In the GDR, Gerd Harry Lybke was barred from working life. Today, he can take much of the credit for the popularity of the New Leipzig School, which has put Germany in the international vanguard of fashionable painting.
Lybke's put German art on the map
It might be a key date in German history, but Oct. 3, 1990 was a day like any other to Gerd Harry Lybke. Born in 1961, he'd been running the Leipzig gallery "Eigen + Art" since 1983, and didn't necessarily see the West as a land of opportunities.
"Unification was something I experienced very much from a distance," he said. "It wasn't obvious what one was supposed to do with it. And I wasn't the sort of person who expected to be welcomed with open arms in the West."
East German repression
His checkered career in the GDR had taught Lybke not to take anything for granted. His original career ambition was to be an astronaut, but when he refused an opportunity to study in the Soviet Union, the communist regime barred him from public service.
Lybke's first foray into the art world was as a model for students at the Leipzig Art School, work not officially recognized by the State. After getting to know a number of artists, he began organizing private exhibitions in 1983 in his own apartment -- an illegal practice which soon brought him to the attention of the East German authorities.
"It was bad news," he said. "I wasn't allowed to study, and my plan to become an actor was nipped in the bud. There wasn't much I was allowed to do."
Lybke, right, and his assistant
By the time Lybke had been "rehabilitated" in 1990, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the "Eigen + Art" gallery in Leipzig, which had begun in his front room, had become an integral part of East Germany's subculture. It had a reputation that had long reached the attention of the West German art scene.
After opening a second branch of the gallery in Berlin's rapidly gentrifying Mitte district in 1992, Lybke, the first private gallery owner from the former East to set up shop in the reunited city, went on to foster dozens of fledgling artists, propelling Berlin to a secure place on the international art map.
Berlin might have been an unparalleled business opportunity after unification, but Lybke kept his eye on the ball and realized that the real creative potential was back in Leipzig.
While the new German capital basked in its post-unification glory as a hotbed of burgeoning talent, by the mid 1990s the most exciting art action was unfolding several hundred kilometers east in Leipzig, and Lybke was playing the role of impresario.
Painting by Neo Rauch
These days, the artists spawned by Leipzig's Art School -- including Neo Rauch (photo), Martin Eder and Carsten Nicolai -- can command prices up to 50,000 euros ($60,000), and the man doing the selling is usually Lybke. "Leipzig has become one of the main hubs for contemporary art," he said. "In the 1970s and 80s it was Cologne, then it was New York, then it was Berlin, and now it's Leipzig."