany. And the wing displaying Flick’s loan of 1,500 artworks in the Hamburger Bahnhof museum is slated for demolition. He will take the works to Switzerland next year.

Lederer said in an interview that he was aware of past policy mistakes but that he was taking steps to protect and promote an art scene that was integral in shaping the city’s identity. His department has helped secure around 1,400 studio spaces that are then rented to artists at submarket, subsidized rates, he said. More recently, he was behind an aid program in which artists could apply for 5,000 euros (about $6,000) in the first days of Berlin’s pandemic lockdown, he added.

And not all collectors are leaving. Art venues like Fluentum and the Kindl Center for Contemporary Art, both established by private collectors, remain and will show new exhibitions in September. Two of the city’s most visible contemporary art buyers, Christian and Karen Boros — who, since 2008, have mounted exhibitions in a monolithic World War II bunker in the city center — will soon host “Studio Berlin” in collaboration with Berghain, a techno club. From Sept. 9, the club’s cavernous spaces will become an exhibition venue for work by more than 80 local artists; for the first time, the public will be allowed in without first being scrutinized by Berghain’s famously picky bouncers.

In an interview, Demand said that with the “Local Talent” exhibition at Sprüth Magers he wanted “to show, on a small scale, that Berlin still works,” adding: “We’re still here, we’re still working, we still have the same problems and we’re still coming up with individual solutions.”

“There were always two perspectives on Berlin’s art scene,” Lederer said. “On the one hand, that everything was fabulous and worth cheering for; on the other that it was a catastrophe, a mess. There was nothing in between.”

After the three collectors announced they were leaving, “it’s as if everyone was waiting to toll the death knell for Berlin as an art city. But that’s nonsense.”

And Stoschek’s collection might stay put after all: She must vacate her current location when the lease ends, but, in an email, Stoschek said she had not yet decided whether her collection will leave Berlin for good. “We will have to see how the pandemic around the world develops,” she said.

“What makes the city so attractive is never the administration but the people who release an enormous amount of energy and ensure constant movement,” Stoschek said. “To observe this in the last months alone is valuable. Berlin is coming, even if perhaps in a different form than before.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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