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Culture

Temporary Berlin exhibition space sparks controversy

Over the past two decades Berlin has established itself as a hotbed for contemporary art, but plans for a temporary exhibition space have underscored the divide between the local scene and the city’s ambitions.

Tacheles Art House, a run-down old department store

Tacheles is synonymous with the Berlin art scene

In an average city an open call for new works of art by undiscovered talent would likely send artists flocking to their studios. But Berlin is by no means average, and Mayor Klaus Wowereit's plans to open a temporary exhibition space on the river Spree next summer have triggered hot debate.

Skeptics question the need for a flashy gallery, to be funded by both public and lottery foundation money, which they say will not serve as an authentic platform for the city's art scene.

A large building against a blue sky

The "white cube" dressed up as the East German Palace of the Republic

Wowereit's plans have led to claims from the city's artist community that he is only pushing the project to enhance his chances of re-election in the fall. The exhibition space itself has been criticized for having an inadequate curatorial concept, and there has been widespread dismay at the timing of this new venture given the recent dismantling of another temporary Kunsthalle.

The privately-funded "white cube," as that art hall came to be known, provided a space for experimental exhibits during its two-year stay in central Berlin. It was never intended to be permanent and was taken down just in time for the scheduled rebuilding of the Prussian city palace, which has since been delayed until 2014 due to insufficient funds. The cube was purchased by arts patron Francesca von Hapsburg and will be reassembled in Vienna.

One gallery too few

Although Berlin is already bursting with museums and galleries, it has not had an official Kunsthalle since 1994. An attempt by a public-private initiative to rectify that situation by transforming an old covered market in Kreuzberg's burgeoning gallery district fell flat this year when it was announced that the space would be absorbed by the neighboring Jewish Museum.

Five red plastic bags containing food on the ground

"Provisions" installation in Berlin

Florian Schmidt, a spokesman for the initiative, says it is crucial that the German capital establish a local space for grassroots work which is not motivated by commercial interests.

"A Kunsthalle is important for the consciousness of a city," he said. "Historically it has also represented a resistance to aristocratic power. And the art scene here is often exploited."

Some are concerned that Wowereit's space will mean a continuation of that trend, and that rather than explore the wide variety of art in Berlin, the curators of the temporary new hall - who are currently being groomed by big names from top international galleries - will ultimately end up searching their own networks for the next commercial success story.

Berlin is not New York

Thomas Eller, a former director of the temporary Kunsthalle, is skeptical about the success potential of the project for entirely different reasons. He says the fact that it is closely modeled on the MoMA PS1 concept in New York, which aims to help unknown artists make into the market, will work against it.

Cameras made of wood on tripods made of wood

Curatorial concept?

"Artists here are more oriented toward curatorial concepts than the market," he said. "And a market comparable to that in New York doesn't really exist."

Although Berlin's contemporary arts scene has been a central factor in raising the city's profile since the wall fell, it remains disproportionately underfinanced, receiving just 4 million euros ($5.26 million) in public funding compared to 26 million for literature and 220 million for theater and dance.

And while private funding might seem an alternative, artists and administrators are quick to dismiss its viability. "A patronage system on a US model could never work in Germany," Van Duelmen said.

Ultimately, the non-conformist, anti-materialist values that have made Berlin so attractive to artists also prevent the local community from mobilizing easily or creating a more lucrative market for their work.

"It is hard to get artists and galleries here together to sign anything," said Eller. "They are so skeptical of institutions, that they are sometimes not even interested in public support. Berlin needs less navel-gazing and better exchange with the outside world.

Author: Rebecca Schmid
Editor: Tamsin Walker

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