»Two problems are better than one«

X Properties/nGbK 2022 © Naomi Hennig

A conversation with the nGbK: on the present and future of the institution between centre and periphery

Talking to the neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK) always means talking to more than one person. Grassroots democracy remains a key priority for this 1969-founded »new society for the visual arts«, making it anything other than a top-down organisation. And so three participants showed up for the interview: current managing director Annette Maechtel as well as Jochen Becker and Constanze Musterer from the project group behind nGbK’s urbane kulturen initiative.

The subject of our talk: the present and future of nGbK as an institution. After years of quarrelling with the new owner of the building on Oranienstraße, nGbK’s main exhibition venue since 1992, the association was forced to leave its premises this past summer. It will eventually move into a new pavilion on Karl-Marx-Allee, yet to be constructed, although it will be some time before that happens. In the meantime, the nGbK has firmly established station urbaner kulturen, a space in Berlin’s outlying Hellersdorf district, where it has been operating since 2014. So, what’s next for the institution, specifically between the city’s outskirts and its epicentre?

 

 

The nGbK’s exhibition space on Oranienstraße in Kreuzberg is history as of mid-July 2022. I can imagine you fought for it to the end.

Annette Maechtel: Of course, we would have liked to stay. It just didn’t work out. The building that had housed our offices and exhibition space since 1992 sold in 2019 to a Luxembourg-based real estate company. We asked the property management if and under what conditions we might extend the lease, which expired on 15 JUL 2022, and were told to send in our balance sheets. We did—and no one ever got back to us. We saw what happened with Kisch & Co., a bookshop in the same building whose lease had already expired more than a year ago, so we knew what was coming. The strategy was simple: don’t get in touch, leave tenants in suspense and then, just before the lease runs out, make an offer that they could not really accept. We had sent them our documents, so it was clear what we could afford and what we could not. At some point we realised we had no future in the building, as the investor basically wanted it emptied. The exhibition space is closed now. We did however get an extension for our office space, until AUG 2023.

 

Were no politicians willing to step in? The institution has a long tradition—surely policymakers would want it to be able to remain in Oranienstraße?

AM: Sure, we spoke with various cultural politicians and all of them promised to support us in negotiations. But there were no negotiations. When it comes to real estate in this city, we’ve come to a point when it’s no longer a matter of negotiation at all; a point where politicians have essentially lost all influence—and in many cases don’t even realise how little they can actually do.

 

So, what’s next for the nGbK?

AM: It didn’t take us long to realise that staying in Kreuzberg would be very difficult. The district has such an enormous need for public institutions—old people’s homes, day care centres, and so on—and space is so scarce that basically everything is spoken for. Ultimately it was the Senate Department for Culture and Europe that stepped into the breach and offered to let us move, along with the Werkbundarchiv—Museum der Dinge, into one of the new pavilions that would be built along Karl-Marx-Allee in Mitte. The pavilions appear in the original development plans for this listed group of buildings but were never realised. Incidentally, those original plans also indicated that the buildings were to be reserved for cultural use. The developer is WBM, and financing is provided by the Senate, so we’ll essentially be moving into a state-owned property, and they’ve also given us a very good deal on rent for a certain period of time. That is absolutely crucial, considering how the city is being sold off. Only a state-owned building can give an institution like ours the kind of security it needs in the long term. We also realised in negotiations with the Senate that a location of this kind requires a secure source of funding. So, we negotiated for a proper budget item as well. Sometimes two problems are better than one—and the nGbK’s future is fortunately secure for the time being.

Jochen Becker: Needless to say, it’s far more sustainable to avoid shovelling public money into investor pockets. There has definitely been a rethink on the part of policymakers in recent years. It is far better to pay into the city’s own institutions and to secure them by accumulating property than it is to fuel speculation even more by allowing private-sector buildings to be used for prestigious cultural events, only to see those buildings sold at a profit later.

AM: It’s also disastrous for a street like Oranienstraße, for example, that commercial rents are not shielded by the same anti-gentrification legislation that protects residential rents. I definitely see room for improvement there. After all, places like the bookshop in our building or our association are an important part of the urban public sphere and facilitate dialogue between residents. But they will always be at risk in an overheated real estate market where their rent can be increased at any time. During Berlin Art Week—and although we no longer have an exhibition space on Oranienstraße—we’ll be taking the situation there as a point of departure: with our project X Properties, we’re organising lectures and events in public space that analyse the city’s commercialisation. What happened to us can ultimately happen to any number of other institutions.

 

The institution’s future may no longer hang in the balance, but your pavilion still needs to be built. When will construction be complete? Or more importantly, what will you do in the meantime?

AM: First we were told the pavilion would be finished in 2024. We could have somehow bridged that gap. We then learned that it could be 2027 or even later, so we had to find an interim solution. The fact that we were already in talks with the Senate and the WBM worked to our favour. Through WBM we found a place in Karl-Liebknecht-Straße directly at Alexanderplatz, a space that had previously been occupied by a foodservice establishment. We’ve also implemented a sustainable interim use model—it’s not us who rent the space, but Kulturraum Berlin GmbH. For one thing, it means that we can move out quickly and easily whenever construction on the pavilion is complete. It also means that the premises will continue to be available for cultural use through this umbrella organisation. Of course, we’ll have to renovate the space before we move in. Current plans involve presenting our first projects there at next year’s Berlin Art Week. Until then, Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien and Berlinische Galerie will be supporting us with joint programmes. This feeling of collegiality has been an absolute delight.

 

Up to now, we haven’t even spoken about the fact that the nGbK has also had another location since 2014: station urbaner kulturen in Berlin’s Hellersdorf district. Will you continue to hold exhibitions there as well? And has this outpost, if you could call it that, become something like the new headquarters, now that you’ve had to close your main space on Oranienstraße?

JB: As important as station urbaner kulturen has become for the nGbK, we cannot and do not want Hellersdorf to be a substitute for Oranienstraße. There is a void in Kreuzberg, and this should remain visible.

AM: That said, the fact that we do have this second location in Hellersdorf has helped ensure that the rug was not completely pulled out from under us. We actually looked for larger spaces there, too, but rents in Hellersdorf are astronomical now as well. And another thing: the current situation has given us, the nGbK, new perspective on our institutional model. The nGbK was founded as a grassroots democracy, but it was also always meant to be rather decentralised as well. It never had a permanent exhibition space until we moved to Oranienstraße in 1992. Until then, the institution had an office on Tempelhofer Ufer for some time, but no main venue for the shows. Our Hellersdorf location—funding for which has now been secured as well—has been a chance to think more about this decentralised aspect of our history, and to expand it to the periphery.

 

What made the nGbK decide to open a permanent space in Hellersdorf in 2014?

Constanze Musterer: The nGbK has been putting art projects on the tunnel walls of various Berlin underground stations since the early 1990s. The programme, called ›Art in the Underground‹, is over 60 years old; it started in East Germany, was shelved for a while and then eventually revived in the 1980s. They were looking for a new institutional contact after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the nGbK stepped in. As a West Berlin institution, it had always maintained very strong ties with the eastern part of the city. Moreover, the organisation’s grassroots democratic structure meant it was organisationally porous and low-threshold enough to accommodate such a project. station urbaner kulturen in Hellersdorf more or less grew out of ›Art in the Underground‹.

JB: Exactly. Because at some point, we also wanted to have a discursive and contextualising space beyond the city’s underground stations. Although we intentionally took our programme to the periphery, it wasn’t at all clear that we would be taking it to Hellersdorf. We could just as easily have gone to the Spandau district. But at that time, in the mid-2010s, you also saw large numbers of refugees stranded on the eastern city outskirts. The right-wing NPD party was extremely vocally opposed. We quickly realised that Hellersdorf was right place to engage.

 

But that wasn’t the only reason, was it?

JB: The Hellersdorf district has around 85,000 inhabitants. It’s a population just a bit smaller than a city like Cottbus, with 100,000 inhabitants. And yet Cottbus has a multi-use theatre and performance venue, a university, and so on … while Hellersdorf does have a specialised university of applied sciences, there are hardly any exhibition spaces, there’s no theatre, there isn’t even an outdoor swimming pool. That would be unimaginable if Hellersdorf were a city in its own right. But since it’s part of Berlin, you always hear, »People can go to Mitte for that—Mitte has everything«. But Berlin is such a decentralised, neighbourhood-oriented city, people don’t just travel to Mitte on a whim. It’s also a matter of outreach and low-threshold cultural education, that young people can just wander in somewhere on site. It’s a factor that is almost criminally neglected by policymakers.

 

And station urbaner kulturen means to change that?

JB: Obviously, one little shopfront space is nowhere near enough to make up for such a cultural deficit. If anything, I would say we remind people of all that remains to be done—and that the so-called outskirts deserve respect. Some basic cultural provisions ought to be ensured.

CM: We also try being a conduit for other voices in Hellersdorf now and then—those that are less likely to get a hearing elsewhere. station urbaner kulturen is not least a space for dialogue and debate. Earlier this year, we had an exhibition that enabled a kind of review of our archive covering the last seven years in Hellersdorf. It really showed the prominent role participatory formats and projects play at that location. And how active participation and curiosity on the part of residents has changed in a lasting way, to the point where they’ve now formed their own little initiatives.

 

So, you’ve seen a shift?

JB: A lot of our work in the beginning focussed on issues of identity and biography—as in East German biography, large housing estates, the local social situation. But things have changed in the meantime. It’s now rather common to hear »Let’s put the Hellersdorf issue aside for a moment, we want to talk about something else.« And that’s really exciting. And when an artist like Katharina Sieverding drops by and starts talking about Joseph Beuys, you immediately find yourself in the middle of a conversation about art—which means you’re also going beyond talking about neighbourhood politics and questions of identity.

 

Surely it took time to develop that level of local acceptance.

JB: It wasn’t easy at first. There were a lot of expectations to contend with: we needed to do something. Deliver. At first, people approached us as though we were a public authority. At the time we consciously practised a kind of ›strategic paternalism‹—a lot of active pushing and instigation. But gradually things gathered their own momentum. By now, people in the area started their own nationally-successful cricket clubs or gardens for example.

AM: Continuity is very important in this kind of work. There is no dialogue without trust. That’s why it’s also great that we’ve managed to secure long-term funding for station urbaner kulturen, rather than just classic project funding with a beginning and an end. A project like this only works long-term—or it doesn’t work at all.

JB: A lot of people were also waiting to see what would happen. So many project ponies have trotted around town, to put it that way, including various participation models. But they were always gone two years later. We felt the effects of that, and that’s also what people told us afterwards. People wanted to see if we were serious and how long we would last. My sense is that we’ve slowly managed to establish ourselves.

 

So just to turn the perspective around a bit: how does the centre look from the periphery? The nGbK is currently in a position to bring both perspectives together under one roof, if you will—and to set their respective problems in relation to one another.

JB: A lot of things one takes for granted in Kreuzberg are anything but a given in Hellersdorf. You have to express yourself in a completely different way there; you have to learn to relate to a different social milieu, to react to different social circumstances and necessities. That experience is a corrective that would do any art institution good—maybe even cultural policy overall. Even in the so-called centre, it’s important to engage questions and address social groups beyond one’s own bubble.

AM: This whole development overall is also an opportunity to bring various different perspectives together and, with regard to Hellersdorf, to ask what actually constitutes the centre and what constitutes the periphery. The nGbK is questioning and rethinking a number of things at the moment; it’s like a rejuvenating cure. In general, I think it’s extremely important that cultural institutions address grievances and take action. What needs to change? What do potential solutions look like? And how might policymakers reclaim their ability to act?

 

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