Why Are Berliners Boycotting the City's Newest ‘Kunsthalle’?

Isabel Parkes speaks to two artists behind the boycott about the institution’s opaque flows of capital and misguided attempts at ‘cultural diplomacy’

BY Isabel Parkes, Candice Breitz AND Zoë Claire Miller in Interviews | 18 MAR 22

Last summer, the travelling exhibition ‘Diversity United’ opened in Berlin’s former Tempelhof Airport, an architecturally significant site that remains one of the city’s most celebrated public spaces. Organized by an all-white curatorial team and with backers including the presidents of Russia, France and Germany, the project stirred multiple controversies. At the start of 2022, the venue announced it had become Kunsthalle Berlin – a name that implies it is the city’s only exhibition hall. To onlookers’ continued dismay, the venue’s first exhibition, ‘Bernar Venet: 1961–2021’, was dedicated to a straight, white, male artist who had no relationship to the city of Berlin. This prompted backlash against curator Walter Smerling, who had facilitated both ‘Diversity United’ and the opening of Kunsthalle Berlin thanks to a robust network that includes Germany’s Foreign Office, property developer Christoph Gröner, automotive group Daimler, and multiple institutions funded by the Russian government, including Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where ‘Diversity United’ is currently on display. Hundreds of artists have since signed an open letter condemning the Kunsthalle Berlin, citing the instrumentalization of culture, opaque flows of capital and political disenfranchisement.

Lead image for the social media campaign #boycottkunstalleberlin, 2022. Courtesy: #BoycottKunsthalleBerlin

Isabel Parkes: Is this boycott, which the two of you initiated, looking to hold individuals or institutions accountable?

Candice Breitz: We’re trying to do both. Ultimately, what matters most in terms of achieving meaningful transformation is holding our politicians accountable, inasmuch as they have the decision-making power when it comes to determining how funding is channelled into the public sphere, as well as which institutions and practices are supported. That said, it’s impossible to effectively address structural problems and systemic inequities without pointing to concrete instances and particular situations. We’ve found, in our conversations around the boycott, that some are uncomfortable when it comes to participating in criticism of particular individuals and institutions, but criticism that is articulated in terms that are too vague or general is seldom able to gain traction, let alone lead to actual change.

IP: Kunsthalle Berlin has many touch points – from ‘Diversity United’ and Walter Smerling to Vladimir Putin. Where do you pinpoint it?

Zoë Claire Miller: Different aspects are relevant in different ways. As a feminist, I find it infuriating to chart the trajectory of Smerling’s career within a completely cis-hetero, white, patriarchal system that, by operating under the auspices of art and culture, affords him the claim that, by default, what he’s doing is good. But another key aspect of this boycott for me relates to Berlin’s cultural and urban development policy –  and, specifically, the former Tempelhof site. Years ago, it was declared a space for art and experimentation, but it’s such an expensive building to run that almost only large-scale commercial events are taking place there. The current situation not only prompts painful recollections of the privatization of public properties in recent decades by the Berlin government, it’s also accompanied by a blatant lack of political engagement with any of the cultural initiatives and ecological projects taking place around Tempelhof, such as Floating University, which faces eviction this summer.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (front-right), then-CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet (front-left) and others at the opening of the exhibition ‘Diversity United’ at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, 2021. The exhibition intended to show ‘the artistic face of Europe. Courtesy: picture alliance/dpa; photograph: Bernd von Jutrczenka

CB: The ‘Kunsthalle Berlin’ is a particularly extreme example of the endemic corruption that’s been going on for years in Germany at the level of ‘private public partnerships’. Back in 2018, for instance, shortly after Okwui Enwezor left the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the museum cancelled significant exhibitions by major artists Adrian Piper and Joan Jonas, claiming to lack the resources to see them through. Piper’s exhibition was quickly replaced by a generous solo presentation of the work of Markus Lüpertz, thanks to the intervention of Walter Smerling, who made the necessary resources available via his shady organisation, the ‘Foundation for Art and Culture Bonn’, which poses as a public instrument but is actually a private entity under Smerling’s directorship. In other words, funding was nowhere to be found when it came to an exhibition dedicated to an extraordinary and internationally-acclaimed woman of colour such as Piper, but could be readily and swiftly sourced to underwrite yet another exhibition by a white German man whose work was already deeply familiar to German audiences.

Another important issue that needs to be addressed when it comes to such ‘private public partnerships’, is the lack of transparency that generally makes them possible in the first place. Most artists – and most art professionals in Berlin – had no idea that a new Kunsthalle was about to be launched by Smerling until the doors were virtually about to be flung open. Yet, even before the institution opened to the public-at-large, real-estate developer Christoph Gröner had been given free rein to host a corporate event in the space for his patrons and friends, including former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is a close ally and enabler of Vladimir Putin.

Anselm Kiefer, Winterreise (Winter Journey), 2015-20, installation view, 'Diversity United', Tempelhof Airport Berlin. Courtesy: the artist and Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur, Bonn; photograph: Silke Briel

IP: What broader systems do you feel this situation highlights?

CB: Berlin politicians were happy to hastily hand over millions of euros derived from tax revenues to Smerling to support the funding of his utterly fatuous exhibition ‘Diversity United’, as well as to help him launch his fraudulent Kunsthalle, without bothering to consult with the art community at large, or stopping to draw on the considerable expertise and experience of Berlin’s existing art institutions and professionals. Meanwhile, artists are expected to submit reams of complicated, bureaucratic paperwork via official channels in order to receive paltry sums to support their existence, as the city becomes exponentially more expensive, and as residential and studio space becomes harder to find and afford. We have tried, from the first moment of calling for a boycott of the Kunsthalle, to frame this radically depressing example of systemic rot as symptomatic of much deeper structural problems.

ZCM: While we can still see instances of Western oligarchs funding allegedly non-profit public institutions in the US and UK, there have also been examples of that system crumbling – the Sackler family, for instance, whose donations to cultural institutions became unwelcome after it was revealed that their wealth was largely rooted profits from the opioid crisis. This is another crucial point for me in terms of the boycott: although it’s imperfect, the German system of public funding is definitely worth defending. I sometimes hear people say that Kunsthalle and Kunstvereine have a history of private patronage in Europe, but that’s not true. Both models derive from civic initiatives, from people supporting something collectively rather than individual patrons funnelling money to their own causes for their own profit.

From left to right: Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Heba Y. Amin, Grada Kilomba, Candice Breitz and Armen Avanessian during the panel discussion ‘No More Dick Soup’ at Volksbühne, Berlin, 2018. Courtesy: Candice Breitz; photograph: Intissare Aamri

IP: What are the qualities that, for you, define a good institution?

CB: I’d opt for institutions that encourage critical conversations and actively create and expand community, places like Savvy Contemporary or the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. But the massive number of modestly-scaled, precarious, artist-run project spaces that enable experimentation and support emerging practices are equally crucial in the Berlin ecosystem.

ZCM: I’d add that communal galleries (publicly funded art spaces run by the different districts of Berlin) like Galerie Wedding, are also crucial for many reasons, not least because they often focus on regional artists. Along with the visual art association bbk berlin, for which I am a spokesperson, they were a driving force behind instituting a system of obligatory minimum fees in publicly funded shows for artists in the city since 2016, which is something we see other cities like New York just starting to try to implement.

Zoe Claire Miller
Zoë Claire Miller and Jörg Heiser during the panel discussion 'Ukrainian Dispatch: Solidarity as Cultural Praxis during Wartime' at CCA, Berlin, 2022. Courtesy: Zoë Claire Miller; photograph: Loup Deflandre

IP: Where do we go from here?

ZCM: We must take action to support the demands made in the open letter by Jörg Heiser, Hito Steyerl and Clemens von Wedemeyer, Who Owns the Public? [13 February 2022], which build on the boycott. We have already hosted our first and second public discussions – more are coming – with the aim of ensuring that the government funds promised to Smerling for his Tempelhof exhibition are reserved for, and democratically allocated to, art and culture.

CB: As Putin continues to terrorize Ukraine, the boycott takes on an even greater significance, shedding light on the entanglement of institutions like the Kunsthalle Berlin with bad agents like Putin and Schröder. We’ve talked at length about Smerling today, but he is ultimately just a pawn in the far larger game of ‘cultural diplomacy’. When we say that we will not allow our politicians to continue selling us out to curry favour with individuals whose values are antithetical to the possibility of a healthy art ecosystem, we are saying, loud and clear, that the next time a Smerling pops up, we will voice our opposition just as vocally. We will not accept a future in which all of our public institutions are hollowed out by predominantly nefarious private interests. 

Main image: Hangars 5-7 of the Tempelhof Airport, Berlin. Courtesy: Tempelhof Projekt GmbH, Berlin

Isabel Parkes is a writer and the deputy director of Callie's. She is based in Berlin.

Candice Breitz is an artist and art professor. In 2022, she will have solo exhibitions at Tate Liverpool, UK, the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany, and FMAV / Fondazione Modena Arti Visive, Modena, Italy. Her work is currently on view in group exhibitions at the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland, Nouveau Musée National Monaco and Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong. Breitz lives between Berlin, Germany and Cape Town, South Africa.

Zoë Claire Miller is an artist, activist, co-founder of the Berlin Art Prize and a spokesperson of the bbk berlin, the Berlin association of visual artists. In 2022, she will have exhibitions / projects at the Museion Bozen, Italy, Kunsthalle Exnergasse Vienna, Austria, as well as Galerie Parterre and GOSSIP GOSSIP GOSSIP in Berlin, Germany. Miller is recipient of the latest Will-Grohmann-Preis of the Akademie der Künste Berlin.