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Berlin breaks ground on a new museum for 20th-century art

Nadine Wojcik sh
December 3, 2019

Despite controversy over its high price tag and unpopular design, the construction of Berlin's new Museum of Modern Art has begun. Set to open in 2026, it aims to put Berlin back on the map as the art hub it once was.

Berlin | Museum der Moderne | Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts am Kulturforum Entwürfe
Image: Herzog & de Meuron

An official ground-breaking ceremony for Berlin's future Museum der Moderne (Museum of Modern Art), a museum dedicated to art from the 20th century, took place on Tuesday with Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters, Berlin Mayor Michael Müller and Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

"With the Museum of the 20th Century, a space is being created in the heart of the capital that makes the formative experiences of the past century visible through the mirror of art — with all its upheavals, abysses and great moments," Grütters said at the ceremony. "The spectacular art collections of the 20th century in the Nationalgalerie will finally be offered the space they deserve," she added.

Yet it will still be a significant wait until the museum opens its doors to the public: The first exhibition is expected to be in 2026. 

An architectural model of the Museum der Moderne
The Museum der Moderne is set to open in 2026Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

But long before the ground-breaking ceremony, Berlin's future cultural hotspot has been a contentious issue — and not only for its high price tag of €450 million ($500 million).

The opening of the new museum was originally planned for 2021. Collectors willing to loan their works, such as the Pietszsch family, were getting impatient. They required that construction should at least be launched before the end of the year 2019.

Playing in the big leagues

The Museum der Moderne will serve as an extension of the Neue Nationalgalerie, the museum designed by Mies van der Rohe and built in 1968. Since 2015 it has been closed for renovations and is too small to house the city's extensive modern art collection. The Hamburger Bahnhof, another state museum for modern art, doesn't seem to be large enough either. With the new museum, Berlin will have a spectacular new building that authorities hope will put it on par with those in other capitals, like the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 
Read more: Berlin's new airport: 'This time it will happen'

The new project has been well received on the other side of the Atlantic. "In this way Berlin can regain the energy that once made it the capital of modern art back in the day," wrote Glenn Lowry, director of the MoMA in New York, in a guest article for the Tagesspiegel newspaper. He recalled Berlin's leading role in the art world in the 1920s, which is said to have inspired MoMA's then-director Alfred H. Barr Jr.

The Nationalgalerie's collection is one of the largest collections of 20th-century art in the world — and is almost entirely in storage at present. Among its famed pieces are works by Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Hannah Höch, Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Werner Tübke, Wolfgang Mattheuer, Isa Genzken, Otto Piene and Wolfgang Tillmans. The media art collection is also unique and comprehensive, counting around 800 audio, film and video works from the late 1950s to the present.

A work by German artist Heinrich Ehmsen
Berlin's museums have one of the world's largest collections of modern art, such as this painting by Heinrich Ehmsen Image: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

A space for discourse

Joachim Jäger, director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, emphasized that the Museum der Moderne will be a unique and irreplaceable part of Berlin's museum scene. He described the Berlin collection as "extremely complex" and "broadly diversified." The museum will aim to show the confrontation between East and West present in the history of modern art, said Jäger. For example, great painters from the US, such as Frank Stella, Barnett Newman and Robert Rauschenberg are paired with outstanding artists from former East Germany, such as Harald Metzkes, Werner Tübke and Angela Lampe.

Berlin has long lacked an exhibition space dedicated to exploring this historic complexity. "It is actually incomprehensible that this city, which is so closely connected with the rise and fall of modern art, had not had a place where the art discourses of the 20th century can be experienced in a comprehensive way," said Jäger in a guest article in the Tagesspiegel.

Speaking at Tuesday's ground-breaking ceremony, Berlin's mayor Michael Müller echoed this view, saying he hopes the new collection will "reflect the eventful history of this complex epoch." "The intensely discussed project for the art of the 20th century is another great treasure that enriches our city and makes it even more attractive for our guests from all over the world."  

Read more: Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg

Berlin | Museum der Moderne | Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts am Kulturforum Entwürfe
The city hopes the new museum will be on par with other big-name art institutions such as London's Tate Image: Herzog & de Meuron

Unpopular winning design

While the location isn't controversial, the same cannot be said for the considerably costly building project. Originally estimated to cost €200 million, the extension will now cost more than double that amount, €450 million. This budget, already approved by the government, is a sore spot for many, including other state museums in Berlin which operate on limited budgets without adequate personnel.

The future building was designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, also responsible for a variety of high-profile museums, including the Tate Modern, the Miami Art Museum and the M+ in Hong Kong, which is still under construction. Their vision for the extension, however, was the source of criticism by the public: Some said it resembled beer tents or cheap discount stores. It has drawn parallels to another recent iconic German building by the architects, Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie, which at €800 million euros, exceeded its original budget 10 times over.

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