As Rents Rise, Can Berlin Artists Still Afford a Place to Work?

The city faces a shortage of affordable studio space.

Berlin-based gallerists have indicated that they will not attend Art Cologne if the clash of dates goes unresolved. Photo: A. Savin via Wikimedia Commons

Over the nearly 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down, the German capital has developed a somewhat mythic position within the art world as the last great hope for a city ostensibly of and for artists. It’s a stereotype that has been true to varying degrees, though consistently overblown. Space is cheap in Berlin, especially in comparison to megalopolises like New York. But economic opportunity is also scarce. And, the rents and the cost of living are rising precipitously.

According to a recent interview with Florian Schmidt, Berlin’s so-called Atelierbeauftragter (atelier officer)—an official government position that was created in 1993 to oversee city-owned studio spaces and serves as a advocate for further space for the creative class—on average, the city’s artists make only €850 ($1120) per month. Schmidt, who took the post earlier this year, claims that this means the average artist can afford to spend only €200 per month on a studio space. That’s now considerably below the market rate for most studio spaces or even parcels of studio spaces within the city center—a luxury in most places but key to Berlin’s identity.

Residents have also been pushed farther from the center due to rising housing prices, so studio space on the periphery of the city is also becoming scarce and more expensive than what artists can responsibly afford. Like elsewhere, those rising housing prices are being spurred in large part by outside investment, creating a discontinuity between the market and the Berliners’ economic reality.

The city has, for years, attempted to stave off the decline it studio space with buildings such as the Atelierhaus Prenzlauer Promenade. For the past 15 years, the building has offered up 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) of studio space to a rotating cast of artists. But even those efforts have often faced political pressure to close. It was recently rumored that those artists would be forced to vacate the building so that it can be turned into affordable apartments. Other plans that had been proposed for the building included either a preschool or a daycare for young children. Those plans were subsequently amended, following efforts by Schmidt’s office and other city politicians, with the building now indicated for mixed use, 20 percent of which will be used for studios.

“It creates a huge image problem for the [so-called] art city…”

As elsewhere, many of Berlin’s estimated 7,000 practicing artists work in their apartments. But Schmidt would like to see the city provide at least a third of those artists with affordable studio space. “If artists are threatened with eviction, it creates a huge image problem for the [so-called] art city,” Schmidt told the Berliner Zeitung. Considering his office is currently responsible for only 560 subsidized studios, Schmidt is nearly 2,000 spaces short of that goal. Currently an average 13 artists apply for each of the studios Schmidt oversees.

It’s a concern that echoes recent statements by Berlin culture secretary Tim Renner (“Are Berlin’s Days as a Culture Capital Numbered?“). When he took up his post earlier this year, Renner sat down with a team of urban planners to envision the city in 15 years. The greatest danger that showed up … was that culture could be completely gone from the city,” he told the Berliner Zeitung at the time, “that the very thing, which actually brought about the [economic] recovery of Berlin and spurred migration to Berlin would be pushed to the margins.”

To many, it’s an absurd suggestion that space—whether it’s used for cultural production or otherwise—should fall below the market rate. But, on the Continent a school of thought still prevails that the government retains responsibility for promoting and providing the context for artistic production and exhibition. For Berlin, as Schmidt and Renner suggest, the long-run stakes are higher than other European capitals. The presence of artists living and working in the center has great knock-on effects for the city (“For Collectors, To Go to Berlin Is To Go to ‘The Source’“). Remove that and you lose one of the city’s chief selling points for tourism, a chief driver of economic growth in the German capital along side various cultural fields, including the visual arts. For a city as strapped for cash as Berlin in the first place, even the potential of such a loss is daunting.

UPDATE: Contrary to a previous version of this article, Berlin’s Atelierbeauftragter (atelier officer) Florian Schmidt has told artnet News that the city’s politicians have agreed for the Atelierhaus Prenzlauer Promenade to continue to be used, in part, for studio space for the foreseeable future. Four artists—Undine Goldberg, Klaus Winichner, Sören Marquardt, and Dominik Eggermann—were recently evicted from the building, but 90 others will continue to have their studios in the building for a reduced rate of €6.50 per square meter per month.


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