Where are we now? And where do we go from here?

BAW 2020 © Conrad Bauer

We asked some of the protagonists of Berlin’s art scene for their take on the current—and future—state of contemporary art in the city.

Berlin Art Week celebrates its tenth edition this year. For us, this anniversary is not only an occasion to look back, but also an opportunity to ask about the current status and—even more importantly—future prospects for contemporary art in Berlin. There is a lot going on in the city right now. The course is being set for the coming years. What’s more, the hiatus triggered by the coronavirus pandemic can also be seen as a chance to take stock: many old habits and stories of yesteryear seem to have lost their relevance; weaknesses and problems became virulent while other things proved astonishingly stable and resilient.

With this in mind, we asked various protagonists of Berlin’s art scene for their opinions. We wanted to hear from institutions in particular, but also galleries, project spaces, the media, and the university system. We asked people where they see Berlin in terms of contemporary art, especially with regard to its structures and institutions.


What should we let go of, what should we focus on? Where are the fault lines and what needs to be addressed? What is important for the next few years—and what would we need to make that happen?

© n.b.k.
Marius Babias

Director, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.)

Berlin’s promise of a carefree, dynamic creative scene has been overtaken by reality. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city’s cultural ecosystem has seen a precipitous rise in gentrification, commercialisation, and a decline in open spaces; artists have been forced into increasingly precarious ways of living and working. The covid-19 pandemic, a catalyst for these developments, has shown us just how vulnerable the foundations of creative work are. The purchase of the Uferhallen studio complex by a real estate company stands as just one example of how artists first make urban spaces attractive for residents, then make it appealing for investors, and finally are themselves threatened with displacement as a consequence of the gentrification. On the bright side, the Uferhallen example shows that organised resistance by artists can lead to solution-oriented talks between the city, the district, investors, and the creative scene.

If we want to continue to have critical, innovative art production in Berlin beyond conformity to market demands, we must ensure the survival of studios and other funding programmes, pursue a community-oriented real estate policy, and support artistic self-governing structures. Public art institutions that initiate social discussions and create enduring intellectual values have assumed even greater importance in a world of globalised capital. Though an art institution can do that, it is not the root and home of a social or political movement. It is, at best, a solidaric part of it.

Maike Cruse

Director, Gallery Weekend Berlin

Berlin was for many years a veritable playground of free spaces that the arts, culture, and club scene made their own. The ensuing opportunities have contributed significantly to Berlin’s attractiveness, and it is now imperative that these free spaces are preserved and reclaimed. For far too often they are crowded out by commercial interests, bureaucracy, costs, short-sighted city marketing, or the prestigious new buildings and German Unity ›seesaw‹ monuments being built instead.

If we listen to the artists and makers here in the city and have the necessary courage, we can create places, ideas, and events that are unique and that only exist here in this quality and distinctiveness. We can create art and cultural spaces that look like landed spaceships, river swimming pools or airports, that are versatile and repurposed and co-determined by artists. There would be art market events that have a unique character, put the artists first and in doing so enliven the rapidly changing city centres and empty department stores. Or new formats that give greater visibility to Berlin-based artists. So, before we tear down our palaces and open spaces and the city centre slowly turns into a desert, we should come up with ideas, become courageous partners and not forget the idea of the playground as we create the future.

Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart—Berlin. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker
Gabriele Knapstein

Head of Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart—Berlin

In the spectrum of institutions, project spaces, galleries, private collections and temporary exhibition venues, Berlin needs a vibrant contemporary art museum with spaces of different design and character. Berlin has just that with the Nationalgalerie’s Hamburger Bahnhof—Museum für Gegenwart—Berlin, and in the city centre, no less. The venue understands itself as an institution that exhibits, researches, collects and preserves contemporary art for the future and makes it accessible to a broad public. One that networks locally and globally and views contemporary art from a wide variety of perspectives, opens a dialogue around it, and situates it historically. November 2021 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the museum with the historic rail station building and adjoining former shipping halls. The motto for this jubilee is spelled out in a signal red brochure recently published by Walther und Franz König: »Save the Rieckhallen. Save Hamburger Bahnhof.«

Jörg Heiser

Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Universität der Künste (UdK)

Let’s start with the positive aspects. In terms of the development of Berlin’s institutional art landscape, there is a (coming) breath of fresh air at two institutions in particular: Gropius Bau, with director Stephanie Rosenthal, has opted for a rigorous path that unapologetically embraces contemporary developments—not least those that critically revise previous art historiography—and makes them accessible to a broad public. The upcoming directorship of Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HkW) promises something similar.

But apart from that, negative developments come to mind, which almost always have something to do with the combination of well-intentioned but not always well-advised cultural policy and administrative power. The Humboldt Forum—housed in a monumentally failed collage combining a palace restoration with shopping mall functionalism—is still at the beginning, not the end, of a ruthless reappraisal of its ethnographic collection holdings; Bénédicte Savoy told us as much back in 2017. The Staatliche Museen, bound together in the Preußische Kulturbesitz, are still waiting to see a reform of their encrusted, paralysing administrative structures, all meticulously laid bare by a 2020 report from the Wissenschaftsrat, or German Council of Science and Humanities.

But things are also going wrong at the city level, for example this: An amendment to the Berlin Higher Education Act, which the Senate Chancellery of the Governing Mayor and Senator for Higher Education Michael Müller intend to push through before the elections in September, seeks to expressly prohibit scientific/artistic PhD programmes—as they have long been possible and tested in Hamburg and Weimar—at Berlin’s art colleges. It would also oblige all master’s programmes leading to further qualifications—including artistic tracks such as the ›Art in Context‹ programme I direct at the Universität der Künste—to charge tuition fees to cover costs. This would, of course, make them completely unaffordable for artists living in precarious circumstances.

Most alarming of all is the way in which the autonomy of higher education institutions—that is, the ability of higher education institutions to administer themselves, something that is indispensable for academic and artistic freedom—is being attacked head-on. It seems as if people are simply counting on the fact that Berlin will always be an attractive magnet for artists from all over the world no matter what, making such supposed pawn sacrifices unimportant. This myth is in danger of collapsing in the face of reality as studios, for example, have long since become unaffordable or simply unavailable.

Tanja Wagner

Gallerist, Galerie Tanja Wagner

We are still in the midst of a very challenging, but exciting time. We have experimented a lot with online formats over the past year and have learned how grateful people are to be informed and to participate beyond just exhibitions, news, and artists’ works. I hope that digital content will not be viewed as competition to physical exhibitions and works, but rather as a tool for communication and mediation. Personal contact and first-hand experience of art are still crucial. Online content can act as a door-opener, an invitation to those experiences.

The pandemic also gave rise to a lot of initiatives and cooperations; it prompted more interaction between the galleries. I would also like to see more communication and a joint online presence, coupled with established art events held across all of Berlin’s art venues. The goal is to make the vibrant, diverse range of art in Berlin more visible and easier for people to access.

Martin Gropius Bau, Rotunde © Foto: Mathias Völzke
Stephanie Rosenthal

Director, Gropius Bau

The pandemic has changed how we welcome visitors. We can no longer allow as many people into our spaces and have had to adapt our events. But the important question was and continues to be this: how can we be and remain accessible and, beyond that, expand access to our programme? The programming at Gropius Bau has focused on concepts of care and repair, and also hospitality. Those guiding notions seem more urgent than ever.

Like many other exhibition venues, we have been able to expand our digital offering and the additional funding has given us the opportunity to develop and enhance our digital strategy. Our ongoing emphasis on accessibility, which of course applies to digital space as well, is an important point in our effort to open new, expanded access points to what we have to offer. Still, there is simply no substitute for the physical encounter with artworks, lingering in spaces like our atrium, and interacting with others in person.

Elke Buhr

Editor in Chief, Monopol—Magazin für Kunst und Leben

Berlin has been pronounced dead as an art city many times—fortunately always unjustly, at least so far. Of course, the art scene has structural problems. Rising rents are eroding much-needed open space, the financial resources available to art institutions cannot keep pace with those of museums in metropolises such as London or New York, and the art market continues to find its collectors outside the city.

Yet not even the pandemic hiatus could change the fact that on an average evening in Berlin, it is hard to decide which opening, project space, performance, pop-up exhibition, or artist talk one should visit. The crucial factor determining how and if this will continue to be the case is the question of whether the city will get a grip on its real estate prices—or whether it will turn into a gentrified Teflon city, a city that simply repels creativity and the non-profit, entrepreneurial spirit of the many international artists who continue to flock here. A city where nothing sticks.

Philippe Van Snick, Dag/Nacht, 1984–fortlaufend, Installationsansicht Eingangstor KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Foto: Frank Sperling, Courtesy Tatjana Pieters
Krist Gruijthuijsen

Director, KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Berlin is trying to establish itself as a capital and this includes more institutional infrastructures in order to manifest more power both nationally as well as internationally. These new infrastructures are based on old models—architecturally (Humboldt Forum) as well as also institutionally (Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts) and even though one can justify the reasoning for their existence, they seem to be out of line within the current debates, which urges to break down existing systems in order to present new models that in a creative sense address notions of inclusivity, accessibility and diversity. This need for establishment excludes what made Berlin Berlin in the first place—a place for experiment, production and exchange and one feels a gap growing in the city because of this. One should not forget that it is the people that made Berlin after the reunification, not the institutions.

Nele Heinevetter

Founder Tropez and niche Berlin

At Tropez, we spent a lot of time thinking of new ways to reach our absent visitors and creating new digital output (online exhibitions, video games, dance videos, livestreams, podcasts, etc.) that would be as low threshold as possible. We collaborated with great artists to create insanely funny formats. Still, we missed our audience in all its incredible diversity, especially those who—as often happens with a venue at a public swimming pool—unexpectedly find themselves in our exhibition, at our performances or our events, ask questions and in doing so take our discussions in an unexpected direction.

I am happy to see any project space that has survived and am grateful for all those who have started artistic initiatives. I only wish that the omnipresent push for more inclusion and art in public spaces would make Berlin a city of art for the people—one in which a younger generation grows up knowing that visual and performing arts happen in and for more places than just institutions, galleries, and independent scene spaces; they can also enrich a person’s everyday life in surprising ways.

Thomas Schulte

Gallerist, Galerie Thomas Schulte

I think we’ve weathered the past seventeen months rather well. Had I been told in March 2020 that 400 galleries nationwide would receive exhibition subsidies of up to 70,000 euros and other supports, that politics would breathe new life into discussions within our association, the BVDG, that our communication channels would be enormously improved, that some would be compensated for high losses through stop-gap aid, that few truly desperate voices would be heard among the gallery owners and that there would be better cooperation among the galleries, I would not have thought it possible. We as gallerists have done a lot to achieve this.

We have shown ourselves to be resilient and have opened new paths and ways out for the future. We have our shiny Neue Nationalgalerie back and work has begun on Herzog De Meuron’s new Museum of the 20th Century. A city-funded digital analysis for the gallery sector is underway and even the museums of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz may yet hope for a reorganisation. Given all that has happened to us, I am not at all sceptical. But we have to keep at it. Otherwise, our politicians in particular will miss the opportunity to set the right course and—as with the expensive experiment that was Friedrichstraße as a bicycles-only pedestrian zone—will be fishing in troubled waters at great expense. We should continue to stay focused and engaged; I see it as a very positive thing.

© Brücke Museum
Lisa Marei Schmidt

Director, Brücke-Museum

A recent generational change has set Berlin’s institutions in motion. Though the pandemic admittedly put a damper on things, the shift will be a powerful driving force for the next few years. I believe that all the city’s institutions and venues will and must think more from the inside again, will have to work more closely with artists on subject matter and content, involve their own staff and spark their enthusiasm, address audiences directly, work sustainably, allow other perspectives and new ideas, and stay curious—without being afraid of the potentially enormous scope of their vision.

I am actually very optimistic that visitors will continue to be interested in exhibitions and return in larger numbers. But it won’t happen on its own. We have to actively start the conversation and create attractions. Especially for the younger generation, who have had a difficult year and a half and, in some cases, may not have seen the inside of an art venue since before the first lockdown. Curtains up for a post-pandemic exhibition visit, which will certainly include an online presence as an extension. Those sitting firmly in the saddle must do more than ever to ensure that Berlin’s vibrant art scene remains intact. We have to work together to improve the precarious situation of artists, freelancers, and journalists who make contemporary art visible to a wider audience and do so as quickly as possible.