Gallery Weekend Berlin: An art-fair antidote?

Fernsehturm, Berlin I never need much of an excuse to go to Berlin. I love the city’s density of galleries and artists, but also the fact that living costs and renting space still remains so cheap that people take all sorts of risks without lining up the full financing beforehand. Three years old now, the Gallery Weekend Berlin event seemed like a classic example of the city’s cultural experimentation, and I’d several times heard it described as an antidote to art fairs. My curiosity was piqued. So last Friday I flew into Tegel, eager to see if GWB truly presents a new model for galleries to work within the rapidly evolving artworld.

The basics of the GWB are simple: 29 galleries held openings Friday night and agreed to stay open (exceptionally) on Sunday and Monday. A pocket-size program was printed up with a gallery map. (Here’s a full list of all of the GWB shows; Franz Ackermann‘s show at neugerriemschneider was the crowd favorite, Dash Snow at CFA’s the most hotly debated.) The dealers held their own private dinners after the Friday openings. Then on Saturday night there was a gala event (well, “gala” by Berlin’s low-key standards), held in the newly opened and quite swank Grill Royal, to which the 29 galleries could invite six guests each.

From an artistic standpoint, the GWB made a strong case as a cultural event. The standard proved uniformly high and the weekend served well its purpose as a reminder that gallery spaces create an utterly different context around artworks than exhibition halls. In addition, even when you’re sprinting through three dozen galleries over the course of a few days, it’s totally different than seeing 250 booths (or even far, far more) in the same time period.

Of course, the attractions of fairs are more than just the art (whether for buying and seeing). They’re also the artworld crossroads, where everyone bumps together. From this standpoint, the GWB felt more like a minor biennial than like a fair. For one thing, there was a much smaller crowd of out-of-town visitors than at a fair, maximum 1,000 people (and only a few hundred foreigners, I’m guessing). That said, those who came tended to be people who have a daily relationship with art, be it as art critics, institutional curators or hard-core collectors (i.e. the Rubell clan, Rosa de la Cruz, Ingvild Goetz). And GWB certainly had its artworld social moments: Eva and Adele surfacing randomly; Christian Jankowski rallying the troops for a late-night expedition to Rio Bar; Dash Snow and Jonathan Meese jumping around the Volksbühne dancefloor, their long hair and wild eyes going in all directions simultaneously; Artnet’s cocktail party at the Münzsalon private club, closing the weekend with verve despite all the compounded hangovers in the room.

Though dealers seemed happy enough when I was making my final rounds on Monday afternoon, I doubt sales were anything like the opening hours of, say, Frieze or either Art Basel fair. (Then again, the galleries each invested only 6,000 euros to participate, compared to the $100,000 a fair can easily cost.) So the weekend feels less like a counterpoint than like a perfect complement to the fairs. Because in a healthy artworld collectors, curators and critics would discover (and track) galleries at art fairs, but then follow their programs by visiting the physical gallery spaces themselves.

Now, an artworld idealist might say that good galleries should not have to coordinate their openings and engineer a big social occasion to attract out-of-town visitors. As a realist, however, I think it’s an excellent strategy. Much like an art fair, it leverages the strengths of many galleries – their artists and their networks – to mutual benefit, while acknowledging the time-crunched lives of today’s artworld players. Plus, the galleries get to show their artists in spaces the dealer chose to fit their program.

To my mind, then, it’s a very strong model and other art scenes should be studying it closely. Because while such an event would be swallowed whole by New York or London’s massive artworlds, I could easily imagine it being replicated in, say, Paris, Los Angeles, Amsterdam or Chicago. Granted, it requires a lot of coordination, collaboration and compromise among art dealers, who tend to be idiosyncratic and individualist types. But compared to only seeing their clients at fairs, that seems a small price to pay.

1 thought on “Gallery Weekend Berlin: An art-fair antidote?”

  1. An afterthought: Though it’s not branded in the same way and there’s no coordinated promotion, Zurich does a de facto version of the GWB at the end of every August. Within the space of three days, all the city’s galleries open after their summer breaks, one gallery district per night; the orgy of openings winds with a big party – ironically far less exclusive than Berlin’s.

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