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The Party's Over -- Life after MoMA

Jane Paulick
September 20, 2004

In a city reeling from sweeping cuts to the arts, MoMA's overwhelming success marks a new twist in Berlin's ongoing culture wars.

What's next after MoMA in Berlin?Image: AP

As the Museum of Modern Art exhibition drew to a close this weekend, Berlin was left wondering exactly what to make of the media circus that's been rocking the city over the last seven months.

"MoMA helped art reach a wider public," Dr. Matthias Henkel from the Berlin National Museums told DW-World. But that's almost an under-statement. One survey showed that 15 percent of the visitors, who endured waits of up to ten hours outside the Neue Nationalgalerie, had never even been to a museum before.

Much to the indignation of the city's art establishment, the success of the temporary exhibit of works from the New York-based MoMA prompted German President Horst Köhler to call for a "Super Museum" showcasing the best of Berlin's existing collections.

Taking stock

Moma Ausstellung in Berlin geht zu Ende
In the last days of the exhibit, visitors often waited up to 10 hours to get a ticket.Image: AP

It's hardly surprising that cash-strapped Berlin is keen to capitalize on the MoMA phenomenon. In a city of 3.4 million, the visiting exhibition attracted over one million visitors, some 750,000 of whom came from out of town. With such impressive figures, people have realized there are cultural and economic lessons to be learned.

Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's media-savvy mayor, welcomed the president's idea and suggested the city's museums pool their respective pièces de resistance in a temporary exhibition with MoMA-style pulling-power.

"It's a charming proposal and I'm sure a Berlin exhibition would complement the MoMA exhibition very well," he said. "When you've understood how to turn art into an event you can reach a vast public, and moreover, you've whetted the public's appetite for (the city's) many museums and galleries."

Professor Peter Raue, president of the Friends of the Nationalgalerie, confirmed this. "All of Berlin's museums recorded an increase in visitor numbers by 100 percent," he told DW-World.

The superficial sheen of 'postcard' museums

But not everyone was enamored with the MoMA-effect. The show might have been embraced by the public and the politicians, but the art establishment has been largely hostile -- and not just because of a perceived US imperialism on the part of the curators.

Bildgalerie Deutsche Kunst der Nachkriegszeit Künstler Georg Baselitz
Georg BaselitzImage: dpa

"Art that's easy to consume can be counter-productive," insisted Jörn Merkert from the Berlinische Galerie, set to re-open in October after a seven-year absence. As director of a museum boasting work by renowned 20th-century German artists including Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Georg Baselitz (photo), one of Merkert's priorities is to anchor his gallery firmly within the community by offering children's workshops and facilities for the disabled, for example.

"It's all very well promoting art as an event, but it's also important to strengthen the profile of museums and their collections," he told DW-World.

"From a marketing point of view, it shouldn't be about individual works with 'post-card' potential," he said dismissively. "No one needs 'post-card' museums."

As far as Merkert is concerned, Berlin seldom sees sensational public interest in an exhibition because the capital's museums have to work with "negligible marketing and advertising budgets due to the catastrophic state of Berlin's finances."

"MoMA had a marketing budget of €1 million," he pointed out. "For our new gallery, we had just €50,000 at our disposal, most of which we scraped together out of private funds."

Tine Nehler, press-spokesperson at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, agreed. "In terms of publicity and marketing, MoMA showed what could be possible," she told DW-World. But she also felt Germany's president missed the point when he called for the creation of a super museum.

"It wouldn't make sense to centralize the country's art collections," she said. "There's simply no need for it."

Not only is it superfluous, argued Dr. Henkel of the Berlin National Museums, such a proposal would be positively detrimental. "Sifting off the 'crown jewels' would only weaken individual collections," he said.

Selling Berlin short

The problem isn't only financial.

"Germany suffers from a major deficit when it comes to making museums attractive to visitors," says Jörn Merkert. "It's a question of changing people's consciousness," he stressed. "Berlin completely fails to advertise its quality collections. It has 165 museums and at least 40 of them are world-class," he said. "The Gemäldegalerie, for example, owns the world's largest collection of Rembrandts."

Christina Weiss, State Secretary for Media and Culture, also said the city had enough high-profile collections. "Berlin already has 'super museums'. The 17 Berlin National Museums attracted 3.2 million visitors last year."

And MoMA is by no means the only exhibition making headlines in the capital this year. The Hamburger Bahnhof museum, redesigned in 1996 by architect Josef Paul Kleihues and home to works by Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys, is now set to host the highly controversial Friedrich Christian Flick Collection. Opening just two days after MoMA closes, the show has already generated reams of publicity.

Day-to-day realities

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.Image: AP

Sensational as they are, the reverberations of MoMA can't be equated with the 'Bilbao Effect' -- the economic boom experienced in the Spanish city after the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Foundation opened in 1997.

Natascha Kompatzki from Berlin Tourism Marketing pointed out that the 11.33 million visitors to Berlin last year made it the city's record year for tourism, but she attributed the trend primarily to Berlin's newly-acquired status as a low-budget airlines destination. "The number of visitors who came to Berlin for MoMA were only the icing on the cake in what's a more general development," she told DW-World, and added the show was first and foremost a boost to Berlin's image.

According to Jörn Merkert, Germany's politicans are making a mistake in seeing MoMA's success as a yardstick for future exhibitions. "Museums have to deal with day-to-day realities," he said. "They need to be more than spectacular fireworks that explode and then disappear."