‘People of this world … look upon this city!’ exclaimed the Lord Mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter, in 1948. His famous appeal for help during the Soviet Union’s Berlin Blockade served as the title for a recent theatre production at the city’s Maxim Gorki Theatre. This was ironic, as the focus of the satirical revue was not global politics but Berlin’s municipal elections, which had in September resulted in Social Democrat Klaus Wowereit keeping his job as mayor. Amidst a hotchpotch of 1920s music-hall songs and puppet-theatre renditions of election campaign routines, there was a memorable moment when one of the actors opened a book and began reading from it. The narrator related how he loves flying into Berlin and seeing the city’s lakes, parks and landmarks. He wonders what exciting things might have happened during his absence, such as ‘a crazy exhibition in some dreamy backyard’.
The line is a quote from Wowereit’s memoir … und das ist auch gut so (… And That’s a Good Thing Anyway, 2007). It might explain why many people in Berlin’s contemporary art scene have had more than enough of the mayor, who also happens to head the city’s department of culture. During his ten-year reign, Wowereit has endlessly presented Berlin as a city with a bustling art scene full of artists ‘doing crazy creative stuff in dreamy backyards’, in the kind of tone that an estate agent might use to talk about a soon-to-be-gentrified neighbourhood. Or, in other words, Wowereit has been exploiting the cliché while ignoring the realities. Despite his unarguable charm, the mayor is out of touch with Berlin’s artists and intellectuals – a symptom of underlying issues of cultural politics.
In 2006, when the overwhelming majority of Berlin’s cultural scene protested the demolition of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic (which was knocked down in order to make way for the reconstruction of the 18th-century palace that once stood in its place), Wowereit sided with the conservatives who longed for the reinstatement of Prussian glory in the heart of the city. And, in 2008, when a private initiative established the Temporary Kunsthalle opposite the demolition site, Wowereit only half-heartedly supported the project, in words rather than deeds, proposing that a permanent Kunsthalle be built by a private collector and real-estate investor, the billionaire Nicolas Berggruen. In return Berggruen was to be offered a prime piece of property, the Humboldthafen, between Berlin’s main train station and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum. Berggruen, however, turned Wowereit’s offer down for reasons that have not been made public. In the Berliner Zeitung, art critic Sebastian Preuss expressed a sentiment shared by many when he commented that ‘it’s not that easy to foist off the cultural task of the public authorities onto the private sector’. Generally speaking, in the wake of the city’s post-1989 reunification, Berlin’s politicians have had an ill-fated tendency to strike dodgy real-estate deals. For example, a historic piece of public property, the Schinkelplatz in Mitte, located right next to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is to be sold off to private ‘townhouse’ developers – a fact that the architect and theorist Arno Brandlhuber, as well as other experts, have vehemently spoken out against.
When it became clear that the Berggruen plan would fall through, Wowereit – in the run-up to his re-election campaign – hit upon the idea of staging an exhibition on the Humboldthafen site, as a kind of housewarming for the non-existent Kunsthalle. Budgeted at 1.6 million euros, it was to highlight the work of young artists living and working in Berlin, while architects Raumlabor were commissioned to build a temporary structure for the project. The latter fell through, although the exhibition still opened in June under the title ‘Based in Berlin’ at five venues including KW Institute for Contemporary Art and the Neue Berliner Kunstverein. Involving three curatorial advisers and five curators – all of whom undoubtedly tried to do their best – the exhibition of 80 artists was hampered from the start by its incoherent connection to the Kunsthalle project. A bigger problem was Wowereit’s Tourettes-syndrome-like insistence on designating it a Leistungsschau of contemporary art: the word translates as ‘competitive showcase’ and usually is reserved for agricultural exhibitions or dog shows.
To cut a long story short, that word – combined with the fact that the exhibition was relatively generously budgeted, while many of Berlin’s art institutions are struggling for funds – was the last straw. Widespread protests erupted amongst Berlin’s art professionals. In January 2011, an open letter entitled ‘Haben und Brauchen’ (To Have and to Need) appeared on the Internet, and received 2,500 signatories. Its focus was Wowereit’s use of the word Leistungsschau and the notion of artists it seemed to imply: as unpaid providers of what urban studies theorist Richard Florida calls the ‘Bohemian Index’ of a city, enhancing the atmosphere of big-city urbanity that attracts investors. This burst of initial anger was mixed with more general feelings of being neglected. (The usual sentiments of: ‘Why haven’t I been awarded that grant/included in that show/given that budget?’ etc.) Criticism of the mayor became part of ‘Based in Berlin’, from Jay Chung & Q Takeki Maeda’s portrait gallery of Wowereit’s defeated opponents (‘Untitled’, 2011) to the artist-run space After the Butcher’s presentation of a portrait of Wowereit by Clegg & Guttmann (Allegory of Government, 2011). Meanwhile, the initiative ‘Haben und Brauchen’ that grew from the letter – established by curator Ellen Blumenstein and artist Florian Wüst – created a platform for discussions of how Berlin’s cultural politics are co-opted by the marketing of the city, the commercialization of public space and gentrification. Thanks in no small part to these discussions, the call for better and more sustained funding of existing institutions – as opposed to short-sighted events or a corporate Kunsthalle – has become widespread in Berlin. Nevertheless, Wowereit’s current government has again written into its coalition agreement a vague declaration of intent regarding the establishment of a predominately privately-funded Kunsthalle.
But ill-conceived Kunsthalle visions and issues of gentrification aside, the hype of Berlin as a magnet for international art professionals has reached a critical mass. There are so many artists, artist-run spaces and private galleries in the city now that attracting attention beyond a small circle of friends and followers – and, for that matter, generating some sort of revenue – has for many become a real struggle. Galleries have become more competitive, resulting in fierce fights over entries into art fairs or gallery guides. The days when everyone in Berlin felt like a pioneer are definitely gone, and have been replaced by a mixture of anxiety, paranoia and rivalry. But these developments have also prompted people to be more outspoken and opinionated, which initiatives such as ‘Haben und Brauchen’ prove. As a result, Berlin’s art scene is on the verge of gaining a political voice. It is this scenario of rivalry and solidarity that Wowereit’s talk of a ‘competitive showcase’ has indeed provided an ironic soundtrack to – which is even more ironic than all of his talk of crazy galleries in dreamy backyards.
First published in Issue 144