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Art for rent

Julian TompkinApril 9, 2015

It's notorious as the city of dirt cheap rents and a haven for artists. But, with skyrocketing rental prices, is Berlin in danger of losing its creative mojo?

Graffiti in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin, Copyright: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It's been one of the most controversial themes in Berlin over the last few years - rising rents and gentrification. While many welcome the city's modern spruce-up, others long for the time when rents were impossibly low (or free for those willing to squat) and the city was an urban utopia for artists with revolutionary visions and empty wallets.

Now the director of the State Galleries Association of Berlin has voiced concern that Berlin's artistic scene is under siege by creeping rents.

"It is naturally becoming more difficult to show up-and-coming artists," Anemone Vostell told dpa, adding that the art scene is essential to both the city's image and tourism economy.

The Tacheles art house and squat, which was closed in 2012, Copyright: Tacheles Art Gallery.
Golden era: the Tacheles art house and squat, which was closed in 2012Image: Courtesy of Tacheles Art Gallery

The truth in the art

German visual artist Sven Johne has lived and worked in Berlin since 2005, when he co-founded the Gallery Amerika, which later morphed into Klemm's gallery in the Kreuzberg neighborhood - and has witnessed first-hand the increasing difficulties of being an artist in Berlin's changing real estate landscape.

"Klemm's had huge difficulties over two years finding suitable new premises," he says of the exceptionally sharp rises in Berlin's central Mitte district, which led the gallery to relocate to cheaper Kreuzberg.

"The low rents attracted the artists and galleries to the city - in West Berlin, East Berlin and the reunified Berlin. You can't forget, the vast majority of players in the 'art world' live at a low level, if not precarious," continued Johne. "The media image of the art world - of parties, of successful fairs, high prices - is completely imaginary. A few galleries, big artists and big-time collectors are responsible for this glamorous image. The rest of us get along - relying on low rents."

Acknowledging the tense situation, last week Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller announced plans for the creation of 2,000 new studio spaces for self-employed artists by 2020 to help accommodate the city's estimated 10,000 professional artists.

Berlin. Copyright: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images).
Berlin's rising rents threaten its thriving artistic sceneImage: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

However, Berlin's surging rent issue is of course not specific to its legion of self-employed artists. Changes in demographics and the gentrification of entire suburbs - some formerly distinctly working class, such as Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin - are squeezing long-term residents out, and has forced the government to intervene.

Big picture solutions

New laws proposed in March will restrict new rental contracts in areas of high demand to within 10 percent of the average local rent. The upper house of the German parliament still has to approve the law, but the new measures are due to come into force on June 1. On the announcement, Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection Heiko Maas said: "This is a really good day for tenants in Germany."

While Sven Johne, who also exhibits at the Nagel-Draxler gallery in Mitte, acknowledges that Berlin's rents have been exceptionally low in the past, it was this unique predicament that created the 'brand Berlin' - the cheap, scruffy and inspired city which attracts millions of tourists with open wallets each year.

Artist Sven Johne. Copyright: Rebecca Wilton.
Artist Sven Johne: 'The vast majority of players in the 'art world' live at a low level, if not precarious.'Image: Rebecca Wilton

"Beyond the social benefits [of artists and galleries] you can also see it as 'investment' into the barren Berlin economy," Johne says of the city's artistic image. "Why do the tourists come? For Hitler, the Wall, clubbing! And then, directly from the artistic side, they come for this Berlin 'hippie feeling.' This itself has huge potential - and it is far-sighted and even entrepreneurial beneficial to cultivate that potential."

Berlin Gallery Weekend celebrates the city's independent art galleries from May 1-3.