What is Berlin’s cultural policy?

Berlin Art Week 2020. © Conrad Bauer

What is generally referred to as Berlin’s cultural policy is in reality a complex thicket of fragmented responsibilities, diverging interests, and diverse stakeholders. An essay by authors Hans-Jürgen Hafner and Kito Nedo offers insight into the sometimes complicated situation and its resultant problems.

Berlin’s brand as an art hub holds worldwide appeal, despite—or perhaps because of—the city’s radical transformation since 1989/90. Little remains of what was once an open playground for creative experimentation, and even investors are slowly running short on space that artists can no longer afford. Such a situation calls for a resourceful cultural policy, which in the capital has always meant input and involvement from a number of different players and authorities at very different levels. Yet the debate over how such a policy might take shape often fails to take sufficient account of the complexity of this entangled situation—one that might more accurately be called cultural policy ›in Berlin‹ than Berlin’s cultural policy.

Culture and politics seemed to exist in two entirely different separate spheres in the 1990s and 2000s, the heyday of the art industry in post-unification Berlin. Take, for example, the art scene’s explosive growth in former East Berlin after the fall of the Wall, a consequence of abundant empty spaces, cheap rents, and an overall creative ›do-it‹ mentality in the city. Significantly, Jutta Weitz, doubtlessly the most influential Berlin cultural politician of the ›New Berlin‹ founding phase, was just that: not a politician at all. Weitz worked in the commercial-rental properties department of the state-owned real estate company Wohnungsbaugesellschaft Berlin-Mitte (WBM). From there, almost single-handedly, she quickly and unbureaucratically made empty real estate available to thousands of artists looking for exhibition and studio space as part of so-called ›interim use‹ agreements.

»The intermeshing of urban development, commerce, and culture was for the most part implemented by the cultural players themselves, i.e. ›from the bottom up‹.«

In the 2020 study ›Das Temporäre politisch denken. Raumproduktion im Berlin der frühen 1990er Jahre (A Political Approach to the Temporary: Space Production in Berlin in the Early 1990s) cultural studies scholar and curator Annette Maechtel describes how Weitz tactically employed the term ›interim use‹ so as to »make open space available to cultural practitioners in a legal, cost-effective way«. The impact of Weitz’s allocation policy can still be felt today. KW Institute for Contemporary Art on Auguststraße, Haus Schwarzenberg on Hackescher Markt, and Schokoladen on Ackerstraße all established themselves as standing, long-term cultural venues in Berlin’s Mitte district. Facilitated by Weitz, this intermeshing of urban development, commerce, and culture was for the most part implemented by the cultural players themselves, i.e. ›from the bottom up‹.

The prolific activity of these ›Children of Berlin in the new galleries, project spaces, artist bars and techno clubs around Berlin-Mitte transformed the formerly divided city; its international reputation as a place of indefatigable cultural charisma was restored almost overnight. Added to this was the historical dimension: »Berlin is in danger of taking culture for granted, of perceiving it as a comfort or matter of course,« warned a 16-page expert assessment of the situation in the visual arts in Berlin as early as 1994. Penned by Kasper König and Wim Beeren on behalf of the then Senator for Culture, it caused quite a stir at the time. »There is terrific temptation to do so, because it harbours so much history, there is so much art of failed utopias to transform it, par excellence, into a postmodern city. There are two possible outcomes: sad cynicism and extreme consumerism. Culture for rent, for sale, culture as a soft drug, as an entourage. In no other city can one experience so much hubris in the contemporary art sector as in former West Berlin.« Historical hindsight shows just how far the city has come in the past 30 years—and where it has stagnated.

Other cultural policy processes of that time proved dogged and tedious. One example is the 1993 merger of the East Berlin Akademie der Künste with its western counterpart, a move preceded by a two-year discussion phase. Playwright Heiner Müller described it as less »a love match than a marriage of convenience« in the end. Other virulently debated topics included the redesign of Museum Island and the reorganisation of museum collections following the merger of the major East and West Berlin museums, a kerfuffle known as the ›Berlin Museum Controversy‹.

Ultimately, post-unification federal politics seemed for the most part preoccupied with the capital’s national-representative architecture in the new Government District. Examples of cultural-political discussions in the early days of the ›Berlin Republic‹ included, for instance, those around the dome for the newly-renovated and designed former Reichstag building as converted by British architect Norman Foster; the wrapping of that same building by Christo and Jeanne-Claude; or ›To the Population‹, an artwork by Hans Haacke in its northern atrium.

»›Berlin’s cultural policy‹ is enacted by a number of different entities in the capital, but parts of ›Berlin’s cultural policy‹ are not even made in Berlin.«

Finally, the first red-green coalition government launched the office of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM) in 1998 as a means of bundling the federal government’s cultural and media policy activities into one government agency, thereby giving them an institutional framework. The cultural-policy question at present is whether—despite the cultural sovereignty of the German federal states as enshrined in the Basic Law—the time has come to upgrade the BKM to a separate federal ministry in view of its ever-growing list of tasks in the cultural sector. A number of arguments would favour such a move. One emerged with the COVID-19 crisis, which cast a harsh light on both the lack of a strong lobby for cultural producers in the federal government and an overall government contempt for culture in general.

›Berlin’s cultural policy‹ is enacted by a number of different entities in the capital: in district-level cultural councils, in the Senate Department for Culture and Europe, in the Committee for Cultural Affairs within Berlin’s House of Representatives, and by the BKM at the federal level. And of course, educational, economic, and urban development policies also have their influence at all levels. Parts of ›Berlin’s cultural policy‹ are not even made in Berlin. A number of decisions are made in Bonn, for example, where the federal real estate company Bundesanstalt für Immobilienaufgaben (BImA) is headquartered.

For example, the BImA administers the Leipziger Straße building that once housed the Czech Cultural Centre—home to collector Julia Stoschek’s exhibition space since summer 2016. The BImA’s refusal to sell both the valuable building and its downtown plot to the billionaire collector prompted Stoschek to strategically and publicly threaten to leave the city. The Stoschek case shows how important it is to differentiate. Hasty, blanket denunciations of ›Berlin’s cultural policy‹ merit a closer look at who exactly is entering the public discourse with what interests, and what exactly is at stake.

»Even if the public is generally indifferent to who exactly is responsible for what, this cultural policy of parallel, oppositional, and entwined coexistences has a powerful effect on the city’s institutional landscape.«

That said, turf wars and a certain fragmentation of responsibilities seem symptomatic of the contradictions that characterise cultural policy in Berlin more than elsewhere. Even if the public is generally indifferent to who exactly is responsible for what, this cultural policy of parallel, oppositional, and entwined coexistences has a powerful effect on the city’s institutional landscape. Any equanimity surrounding the fact that Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart—Berlin, supported by the federally funded Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), is a national museum institution; Berlinische Galerie is a museum institution supported by the municipality; and C/O Berlin, with its focus on photography, is a private exhibition venue run as a non-profit foundation, dissolves when it comes to questions of financing, for instance.

Examples include a 2016 proposal from the founding directors of the Humboldt Forum (HuFo) not to charge admission: that proposal was swiftly met with opposition, as Berlin’s less well-off museums feared this ›competitive advantage‹ would lead to financial losses for their own institutions. Unlike Humboldt Forum—a prestige project of the federal government—other museums such as those on Museum Island are certainly dependent on entrance fees. Yet Neil MacGregor, head of the Humboldt Forum’s founding directorate, also had a point when he noted, »The local population visits an institution much more often when they don’t have to pay an entry. Where you have to pay, it’s mainly the tourists who come.«1  So the question of entrance fees is political and now runs through Humboldt Forum like an invisible moat. As of now, admission to currently open exhibitions is only free everywhere until mid-November. After that, a full-price adult ticket to ›Berlin Global‹, the Berlin exhibition at the Humboldt Forum, will cost seven euros.

Though the matter of the entrance fees might be little more than a bizarre footnote, it points to deeper internal problems. The Humboldt Forum itself has long since become a kind of monument to a failed cultural policy. An investigative report by experts at the Wissenschaftsrat, an advisory body to the German Federal Government and the state governments, recently characterised the institution’s internal organisation as »complex« and »prone to conflict«. It also notes that running the cultural venue, which will open in stages this year, calls for a »high degree of coordination«.

Another potentially sad case includes the situation of Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart—Berlin, a contemporary art museum that belongs to the Nationalgalerie Berlin and is thus also part of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz. The former railway premises upon which the museum stands belongs to a private investor who has long pushed to demolish the Rieckhallen, an annex to the museum that has only been open since 2004. The demolition is planned for the end of this year. The Berlin development plan only provides for the preservation of the historic main building. The state is now called upon to offer an alternative—notwithstanding the fact that the contemporary art museum, as an institution under the SPK umbrella, plays on the larger ›national‹ stage and is nevertheless notoriously short-changed by its main donors. Instances like this make the pitfalls and gaps of Berlin’s deeply staggered cultural policy glaringly obvious. Especially when you start tugging at different strings.


1.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erTjcXc4qPE&ab_channel=TV.Berlin-DerHauptstadtsender, TC: 05:50