What Five Years of the Berlin Program for Artists Taught Us

The co-founders Simon Denny, Willem de Rooij and programme alumni explain why artists are essential to the fabric of Berlin

BY Carina Bukuts, Willem de Rooij, Simon Denny, Sofia Duchovny AND Anne Fellner in Interviews | 16 DEC 20

Carina Bukuts: What was your main aim in founding the Berlin Program for Artists (BPA) in 2016?

Willem de Rooij: Simon [Denny], Angela [Bulloch] and I all teach at art schools in Germany, where we work closely with our students and often remain in touch with them long after they’ve graduated. Unlike law or medicine, where you learn essential skills on your first job, artists often find themselves working alone in their studio after finishing their studies. While there are successful programmes for postgraduates abroad, such as the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum, we couldn’t identify an institution in Berlin dedicated to supporting emerging artists at the moment in their careers when they need that extra level of connectivity.

Simon Denny: When I graduated in 2009 and moved to Berlin, I was lucky enough to find myself in a very supportive environment, which I think was a feature of an art world at that time with more immediate commercial potential for younger artists. Now the environment has fewer opportunities for graduates in the places where I received them when I started out here. We saw that gap and wanted to fill it by creating a slightly formalized infrastructure for young artists, which is content-based and goes back to the idea of exchange. In 2016, we set up a very informal version and then workshopped it each year to improve it. We have also been generously funded by various public institutions here to do this development.

BPA founders Willem de Rooij, Angela Bulloch and Simon-Denny. Photograph: Piero-Chiussi

CB: Sofia, you were part of the very first edition of the BPA. How did you hear about the programme and what expectations did you have?

Sofia Duchovny: For the pilot edition, a group of mentors proposed recent graduates, and my former professor, Monika Baer, put me forward for it. After finishing art school in Frankfurt, I decided to move to Berlin and, even though I didn’t know what to expect, I was very curious about the programme. For me, personally, it felt really good to have a structure and to be in touch with other artists.

CB: What would you see as the key differences compared to other forms of art education?

SD: BPA is about community; it’s not an educational format. We meet the participants as peers who have been in most cases working a bit longer in this space. In addition, the programme is focused on sharing knowledge, but not on giving instructions. In Hamburg, where I teach, I have a class of between 30 to 50 students who are at a very different stage – so I am able to have a different kind of exchange with BPA, and the participant’s experiences and field are closer to my own.

SF: The structure of BPA is very loose, so you’re able to focus on your practice as an artist without having to worry about delivering anything in that sense. What makes it so unique, I believe, is that it’s very much about exchange. Many deep relationships have emerged from it that I still value today, and which have helped me grow as an artist.

Sofia Duchovny
Sofia Duchovny, Viewer (Avant Première), 2020, watercolor on canvas, 60 × 40cm. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Groupshow.eu

CB: How is the programme structured?

WdR: Since the third edition, in 2018, we’ve been selecting artists via an open call of up to 200 applications, from which per year ten artists are invited to take part. A large percentage of them have graduated from German art schools, so you can see there’s a real desire for a programme like this here. However, we aim to keep BPA diverse and look carefully at participants’ cultural background, gender, nationality and age: we want them each to bring different knowledge to the group and for as many circles as possible to intersect. We recently also changed it from a one-year to a two-year cycle, so that first and second years overlap and we all have more time to get to know each other. These relationships grow over time and we understand the programme as two-way street, in which we also want to learn from the younger generation. BPA doesn’t have a physical home. As a mentor, you have several individual studio visits with participants during the day and, in the evenings, we meet as a group in one of the mentors’ studios. This gives us insight into different studio models and, since we travel across the entire city, we get to know different neighbourhoods as well. After these five years, we gained a broad insight in how artists navigate and use the city.

Anne Fellner: I agree, you really get to know the city in a different way. Every meeting with another artist is explorative and visiting studios in various parts of Berlin also enabled a new understanding of urban geography, which I really appreciated.

BPA at Monika Baer's exhibition at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein
BPA group meeting in Monika Baer’s exhibition at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 2020. Photograph: BPA

CB: How do you feel about the working conditions for artists in Berlin?

AF: Even though it’s harder and harder to find studio spaces, there are still many possibilities and I especially like the variety of spaces in which people work – be it in an industrial building or in their bedrooms. My studio, for instance, which is a shop front, also doubles as the project space Sangt Hipolyt run by my partner Burkhard Beschow, where I intend to host a series of events next year and collaborate with other artists. One of the great things about Berlin is that spaces are quite fluid.

CB: Willem, you moved here almost 15 years ago. What are your thoughts?

WdR: I think the senate is working very hard to come up with custom-made solutions for different generations of artists. I will never say that it’s good enough, but I can see that they are creative and engaged. I think we all agree that artists are essential to the fabric of Berlin.  However, it’s not only young artists that need support: mid-career and older artists often live in precarious situations, too. That is why they should receive constant care – it can’t stop for a minute.

Anne Fellner, Point No Point (Turquoise), 2020, Point No Point (Rose), 2020, installation view, BPA at Gropius Studios. Courtesy: the artist and Damien & the Love Guru, Brussels; photograph: Ellie de Verdier

CB: BPA now has temporary studios at Gropius-Bau. What prompted your decision to collaborate?

WdR: It all started with an informal conversation with Stephanie [Rosenthal].  This experiment with Gropius-Bau has been really instructive as it does a lot to the self-understanding of an artist to see their work in this monumental building. Last year, we started a series of artists talks in collaboration with Kunst-Werke, which has also been very fruitful. One of the reasons we launched BPA was to give something back to a generation of artists who hadn’t yet had access to the same opportunities we had. It’s fantastic to see museum directors like Stephanie at Gropius Bau and Krist [Gruijthuijsen] at Kunst-Werke subscribe to that mission.

AF: Even though the pandemic cut short some exhibitions that were planned to take place at Gropius-Bau, my time here stills feels very special and I wanted to create work which would commemorate that in some way. I’m currently working on a series of virtual plein-air canvases, painting from webcam footage of the Point No Point Lighthouse on the coast near Seattle, where I come from.

Simon Denny Edition Berlin Blue
Simon Denny, Berlin Blue, 2020, 100 × 100cm, printed silk scarf edition for BPA. Courtesy: the artist

CB: What are your future plans for BPA?

SD: We recently started a friend circle as we realized that, even though we’re really visible to young artists, there might be more people out there who don’t know about us but would be interested in connecting with and supporting the programme. There are many tech start-ups and creative people working in Berlin and we think it could be interesting to bring these worlds together in some way or other.

WdR: There’s definitely room for improvement when it comes to philanthropy and private investments in the arts in Berlin. Another goal is to be able to offer higher stipends to our participants and greater support with obtaining visas. While the programme is free of charge, we can’t really offer much additional assistance, and I’d love for that to change. The collaboration with Gropius-Bau has also showed us how great it is to offer space to the artists, so perhaps this will also be something to look into.

Main image: BPA alumna Sofia Duchovny in discussion with mentor Angela Bulloch, 2017. Photograph: Eric Bell

Carina Bukuts is associate editor of frieze. She is based in Berlin, Germany.

Willem de Rooij is an artist. He teaches at the Städelschule, Frankfurt, Germany, Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Berlin Program for Artists, Germany. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

Simon Denny is an artist. He teaches at Hochschule für Bildenden Künste Hamburg, Germany, and Berlin Program for Artists, Germany. He lives in Berlin, Germany.


Sofia Duchovny is an artist. She lives in Berlin, Germany.

Anne Fellner is an artist. She lives in Berlin, Germany.