Art and the City: Berlin Thrives, With Arts and Culture Central to Its Identity
Berlin is a young, dynamic, and booming city of culture. Big names in the world of contemporary art, such as Wolfgang Tillmans, Olafur Eliasson, Alicja Kwade and many, many more, have made Berlin their home and workspace.
The German capital has a seemingly never-ending choice of art spaces and exhibitions to visit, architectural designs to see, and cultural events to take part in.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city has actively worked on reshaping its identity and involving citizens with what they want their city to offer them, and this is where art and culture come in.
Attracted by the once-cheaper rents, an abundance of studio spaces, and proximity to other creatives and exhibition spaces, artists came in droves to Berlin during the 1990s.
This has continued into the 2020s, as artists still feel an attraction to the city – despite the significant rise in rent prices.
Artists and creatives call Berlin home for its freedom of spirit, the room to explore within their art practice, and finally, a city not limited by art world expectations and hierarchies as with other cities.
With artists in their thousands and numerous art galleries, Berlin’s art scene has gone from strength to strength, proving itself to be a magnet for the creative industries.
Like other European art cities, such as London and Paris, with young creatives and established art schools, Berlin instead has a different feel, more alternative and more open to less-conventional art practices, presentation and experimentation.
From street art, including the famous East Side Gallery painted onto the remnants of the fallen Berlin Wall, to the white cube galleries and the obscure exhibition spaces, there’s an art space made for everyone in the German capital.
East Side Gallery. Credit: Jeison Higuita/Unsplash
WHAT EXACTLY MAKES AN ART CITY?
An art city is dedicated to the arts and culture, where these aspects are seen and recognised as central to the city’s identity. A prominent percentage of the local economy, cultural tourism and reputation is generated from an established relationship and support of the arts and cultural events.
Naturally, a large number of people from the art city will have a role or work in the creative industries.
These industries can include design, visual arts, music, publishing and literature, film and video, crafts, fashion, television, radio, theatre and performing arts.
Credit: Marcus Lenk/Unsplash
BERLIN’S CREATIVE INDUSTRY
Berlin’s metropolitan area is eight times bigger than that of Paris with a population of 3.5 million inhabitants, three times smaller than Paris’, therefore giving an idea of the amount of space available for homes, art spaces and events.
There are approximately 200 museums and art spaces, over 400 art galleries, and according to a 2011 government report, there are roughly 20,000 artists living across the city’s 96 districts.
The majority of these artists live in the Kreuzberg and Neukölln districts. These areas appeal to younger residents because they are known for their quirkier, more alternative neighbourhoods.
Kreuzberg is especially popular for the array of nightclubs nearby, including the iconic Berghain, which during pandemic closures transformed from a nightclub to an exhibition space in collaboration with The Boros Collection, with a focus on Berlin-based artists.
In the same district, residents are spoilt for choice with museums, art and architecture, including Berlinische Galerie, the Jewish Museum and König Galerie.
Friedrichshain. Credit: Frederik Danko/Unsplash
Ten percent of the sales revenues in Berlin’s economy are generated by the city’s creative industry, these revenues have increased by 56% (+€7.3bil) since 2009, and one in six Berlin companies works in the creative industry.
More specifically in the contemporary art sector, there is a turnover of roughly €700mil (+11% since 2014) generated by the Berlin art industry every year, strengthening the city’s art market – as well as establishing its position and reputation internationally.
Alexanderplatz. Credit: Leif Christoph Gottwald/Unsplash
REBUILDING THE CITY AND ITS ART SCENE
Few buildings survived the city’s bombardments during the Second World War, leading to much-needed architectural projects to rebuild not only the city’s infrastructure and homes, but also its sense of identity and giving back to its citizens.
The city’s history, from the early 20th century to years of war, division between East and West, and reunification, can all be felt and seen in the city’s architecture and art production.
All of which has had an impact on how culture is a part of society and how the arts were seen as a crucial aspect of rebuilding the city.
The German government is a vocal supporter of the arts through funding grants and subsidies. Claudia Roth, the culture minister, announced an increase to culture spending with the 2022 budget of €2.3bil, an increase of 7% from the previous year.
Some historical parts of the city managed to survive the turbulent years, including Museuminsel.
Today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Museuminsel (or Museum Island) is the home to five of the city’s most historical museums. These include the Alte Museum, Neues Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, Bode Museum and the Pergamon Museum.
All of the museums were constructed between 1830 and 1930, and each building is dedicated to preserving and exhibiting different collections.
In 1999, the city decided to give the island a fresh look by adding the James Simon Gallery, designed by British star architect David Chipperfield.
Each space is as impressive as the next.
Museumsinsel. Credit: Alana Harris/Unsplash
James Simon Gallery. Credit: Simon/Unsplash
WHERE TO SEE CONTEMPORARY ART IN BERLIN?
The short answer is everywhere, but here are several ideas for those in search of contemporary art spaces with a twist.
The Boros Collection is like no other; a 700-plus collection of contemporary artworks ranging from the 1990s to present day housed in a former Nazi-era bunker located in the Mitte district of Berlin.
The most recent rehang of the collection titled Boros Collection #4 will be on show until 2026. It includes works by Julian Charriere, Anna Uddenberg, Anne Imhof, Yngve Holen, and 16 other artists.
It is possible to visit the collection by booking a guided tour in advance, but the availability of spaces often runs out quickly due to its popularity as a unique exhibition space.
Boros Collection, Berlin © NOSHE
KW INSTITUTE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
KW (Kunst-Werke) Institute was originally founded in the early 1980s in a derelict margarine factory in Berlin-Mitte.
Without its own private collection of works, the KW Institute is dedicated to the promotion and exhibition of both established and emerging contemporary artists.
Over its almost 40-year lifespan, the institute has presented works by Kader Attia, Anna Daučíková, Beatriz González, Judith Hopf, Channa Horwitz and Adam Pendleton. It regularly collaborates with national and international partners, such as MoMA PS1, the Biennale Di Venezia, and Documenta in Kassel.
Installation view of the exhibition Martin Wong – Malicious Mischief at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2023; Photo: Frank Sperling
Located between the Mitte district of south Berlin and the cool and ever-evolving Kreuzberg, lies Berlinische Galerie. It is relatively young museum of modern and contemporary art, founded in 1975.
Today, it is housed in a former glass warehouse. Berlinische Galerie mirrors the city’s eclectic mixture of classical cultural establishments and new, contemporary spaces.
Berlinische Galerie prides itself on its extensive collection of fine art, photography, architecture, prints and archival materials – with names such as Otto Dix, Georg Baselitz, Hannah Höch, Helga Paris and Thomas Demand.
The gallery currently undergoing works and will reopen to the public in May 2023.
Berlinische Galerie, Exterior view, Photo: © Noshe
KINDL CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
A younger art space, KINDL Centre for Contemporary Art opened in 2016 with temporary exhibitions of international contemporary art.
It has plenty of room to play with in a former brewery building measuring over 16,000 sqm of exhibition space.
In February 2020, Kathrin Becker took over as artistic director, with a focus on the interaction between social issues and art as a communicative space.
Currently on show is the site-specific installation All Of A Quiver by British-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum until the end of May 2023.
New exhibitions opening in March 2023 include the video work As If No Misfortune Had Occurred In The Night (2022) by Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind, and Coming Home Was As Beautiful As Going Away by Friedrich Kunath.
KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art, Berlin. Photo: Marco Funke, 2019
An architectural masterpiece, the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg is a must-see for any architecture lovers.
Opened in 2001, the American architect Daniel Libeskind’s zig-zag design for the new building was added to the existing museum combining light and dark spaces against the reinforced concrete walls.
Visitors become disoriented inside as walls become diagonal and dead ends lead to nowhere. The design’s narrative describes the journey of Jewish people before, during and after WWII.
As well as a permanent exhibition dedicated to Jewish life in Germany, the temporary exhibition currently on show is Paris Magnétique, which features more than 120 works by Jewish artists of the School of Paris between 1905 and 1940.
Interior view of the Jewish Museum Berlin, the Axes. Photo: Martin Foddanu
ART EVENTS FOR THE CALENDAR
Every spring, around fifty of the city’s galleries organise special exhibitions.
On the occasion of Gallery Weekend Berlin which started in 2005. Celebrating its tenth edition Positions, the annual fair for modern and contemporary art will take place between Sept 14-17 in Berlin-Tempelhof Airport.
The large art fair is the official partner of Berlin Art Week, Sep 13-17 another annual fixture in the city’s cultural calendar, this year’s dates.
With over 50 partners ranging from museums to exhibition houses, fairs, private collections, project spaces, and numerous galleries, Berlin Art Week presents a varied programme of exhibitions and events to celebrate the current world of contemporary art practice.
The Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art will be back in 2024 for its thirteenth edition.
Join us on a Journey Through Sound.
Cover: Berlin Mural Fest. Credit: Marcus Lenk/Unsplash
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She writes for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Radio Cymru. @glesniw