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Culture

Berlin to Exchange Exclusive Real Estate for New Art Museum

The city of Berlin wants a new modern art museum based on Guggenheim's recipe for success in Bilbao, Spain. To get it, the German capital is willing to part with a prime piece of real estate.

Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin

It looks like Hamburger Bahnhof won't be Berlin's only modern art museum

Developers and investors would pay millions to build on Berlin's centrally located Humboldt Harbor, just next to the city's new Central Station. But now the city is making the four-part, 16,000 square-meter (170,000 square-foot) plot available for free.

There's just one catch: The taker has to include a 10,000 square-meter modern art museum in the shopping and office complex that's foreseen for the site.

According to the call for bids, which are to be advertised throughout Europe at the end of the month, the new museum should resemble the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Completed in 1997, the masterpiece by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry is one of five modern art museums funded by the Guggenheim Foundation.

A stylish building and massive modern art collection did just the trick to rejuvenate the small town of Bilbao. The one million tourists who visit the Spanish Guggenheim each year are a financial windfall for Bilbao.

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Berlin looked to the prosperous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as an example

Prospective buyer

Multi-billionaire developer Nicolas Berggruen is considered a favorite for the Berlin project. Both art and money run in the family. His father Heinz Berggruen, who died last year at the age of 93, offered his 750-million-euro art collection to the state-run Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in 2000 in a gesture of reconciliation.

Berggruen, the elder, fled Germany during the Holocaust and immigrated to the US. He didn't return to Germany until 1996. The Berggruen Museum across from the Charlottenburg Palace was built to house the family's Classical Modern collection, which boasts works by Picasso, Klee, Giacometti and Matisse.

According to a report in the Berliner Zeitung, 46-year-old Nicolas Berggruen is also considering several other locations in Berlin for his own substantial modern art collection.

Land-for-museum deal questioned

The terms of the unusual agreement have stirred up some political controversy in a country where privately sponsored cultural institutions are a rarity and where complaints about under-funded museums are commonplace.

Greens fiscal spokesperson Jochen Esser, for example, warned against "giving away plots of land for free that are worth millions."

Dubbed "poor but sexy" by its own Mayor Klaus Wowereit, the German capital could do with a tourism-driven financial boost a la Bilbao -- regardless of who owns the museum.

However, a little competition wouldn't hurt the Hamburg Bahnhof, Berlin's only other modern art museum, opined the German daily Die Welt on Thursday, June 19. Critics have complained about the lack of innovative new exhibitions in the museum. The state-sponsored museum was built in 1996 to house several private collections, including that of Erich Marx. Notably, in 2004, it also obtained a seven-year loan of the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection.

Also coming soon: exhibition hall

According to reports, the museum at Berlin's Humboldt Harbor is not intended to replace plans for a new national exhibition hall in the city, which have had Wowereit's support. The hall would provide exhibition space for international artists who live or work in Berlin, but a location has not yet been determined.

In the meantime, ground was recently broken for a temporary exhibition space on the Schlossplatz, which is scheduled to open in October and remain there for two years.

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