Commercial galleries Germany

Hot or not: Berlin at the Armory

With reports of numerous gallery closures, a section of the fair focusing on the city's dealers is a "litmus test" for its future

This year sees the introduction of the Armory Show’s first city-specific section, with 22 galleries dedicated to Berlin in one end of Pier 94. The Armory is backing its commitment with subsidised booths and free shipping (a saving of at least $3,000 per gallery).

However, with numerous gallery closures prompting unfavourable headlines like ArtInfo’s “Hitting the Berlin Wall”, is this the time to be focusing on the German capital? Rebeccah Blum of Aurel Scheibler (P94/966) describes this as a “litmus test”, adding “there’s been a lot of talk about Berlin, so now is a good time to take a look at what’s happening.”

The city has a reputation as a magnet and a haven for artists, indeed Scheibler is presenting a new painter, Wolfgang Betke, who tried London and Cologne before settling in Berlin: “I saw Cologne going downhill. Now Berlin is the city in Germany where interesting art happens, although with artists coming from all over the world it’s now pretty hard to find studio space.” This recent influx of artists has made Berlin the de facto centre of the German art world, as it did for Cologne in the late 1960s. Despite being what Blum describes as “a remnant of the symbolic argument over whether the state capital should be in Bonn or Berlin”—because Cologne is still the richer of the two cities—there’s no doubt as to where the epicentre of the German art world is.

“Berlin has one of the greatest communities of foreign artists aged between 25 and 40 years old,” says Christian Nagel (P94/968). He is showing videos by Keren Cytter, Kader Attia, Sven Johne and Hanna Schwarz—all artists based in Berlin, but not from there. “Since I opened a gallery in Berlin [two years after starting in Cologne in 2000], I felt it was important that there was a mixture. I don’t much like so-called ‘Berlin’ art or ‘Young British Art’ or even Indian art. These terms are not exciting any more.”

But Berlin’s bevy of artists comes at a cost, warns Nagel: “I always say we have 6,000 artists, 600 galleries and 60 collectors. Maybe Berlin itself has six collectors and the other 54 are from the old West Germany.” Christophe Wiesner of Esther Schipper (P94/1067) agrees, saying: “Even Christian Boros is from Wuppertal and Axel Haubrock is from Düsseldorf.” He also admits “this is a difficult time for everyone,” recalling how the closure of Jablonka’s Berlin space was blamed by owner Rafael Jablonka on a lack of commercial success despite a high footfall.

Cornelia Tischmacher of Johnen Galerie (P94/1168) says that “day-to-day traffic doesn’t bring in that much business,” while Blum says: “We’re closing our smaller space in Charlottenberg but keeping our main showroom. It’s not necessary to have two galleries and an art fair in the same city.”

So, are international art fairs, like the Armory or Berlin’s Art Forum, the answer? “You get a good concentration of collectors over a short time,” says Blum, “but if you’re only moving product, then the artists are not showing to their full potential.” Wiesner is sceptical too, saying: “I’m not so sure it’s that good all being together. It’s a bit like a zoo.” But “Berlin needs a lot of support, both in press and financial terms,” says Blum of the various other initiatives, such as the Gallery Weekend in April and the recent Paris-Berlin Gallery Exchange. Combine these annual draws with its fair and a Berlin Biennale this year and it could be a bumper year for the galleries, although Nagel is not convinced: “It’s what people see and whether they like it or not.”

Claims of Berlin’s decline may be premature, but if production outweighs consumption then there may be more long-term problems. “We will see,” says Nagel. “It has enough potential, there’s such good quality and in Germany more people go to museums than football matches. But these millions don’t go to [commercial] galleries.”

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