Berlin Gallery Weekend Struggles to Lure Collectors in an Action-Packed Market Year
Can the innovative format continue to challenge the dominance of art fairs?
Berlin Gallery Weekend (BGW), the innovative format launched by a group of the city’s galleries some 13 years ago, was started as a creative solution to a real problem—how to lure collectors to a city that doesn’t have a significant collector base or a great art fair worth traveling to.
The Gallery Weekend model, based on the simple idea of synchronizing the galleries’ schedules to open major shows at the same time and pull together resources to invite international collectors to Berlin, was an almost instant success. It has since been copied by many other cities around the world, but none has managed to establish a brand as strong as Berlin’s event-filled weekend of openings, dinners, and endless parties.
The flip side of the popular initiative? Since BGW was launched, Berlin hasn’t managed to establish a successful art fair in the city. Indeed, why should collectors come twice, especially when BGW provides the perfect antidote to fair fatigue?
After staging its largest edition to date in 2016, it seemed like nothing could stop BGW from growing into a must-see event on every art professional’s calendar, on par with the major fairs. But in 2017, a year too full with art events and when the cards are getting reshuffled when it comes to the regional markets, BGW suddenly found itself squeezed too tightly between Art Cologne and Frieze New York, struggling to attract international visitors who would rather make their way to Europe a week later instead to attend the Venice Biennale.
But that’s not to say that collectors didn’t come at all: the collaboration with Art Cologne made it easier to invite the Rubells all the way from Miami, and most European collectors and art advisors don’t need much convincing to come to Berlin. Russian collectors, too, were closing deals at the major galleries.
But more so than ever before, Gallery Weekend felt like an event for Berliners, and for anyone paying close attention, dealers were making statements about their position in the city with their shows, some more subtly than others. The launching of Esther Schipper’s new space was a major one, which even included doormen guarding the elevator leading up to the Selldorf Architects-designed space.
In a vast, darkened space, a new video installation by Anri Sala titled Take Over, felt like a museum if not a biennale piece in terms of its production and scope. The huge glass panels in the artwork—a conceptual meditation on the political and cultural histories and recuperation of the Marseillaise and the Internationale played on piano—had to be craned into the gallery, and a special contraption was designed on the roof to accommodate that.
Next door at Blain|Southern, size also mattered as Jonas Burgert’s exhibition of new paintings included a 22-meter long work, Zeitlaich, his biggest ever, a sprawling image of doom and desire that occupied the entire ground-floor hall of the gallery.
Meanwhile, over at Sprüth Magers, one of Berlin’s biggest galleries, all three major shows installed at its different spaces managed to create intimate experiences that appealed to all the senses: Otto Piene’s Light Ballet offered a charming contemplation on the sculptural qualities of light, while Pamela Rosenkranz’s installation She Has No Mouth, a trippy research into the domestication of cats, included a huge circle of sand scented with Chanel No. 5.
Upstairs, at the space dedicated to the gallery’s roster of younger artists, Lucy Dodd presented magnificent large scale paintings rendered with natural materials such as kombucha, spices, quid ink, and black lichen, to name a few, which dealt with birth and motherhood. The works were installed like room dividers leading the viewer into a setting that included comfy sofas and live music.
Isabella Bortolozzi cemented the gallery’s coolness factor by dedicating both gallery spaces to Symonds Pearmain, a ready-to-wear project by designer Anthony Symonds and stylist Max Pearmain who debuted at London Fashion Week, but represent their fashion through London’s Cabinet gallery. Their conceptual pieces straddle the grey zone between fashion and art with statements perhaps less grandiose than Rei Kawakubo’s, the focus of this year’s Met retrospective, but similarly not for everyone. The duo has found a muse in Lily McMenamy, an artist and a model whose look channels the famously unconventional androgyny of her mother—1990s cult model Kristen McMenamy—mixed with hints of lascivious Berlin bohemia.
The designers hosted a salon-style fashion presentation at Bortolozzi’s secondary space, Eden Eden, while over at the main gallery, an entire installation was dedicated to Tyrone Lebon’s x-rated campaign of the young brand’s newly-launched fragrance, Iron Lady.
Others played it safe. KOW gallery recently started working with Candice Breitz, another Berlin-based artist headed to Venice next week to represent her native South Africa alongside Mohau Modisakeng. Her work, one of the surprisingly few political statements this year, centers on interviews with asylum seekers and refugees, re-enacted by Hollywood starts Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore. Breitz addresses the problematic aspects of this endeavor, and deconstructs the narrative with statements from the original interviewees both to her and to the actors who would play them. “It is very important that you get it right,” Alec Baldwin reads a former child soldier’s message to him.
Bjarne Melgaard, who is showing with Contemporary Fine Arts for the first time, is presenting a series of extremely intimate drawings that cast him as his different alter egos, ranging from “Flimsy Girl” to “Bad Daddy” to his beloved French Bulldog Freya, to whom he apologizes in various drawings on paper for his drug-induced misbehavior. Battling with addiction, empty sexual encounters, aging, and his mother’s illness are themes he processes through inner monologues and confessions to Freya, his emotional halt.
The variety of excellent shows on view in Berlin this busy spring is overwhelming, and making the stop here en route from Venice will be worth your while. Thomas Schütte’s stunning show at carlier gebauer was on everyone’s lips, while Kasia Fudakowski, who made a charming Gallery Weekend debut with a cheeky “Sexhibition” at first-time participants ChertLüdde, dominated Instagram. Robert Kuśmirowski explores the history of the building where his gallery, Zak Branicka, is located, re-creating the Lufthansa offices that used to be located there in the 1930s.
Berlin is now a few months away from the launch of a new art fair, Art Berlin, which will be managed by the company that runs Art Cologne. Berlin dealers are, for the most part, positive about this development, yet at a time when dealers around the world are looking for ways to break with the endless cycle of art fairs, it would be a shame if Berlin Gallery Weekend, the most refreshing and financially viable alternative format that has been established in recent years, bears the brunt of Europe’s fair overload.
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