Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Berlin contemporary art scene & economics

Mitte, Berlin's oldest and innermost district, is, technically and sentimentally, the middle of the reunified city. In the 1990s, Mitte was shorthand for "art." And art meant the Oranienburger Strasse, Mitte's brief, straight thoroughfare, which once served as a magnet for artists and galleries, but has since morphed into an open-air mall.

Given over to food-court-worthy restaurants and high-turnover shops, it suggests cultural stagnation as much as urban renewal. There are still galleries hiding here. Sprüth Magers, one of Berlin's most prestigious galleries, reveals its location discreetly, with a small sign hidden inside a doorway.

Its relative unavailability is a reminder that Berlin has become a major contemporary art center, but contemporary art is hardly at the center of Berlin life. Important shows may go entirely unnoticed in local papers. And commercial galleries are more like warehouses, apparently empty except for the staff, and the occasional out-of-town collector.

With Germany's financial capital in Frankfurt, and industrial wealth spread throughout the west, Berlin has maintained a vicious circle of artistic appeal. No financial elite means no property boom, and no property boom means cheap studio space, and cheap studio space means ever more artists. Mr. Gaillard, who came here on a grant two years ago, decided to stay, he says, "for selfish reasons." He keeps a large apartment in the former east as a de facto warehouse.

Cyprien Gaillard, a young French artist who now calls Berlin home. "I need space for my archive," he says, referring to his collection of photographs and film footage, which he uses in multimedia installations. "And I'm a book collector. I need space, and I can't afford having such a space in Paris." About to turn 31, he is a rising star in the international art world, and he spends most of his time away from the city. "But it's really pleasant to come back." Berlin is "unambitious in a good way," he says.

Berlin likes to tout the names and numbers of its art scene, but the open secret is that artists tend to leave after a few years, if only to be replaced by other artists. Mr. Gaillard says he is here to stay, but he seems bound for something like superstardom. It's easy to imagine him, in the not-too-distant future, at home in a Berlin-size apartment in a Parisian arrondissement.

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