What’s Next for Berlin’s Museums?
After a series of new appointments for Berlin’s museums, Carina Bukuts discusses the future of the city’s institutional landscape with Anselm Franke, María Inés Plaza Lazo, Fabian Schöneich and Sung Tieu
After a series of new appointments for Berlin’s museums, Carina Bukuts discusses the future of the city’s institutional landscape with Anselm Franke, María Inés Plaza Lazo, Fabian Schöneich and Sung Tieu
Berlin offers many promises. In the 1990s, international artists moved to the unified German capital for cheap rent and to be part of a city that reinvented itself after nearly 30 years of division. This saw collections from East and West Berlin unite under one museum association and led to the foundation of new institutions. In line with the neoliberal politics of the past decades, Berlin has arguably only known one way: up. In 2021, towards the end of her tenure as minister of culture, Monika Grütters appointed a series of new directors to lead some of the most prestigious institutions in Berlin: Klaus Biesenbach is now head of Neue Nationalgalerie and the Museum of the 20th Century; curatorial duo Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath are the new faces of Hamburger Bahnhof and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung will take over Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2023. This roundtable considers the promises and pitfalls of these changes.
Carina Bukuts Last year, KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin celebrated its 30th anniversary. Anselm, you were a curator there between 2001 and 2006: how do you feel the institution has developed over the years?
Anselm Franke There have been times in the past when I’ve found myself asking: what is the added value of this institution compared to some of the city’s larger galleries? And this isn’t just the case with KW: it’s true more broadly of the relationship between public and private institutions in Berlin, and one also must ask difficult questions of democratic accountability. KW is now in far better shape – also financially – than it used to be, and the current Renée Green retrospective, among other projects, is wonderful.
Fabian Schöneich I share many of your thoughts and concerns. Bearing in mind that KW was founded just two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, its purpose then was quite different to today. I do think there is a question around how we define the term ‘public institution’. KW is one of the few institutions in Berlin without its own collection that runs an international programme. As a format, it resembles the Kunsthalle model that acts as a catalyst and intermediary between established project spaces and museums. In Berlin’s diverse cultural landscape, there aren’t many institutions in this category.
CB The next edition of the Berlin Biennale – the 1998 launch of which was closely connected with KW – takes place in June. What role does this event play in the city?
AF I’m really looking forward to this year’s edition [curated by Kader Attia]. I don’t think we can criticize the biennial format in the same way we did a decade ago – calling it into question as a spectacle. Today, biennials have a specific function in financial terms and champion artistic practices that are rather detached from the art market. They have become important platforms for artistic research and other forms of critical engagement with the present, offering a counter-model to the art fair.
María Inés Plaza Lazo I agree. At the end of the 1990s, the concept of interdisciplinarity for biennials was defining every curatorial and artistic gesture. KW is now oriented towards singularity, manifested in very specific discourses and practices; it no longer has the multifaceted approach that existed at the outset. Today, KW stands for something more solid and less risky than in its early years when it adopted a counter-position to institutions like Akademie der Künste.
Sung Tieu One criticism I have applies not only to KW but to all Berlin institutions. As I see it, there’s still a major divide here between institutions and local artists, who rarely get the opportunity to exhibit their work. Despite the broad range of artists living here, I’ve always had the feeling that no local institution actively fosters a dialogue with them. The idea persists that such a conversation is reflected in international discourse. However, Berlin has its own social and political problems that are rarely addressed in the local art context.
ML I take your point, Sung, but the question is also how fast change can happen, under what conditions and what hierarchies are established within an institution between international and local, community-based practices. In the case of KW, for instance, the main exhibitions are devoted to international artists, while the Pogo Bar invites emerging local artists. On the other hand, the most recent Berlin Biennale, in 2020, tried to establish a community beyond both KW and institutional practice at large. Interestingly, that edition made much less of an impact, despite the range of carefully considered formats that engaged with local issues in great depth.
ST I agree, but there’s also a need to take responsibility here. It’s not about only representing local artists: it’s also about finding points of contact where international discourse is reflected in local problems. I think this is something that’s gaining in importance. I’m interested in models where the local and the international take place on equal terms.
FS I don’t know whether it’s still necessary to make such distinctions. I don’t think it’s a contradiction to run an international programme and to take responsibility locally. Many institutions manage this. In London, for instance, places like South London Gallery or Chisenhale Gallery do important community work without it detracting from their programme in any way. I don’t know whether this is comparable to the Berlin Biennale, however, which has the structure of a festival: prepared over several months, it’s on view for a relatively short time and poses two or three critical questions, one of which may resonate for longer. On an institutional level, as evidenced at KW, the programme always shifts when a new artistic director takes over. The spirit of experimenting and learning from mistakes is often lost once institutions become more established. One of the fascinating things about Berlin is that the art scene is enormous for a city this size. The five of us don’t come close to representing what’s going on.
AF Yes, maybe Berlin lacks something like a more regular local survey, which I think should also be organized by artists. That might help to create a deeper conversation, also about how artists understand their role in shaping discourse – we need that. But we shouldn’t forget that associations such as neuer berliner kunstverein [nbk] and neue Gesellschaft für bildende Künste [nGbK], as well as several smaller publicly funded spaces, are doing both. But I do agree with you, Sung, that there is a disconnect from the larger institutions.
CB Was this the reason you decided to launch CCA Berlin, Fabian?
FS Yes and no. I have long been interested in institutions dedicated to the promotion and presentation of contemporary art, which of course is connected to my curatorial work at Portikus Frankfurt, Kunsthalle Basel and Witte de With [now Kunstinstituut Melly] in Rotterdam. At the same time, I was interested in the question of what it means today to create a new institution that puts exhibition-making and education on the same level from the outset. Looking at Berlin, I was surprised that, for a city of its size, there aren’t many institutions operating in this field. In geographical terms, everything is more or less concentrated in Mitte, thinking of Gropius Bau, KW, nbk, nGbK and Schinkel Pavillon. There are no institutions for contemporary art in the western part of Berlin until you get to the outskirts, where director Lisa Marei Schmidt and her team are doing a wonderful job at the Brücke Museum, and where the newly appointed Anna Gritz will surely turn Haus am Waldsee into an important cultural venue.
The aim with CCA Berlin is to see what it means to launch such a space in a city like Berlin in 2022. The first year is intended to be a pilot phase: we’ll take our time, starting with smaller exhibitions and collaborating with local partners to build up the whole thing step by step. During this entire process, we’ll be asking ourselves: how can an exhibition venue also be an educational institution? This goes back to our question earlier about what defines a non-commercial, public institution. How can we create an institution in Berlin that doesn’t just operate independently but builds partnerships with other organizations and exchanges ideas with local artists from the outset.
ML I cherish your ambition to operate as a point of connection between strong partners in a city that’s more polarized than ever before. That’s something Arts of the Working Class, a street journal sold by people experiencing poverty, is also trying to achieve. Berlin has always been divided, both politically and socially, so it’s all the more important to make these connections, to navigate the precarious working conditions for artists, and to find forms of solidarity.
CB Another venue that was launched as a private initiative in 2009 and also tries to connect with the local community is SAVVY, whose founding director, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, will take over as director of Haus der Kulturen der Welt [HKW] in 2023.
AF SAVVY has fundamentally altered Berlin’s cultural landscape in a substantial way. It’s an extremely lively institution – something that I hope will continue when Bonaventure takes over at HKW. I have high hopes for his impact on HKW itself, although it’s obviously going to be very different for him – particularly in structural terms – steering a big, state-funded ship. HKW must integrate even more with the diverse reality of Berlin, and will do so under Bonaventure, which is a very positive development. But I hope there will still be a place in Berlin in which transdisciplinary and more research-oriented work can exist.
CB Where else could the research-oriented work that HKW currently champions take place?
AF To answer that question, we have to look at the broader institutional landscape. Without wishing to sound presumptuous, I’d say everything needs reorganizing. There have been many positive changes in cultural policy in recent years, and I hope things continue in the same vein, but Berlin still has two fundamental problems. Firstly, its institutions are badly structured and in need of reform. This applies not only to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation – Berlin’s umbrella museums organization, which a government committee advised in 2020 should be dissolved – but to Hamburger Bahnhof, which is unable to fill the central role it should be playing as a museum for contemporary art. This may be due not so much to individuals as to structural issues and catastrophic underfunding. Let’s hope the new directors [Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath] have good political connections, so they can implement the necessary change. Also, while I think the recent developments [under director Stephanie Rosenthal] at Gropius Bau are positive, the fact that the themed exhibitions on cultural history that previously took place there no longer have a venue in Berlin is a loss. I don’t mean to talk down the work currently being done at Gropius Bau, but I think it often compensates for what we should expect from Hamburger Bahnhof.
The second problem is the lack of substance in the programming of the city’s major institutions, which has been going on for decades. Last year, the two most important exhibitions in Berlin were ‘documenta: Politics and Art’ and ‘Divinely Gifted: National Socialism’s Favoured Artists in the Federal Republic’, both at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, because they addressed the basic structure of the Western canon and the role of Berlin in postwar Germany. Berlin continues to live in a bubble of delusion because it came to embody the promise of a globalized, liberal democracy after the fall of the Wall. Around the world, this model has been in rapid decline for at least a decade, but Berlin doesn’t seem to have got the memo. All of the dominant models, the desire for representative prestige and appeals to the city’s symbolic role are completely stuck in the 1990s, and the institutions have failed to do the intellectual groundwork to move forward. In discursive terms, the city is not in good shape and there is still a risk that the decisions of [former minister of culture Monika] Grütters, which are clearly shaped by the desire for prestige and by nostalgia for Prussia and the Empire, will have long-lasting repercussions.
ML Everything needs to be reorganized, oh yes. It’s interesting to hear you deconstructing Berlin institutions from the viewpoint of someone who has worked in the field for the last decades. If we look at other museums and Kunsthallen in Germany functioning at a high level – Lenbachhaus Munich, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt or NRW Kunstsammlung Düsseldorf, for instance – it becomes clear that they struggle with the same museal obsolescence but manage to deliver significantly better exhibitions. This is due to larger budgets and influential philanthropic support in their boards of trustees, but also due to a more robust platform for curators to take their time and deliver in-depth surveys. Thinking of cities that cling even more strongly to their monarchical, aka colonial past, would you trade the vibrant energy of Berlin for the conservative Munich? I don’t think so – except for better wages. Berlin’s structural problem is obviously one of money and the ways it is used within the institutions that perpetuate inequality among their workers, and the veneration of a white, masculine personification of privilege.
AF Much of this can be traced back to the fact that, after the war, in the ruins of one of the most murderous systems of white supremacy the world has ever seen, Berlin – a city on the frontline of the Cold War – pursued an American model of Western art and freedom, whose basic tenets were never called into question. That’s why the two exhibitions at Deutsches Historisches Museum were so important, because they situated the nature of this model in geopolitical terms, highlighting the extent to which it acted as a whitewashing machine – in the tradition of the official certificates of denazification – whose aftereffects extend into the present. The debate about the Nazi past must not be overlooked here. All over the world, the past is washing up on the shores of the present, and everywhere it is being discussed in more critical terms than in Berlin. This fundamentally nationalistic structure and this Prussian longing to be ‘great again’ had not been adequately criticized on an institutional, intellectual level until these two recent exhibitions.
ST I think this is due, in part, to German universities lagging behind in terms of discourse. If I compare my studies in London with my studies in Hamburg, they are worlds apart. In London, the academics and critics were far more actively interested in current discourse – something I didn’t experience in Hamburg. I believe these institutional failings are related to the way the surrounding cultural landscape, the universities and art academies, are not really thinking with the times but, as you said Anselm, are still indulging in this nostalgia.
FS That’s why it’s so important for our generation, which is more interconnected than any previous generation, to pick up on this discourse. This might also mean that some institutions need to close. That’s my thinking regarding CCA Berlin, too. Of course, I want it to grow, but maybe it’s enough if it closes after ten years and something else opens. To me, that’s far more interesting than thinking of something that will last forever. Germans often take pride in a museum or a Kunstverein having existed for hundreds of years, despite the fact that this so often leads to institutions becoming operationally complicated and overshadowed by boards that live in the past and don’t want to take any risks.
It’s interesting that, over the past 30 years, some of the most significant institutional developments in Berlin have been the result of private collectors, like Christian Boros and Julia Stoschek, opening their own spaces that behave – and are perceived – as if they were public, non-profit institutions.
ML I think it depends on whether we are talking about the institutional system as a whole or the role of institutions. There is certainly a major discrepancy in terms of radical forms of care between the non-activist institutions and the communities that do create emancipatory ways of togetherness and fair living and working conditions in Berlin. Anselm described SAVVY as a game changer for the city, but can we compare its structure – made by expats in utterly precarious living conditions who find refuge in curatorial practice – with the ones of Hamburger Bahnhof or KW, that are based on bourgeoise-driven networks? Mentioning SAVVY as the only example of a decolonial and diversifying shift in the city, undermines the work of other self-organized initiatives and non-profits, such as TIER – The Institute for Endotic Research or Kinderhook & Caracas.
CB Many changes are on the cards for the year ahead, but the question remains as to whether they will have a positive impact. Personally, I find it concerning that a nexus of power is being formed between the Neue Nationalgalerie, which Klaus Biesenbach is directing from 2022, the Julia Stoschek Collection, to whose success he contributed by advising Stoschek from the beginning, and KW, which he founded. Interestingly, Stoschek sits on the boards of both the Neue Nationalgalerie and KW. I also find it worrying that German media are not reporting critically about Biesenbach’s appointment and what it means for the city as a whole.
ML I think it’s a too simplistic version of a power game to make an individual collector and the press responsible for this. We should rather look into the laziness of a more problematic structure that does not consider the choice of Biesenbach their responsibility – no matter how unfortunate the desire for a notoriously polarizing curator is, who said ‘yes’ to a position offered to him in a single phone call. The agency that allows us to criticize the cultural landscape of Berlin in this round should also be used to act upon it.
AF There’s no denying that a culture war is being fought in Berlin. This is most obvious in the case of the Humboldt Forum, a Prussian palace rebuilt at a cost of EU€680 million, which was designed as a revisionist nationalistic prestige project, and as such met and still meets fierce resistance. The discussion to house the ethnographic collections there was meant as ‘cosmopolitan’ counterweight to the conservative symbolism of Prussia-nostalgia, but it unwittingly served to highlight Germany’s violent colonial history on a hitherto unseen scale. But there are other instances too and we are – in my eyes – at a real crossroads in terms of what vision of society we want our institutions to reflect in this city. It’s shocking how Berlin is reusing neoliberal models that have proved disastrous everywhere. The fact that they can be so uncritically repeated here strikes me as evidence of the poor state of critical discourse in the city. I really hope that we will now be able to have that discussion and it needs to involve many stakeholders, because it should not just be a single milieu that wields decision-making power over cultural policy as part of a system of taxpayers’ money redistribution. Elsewhere they are way ahead of us.
ST I am less optimistic here. When it comes to taxpayer’s money, we shouldn’t forget, that the re-election of the far-right AfD [Alternative für Deutschland] into parliament last year means that the party’s affiliated foundation, Desiderius-Erasmus-Stiftung, is now eligible to receive millions in federal funding for cultural projects and civic education. When a party with anti-democratic views receives state funds to promote their political agendas, we are pushed to the limits of democracy itself. That feels very alarming to me.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 225 with the headline ‘What's Next for Berlin?’.
Main image: Model with Klaus Biesenbach mask in the entry of Volksbühne, Berlin, 2021. Courtesy and photograph: Diana Pfammatter