Berlin calling

hanf-hausA cheap plane ticket purchased on a whim resulted in me attending Berlin’s recent “Gallery Weekend” (and the May 1 ‘riots’ party). As I have not really been to Berlin in years, it gave me a lot to think about. I decided to go with an open mind and little advance research, to get a reasonable overview of the scene. I did find out about a few openings, but also came across velvet ropes and guest lists.

My first impression is that the scene is much, much bigger than before, so big that one really needs to make choices about what to see and do. I guess there are 500 some galleries in Berlin, 40 of which participated in Gallery Weekend.

My second impression is that the Gallery Weekend was trying to be just that—a weekend for a carefully selected group of people. If you came, like me, without a particular invitation, you were pretty much on your own. If I didn’t know people in Berlin, I would not have met a soul. I would have eaten every meal alone. I imagine that would have turned me off deeply if I were a serious collector who didn’t have a particular gallery invitation.

My third impression was that the programming was decidedly blue chippy international artists, rather than being focused on the new and local talent on which Berlin has built its reputation.

I do wonder what exactly this Gallery Weekend is meant to accomplish. Zürich has done them for years. There, it is clear where you are supposed to be and when; there are gallery clusters, so the openings are split over three days for the three clusters. There is talk of a gallery weekend to come in Vienna, where I live, in September. We could organize it on the Zürich model, as the galleries already cooperate in coordinating their openings. But it is also quite easy to imagine it being organized in a way that leaves out new arrivals and curious outsiders. (This week in Vienna we have an art fair, but also a new kind of event, for the second year. A selected group of galleries have organized shows, all curated by artists, on the theme of “Art & Film” (http://curatedby.at/index_en.html).

And what of the upcoming New York gallery weekend? Are so few people buying in New York that such an event is necessary? Are these meant to be an alternative to art fairs? Is it necessary to have an event in order for sales to happen? Does the size of a city change the meaning of such an event?

My main question, in the end: is this event model really sustainable? As soon as there is a group of galleries presenting what you can already see anywhere else in the world, the rest, the core local scene, seems irrelevant. And yet, that is often where the good stuff is. Will people continue to visit if they think the local scene is irrelevant?

5 thoughts on “Berlin calling

  1. Deciding at the last minute not to brave ash-laden skies to Berlin, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out, especially as the Weekend seems to have been drawn up along the very blue-chip lines suggested by Lisa.

    According to at least one Berliner I’ve spoken to, the main galleries involved were none too inclusive when it came to the smaller spaces and fringes – certainly none on the map at http://www.gallery-weekend-berlin.de set the pulse racing. It’s like not being ‘invited’ to a city-specific section at an art fair – there’s the whiff of a mafioso-style power ring behind it all.

    I concur with Lisa’s observation about the lack of centralised social events as well, but I really like her posers as to the reasons behind said Weekend, but then because I didn’t get there I don’t know whether it’s an art fair in disguise or some kind of critical massing meant to put the place on the mysterious art world ‘map. But, in a year of a Berlin Biennale, what’s the point? A bit more traffic, some sales and an even more confusing art world ‘calendar’, which we are all supposed to slavishly follow? New York will surely follow the same well-trodden paths for its own Weeekend, but at least us Londoners can’t come to any sort of cordial agreement about when something like this would be appropriate, so hopefully we’ll miss out entirely.

  2. I did have the good fortune to be in Berlin, visiting with my students, and while I agree with Lisa and Ossian’s observations, I would say the picture is bit more more complicated.

    Gallery Weekend belongs to a class of events best exemplified by Art Basel in Miami, where one initiative leads to a cascade of happenings. With enough piggybacking, you end up with a meta-event that’s far greater in magnitude than the core. There were dozens of talks and lectures, not to mention parties, around the city, attended by an international flash crowd of collectors, gallerists, artists, and hangers on.

    The most impressive event had nothing to do with galleries. It was an astonishing Olafur Eliasson exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bau (with a Frida Kahlo upstairs). The Deutsche Guggenheim also opened a beautiful Wangechi Mutu show. One of the most talked about openings was for a private collection that was universally derided by those who managed to see it. When I showed up at the opening and presented my credentials, I was told, “We are so full that even if you were Mr. Pinault, we couldn’t let you in.” That’s the sort of thing Lisa is talking about.

    It’s always fascinating to see how the Berlin scene is mutating. One of the new clusters of galleries is on the decidedly charmless Potsdamer Strasse. The Arndt gallery opened a space there coinciding with Gallery Weekend in a gigantic old apartment. It was nothing if not impressive, but it does raise a cautionary flag. These mega-spaces, foremost Max Hezler’s new factory-size exhibition space, are bringing Chelsea to Berlin. The ambition is becoming perhaps too large, requiring work that is intended for museums. There are plenty of spaces, still, to see the kind of edgy and ephemeral work for which Berlin is really known–one of the terrific galleries, Silberkuppe,in Kreuzberg, is just 200 square feet–but big glossy spaces and works are, admittedly, starting to dominate.

    Gallery Weekend, in other words, is at a crossroads, and as such it is a true reflection of Berlin’s current situation. On the one hand, it is a catalyst for the continuing emergence of what is undoubtedly Europe’s most exciting art city. And in a place where there is still more talking than selling of art going on (in a good way), dealers were selling work this weekend.

    Unfortunately, however, along with this scaling up in size and ambition comes the tendency to put up velvet ropes. Just as happened in New York, the scruffier parts of the scene are being marginalized while a predictable international cast clinks champagne glasses at exclusive invititation-only dinners. The migration of the gala event from the huge Mies van der Rohe Neue Nationalgalerie, where there was a boisterous party last year, to the august but smaller and impossible-to-crash Bode Museum did not go unnoticed.

    The fact that there is now, however incongruously, a Soho House in Berlin, which hosted a Damien Hist party, organized by Haunch of Venison, constitutes an ominous trifecta that some scene watchers believe marks the end of an era. Perhaps it’s just the end of the beginning. Gallery Weekend, like all of Berlin, remains a work in progress.

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  3. Yes, Berlin is certainly at a major crossroads. I am not really a good one to analyze Berlin, as I rarely go there. My point of view is someone living elsewhere and therefore I have limited interest in the scene. There are plenty of reasons to form exclusive alliances and this is not at all troubling, any group could do such a thing if they wanted. The fact that one has to consult four different gallery guides to find everything is testament to a large, vibrant scene.

    My question really is about sustainability. If all of the ‘important’ galleries look like they want to be Chelsea galleries, and I don’t have time to engage the Berlin scene because I have more reason to support the scene where I live, then why should I go to Berlin? If Berlin needs events to bring outsiders to make sales, then what happens if those people lose interest? I don’t really think Berlin will fade, as there are clearly many invested in the local scene, which rises to the occasion of these events. To be fair, New York functions as a crossroads also, and a center for a very large economy. Germany certainly needs that center that Berlin offers, but I am not sure that the rest of Europe does, despite the Berlin-envy that seems to be around.

    Many of the galleries in this Gallery Week Berlin have great programs I have followed, mostly through art fairs. But I missed what it is that makes Berlin uniquely Berlin. Gallery Week has become one of the prime programming slots, and it is telling which artists are given those slots. Perhaps the slow economy leads to the programming of big ticket, somewhat safer items rather than newer and more adventurous launches, but for me that kills the whole reason to go in the first place. It is not a guarantee that these big events will only bring good things, and if the message is handled poorly, they can actually be counter-productive.

    I did see quite a lot of good shows and was happy to finally visit a place when all of the galleries were open (and I had plenty of pleasant invitations). But even though I went way off the Gallery Weekend list, I still don’t know what the scene is really about, and am not convinced that I am missing something. Perhaps Berlin is growing up. Who knows, if this kind of thing works, maybe it could become a more important destination than New York, but the lack of a strong, individual identity in the decisions from this weekend turns me a little cool. It is a move that forces a lively scene into the ocean of wider economic forces that many of the participants ran away from in the first place. Let’s hope Berlin finds a good balance. It is just too weird to hear people talking about cheap spaces when the work on view costs more than half a million dollars a pop.

  4. This just in from Walter Robinson, Editor of Artnet Magazine.

    Helene Winer of Metro Pictures put it concisely last night: An artist’s gallery show is the last chance to display an artist’s body of work together as the artist planned it — the next time the works appear in public, they’re isolated, in a collection or on the auction block — and with people in town for the contemporary auctions, why not work a little harder and give them this last chance to take a look?

    This is not to deny that having friends and being invited to dinner aren’t important, too, along with concerns about “buying,” “art fairs,” “parties” and the rest.

    There’s more to say about being open and being critical, about beautiful weather, about dealer collegiality, about the “internationalism” of the shows in Berlin (many by U.S. artists, but why not, if that’s what is interesting?). . . but I fear being a bore.

  5. Do we really want the auction crowd to be our target audience…?

    Of course it is great to have the focus back on artist’s exhibitions! Parties and dinners are hardly my concern – there was a lack of any kind of programming at all in the Gallery Weekend Berlin. New York Gallery Week at least has some nice tours, panels, screenings and performances organized. That is the kind of thing that gives an outsider a better view of what the scene is all about, makes them feel included, and gives them a specific reason to make the trip at that particular time. It also makes opportunities for people to hear about things that are not on the official program, possibly making the neighbors feel less left out as well.

    If we must go forward with this event paradigm, shouldn’t we at least include some events?

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