For Collectors, To Go to Berlin Is To Go to “The Source”

The Berlin gallery scene may be growing up, but its gallerists are sticking to and improving the basic elements of what made the city interesting to them in the first place

Sprüth Magers during Gallery Weekend 2013, Photo: Marco Funke, © George Condo / ARS (Artists Rights Society), New York 2013 / VG Bildkunst, Bonn 2013

In the late-1990s and early-2000s a flock landed in Berlin to open galleries: among them Esther Schipper, Alexander Schroeder, Thilo Wermke, Martin Klosterfelde (who closed his gallery last year), Guido Baudach, Tim Neuger, and Burkhard Riemschneider. The city was still wobbly on its post-GDR feet and rent was cheap. “We all felt like we were pioneers,” Schipper muses, sitting in her gallery’s current first-floor space, which exemplifies the apartment-style setup favored by many of the city’s dealers.

Much has changed. A nascent start-up scene is bringing home-grown money to the city and into the pockets of entrepreneurs more interested in buying paintings than Porsches. Tourism, and the increasing number of culture-hungry nomads with pieds-à-terre here, are filling in the economic cracks with pounds, dollars, riyals, and of course a lot of euros. The international stock of those galleries’ artists (more often friends than strategic finds)—including Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Slominski, Philippe Parreno, John Bock—has risen, drawing eyes at art fairs worldwide to these Zeitgeist brokers (if not, in many cases, to their Berlin locales). The galleries themselves are changing, maturing really. But rather than ditching their Levis for Lanvin, the gallerists are sticking to and improving the basic elements that made the city interesting to them in the first place and a subject of buzz worldwide: its wealth of artists, the availability of vast production spaces, and its undying penchant for the experimental.

Berlin’s beginnings—and the significant extent to which its lackluster economy still exerts financial pressure on the mid-level and established dealers within its limits—form the basis for the road map to the future. “[In New York] there are concerns of being bigger, more glamorous, and so on, so that you can be more visible,” says Schipper. “There’s a whole different rhetoric of pole position, of power, and of prominence, whereas here because we’re working in a quasi-non-existent local market, those metrics are not really relevant.”

Installation View, Angela Bulloch "In Virtual Vitro," Esther Schipper 2014, courtesy Esther Schipper

Installation View, Angela Bulloch “In Virtual Vitro,” Esther Schipper 2014. (Courtesy Esther Schipper.)

For her, and indeed many of her peers whom I spoke with, building a strong international network fostered by prominent, innovative displays at fairs, supporting museum exhibitions, and hiring a fully international staff have become much more essential to success. “Of course, everywhere, that is important, but if you have a beautiful, large, ground floor space in Chelsea, eventually everyone important [in the art world] is going to come by. It’s not the same on Schöneberger Ufer,” she says with a smile. Foot traffic is of minimal concern. Most of the established galleries could not remember a sale that occurred thanks to a chance pop-in, save perhaps during Gallery Weekend, when collectors are shuttled around Berlin in an armada of black 7-Series BMWs.

Fellow gallerist Johann Koenig concurs: “There are more people coming here. There are more rich people coming here, [but] it’s still really hard to live on the local market.” Koenig says it creates a double pressure for gallerists in Berlin. He needs to stay on the cusp of what’s next—Venice Biennale Silver Lion recipient Camille Henrot, Canadian multimedia artist Jeremy Shaw, and British sculptor Helen Marten are among the young, sought-after artists who have joined his program in recent years. Yet, while at fairs, he needs to attract wallets with more market-established names like other recent additions Katharina Grosse, Corinne Wasmuht, and Monica Bonvicini. Meanwhile, Koenig has been building soft power with a series of mostly non-commercial shows in Kreuzberg’s St. Agnes Kirche, on which he’ll begin renovations this spring, turning its nave into what’s likely to be the city’s largest gallery and project space.

Alicja Kwade, "Nach Osten" at St. Agnes, Courtesy Galerie Johann Koenig

Alicja Kwade, “Nach Osten” at St. Agnes.
Courtesy Galerie Johann Koenig.

Sales may dominate fair time (with perhaps the remaining exception of neugerriemschneider, whose mostly installation-focused booths, like the bar/lounge Jorge Pardo put up at Art Basel Miami this past winter, purposefully still gin more buzz than bucks). And some like Berlin’s arguably biggest names, Sprüth Magers and Max Hetzler, have, at various times, decided to expand elsewhere. But back home, things remain focused on creating art and, indeed, discourse. “There is hardly any other city with more than 70 really high-level galleries that can also experiment so much,” says Maike Cruse, director of Berlin’s two major market events, Gallery Weekend and Art Berlin Contemporary (abc). “They don’t have to worry about getting revenue out of every square meter.” Some like Galerie Neu, have entirely separate spaces dedicated to more experimental practices, in its case, a space called MD72. “We always want to mix non-profit shows with the commercial shows you of course still have to do,” says co-owner Alexander Schroeder. (Lately, both kinds of shows have been held within MD72 due to the gallery being booted from their long-held Philippstrasse location—Schroeder and his partner Thilo Wermke will reopen a primary space for Galerie Neu in Mitte in time for Gallery Weekend.)

In some cases, Berlin’s development has taken place under the surface, and realities are only now catching up with long-spouted rhetoric. A mantra of “Berlin, center of artistic production” has been central to the self-understanding of many galleries here—Gallery Weekend and abc as well. Certainly, there have always been plenty of studios in which artists of varying classes have toiled. However, Schipper notes that it was only as recently as the recession that the picture truly solidified. A number of highly professionalized art production firms have risen up to produce work for artists living here and many more abroad. And new, established faces have taken the opportunity to build studio complexes in the city that would be unthinkable in both proportion and capacity in most other major metropolises. “The galleries here are the first, showing the newest work,” says Schipper of what she feels makes the city stand out. “If you come here, you come to the source.”

Not that Berlin’s galleries have to rely on people “coming here,” any longer, however. As PSM owner Sabine Schmidt is quick to point out. “For us young galleries, a new market has developed in Berlin where more and more there are people who like to and can collect,” she says. That new market tops out at around the 5,000 euros mark, she estimates. And she is still duly reliant on collectors from the outside. But for this third generation of galleries in the city even the smallest uptick in collecting at home is a sea change. Despite these new collectors and a recent move from a former truck garage to a white-walled ground floor gallery, Schmidt says staying experimental is key to success in Berlin, or at least her own particular vision of it: “I like installation, performance, and sound. I want to be able to focus on those things rather than worrying about having to run a safer program, to be able to do grand things with a beginner’s gallery budget.”

Gallery Weekend Berlin, Photo: Marco Funke

Gallery Weekend Berlin. (Photo: Marco Funke.)

As Cruse mentions, looking down her list of participants for this May’s Gallery Weekend, it is a particular kind of person who opens up a gallery here rather than in New York or London. She maintains a cautious optimism that this trend of young collectors will gain steam over the coming years and will widen the city’s collector base from its currently dominant triad of Karen and Christian Boros, Erika Hoffmann, and Axel Haubrok. “We will never have these traditional families like you have in Switzerland who fund generations and generations of artists,” she concedes, “but we can spark new, younger collectors.”

Gallerists across the city take a similar view. “I think Berlin needs time to grow now,” says Koenig. “It needs to prove itself, get out of its teenage years.” However, that comes with its share of quarter-life crises for the city, now 25. There is a sense, throughout the city, that despite its collegial and collectivized rhetoric, the art scene increasingly lacks the cohesion and general bonhomie of its youth. Gallery Weekend and abc do offer opportunities to take the city’s artistic pulse, but informal occasions in between have largely vanished. On the other hand, ever more busy and international schedules arise from greater success for the city’s upper echelon of dealers, or, as they would be quick to clarify, success for their artists.

But despite that growth, “mature” in Berlin is sure to take on its own connotations. As Schroeder quips, “We’re growing, but doing it differently than a big gallery in New York or London. We want to keep that kind of Berlin charm—if it gets too corporate, it’s a bit boring.”

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