Home to some 400 galleries and an estimated 8,000 artists, Berlin has long aspired to be what its politicians call the cultural capital of Europe.
Yet in the coming year, thousands of works by artists including Joseph Beuys, Louise Bourgeois, Bruce Nauman and Gerhard Richter are set to vanish from its galleries, as the city debates what lengths it should go to to protect art collectors from the sharp edge of a property boom.
Last month, the Hamburger Bahnhof museum for contemporary art announced that Switzerland-based Friedrich Christian Flick would withdraw his collection of 2,500 modern artworks and take them back to Zurich by September 2021, following a dispute over the Rieckhallen, the hangar-like annex that houses his works.
Last week, the me Collectors Room in the centre of Berlin, showcasing a private collection of works by Cindy Sherman, Marlene Dumas, Georg Baselitz and others, announced that permanent closure would follow a coronavirus-related shutdown.
Its owner, Thomas Olbricht, the heir to the Wella hair-products company, said his decision to relocate back to his hometown of Essen was personal rather than political, though the building on Auguststrasse, housing luxury apartments as well as the gallery, will have been affected by the five-year rent freeze the city’s senate introduced earlier this year.
And last weekend, the Welt am Sonntag newspaper reported that Julia Stoschek, the billionaire collector, was considering withdrawing one of the world’s biggest collections of contemporary video and multimedia art from the city after being informed of a steep rent rise for her premises on Leipziger Strasse, a former Czech cultural centre owned by BImA, Germany’s federal real estate service provider.
Berlin’s ambition to match the artistic standing of New York, London or Los Angeles had already been tarnished last December when it was announced that Art Berlin, the city’s foremost contemporary art fair, would be discontinued amid financial problems.
Berlin’s media apportion the blame for these losses to the indifference of the city’s senate. “Berlin can act as if it is so incredibly dumb,” wrote the listings magazine Tip Berlin. “So dumb that three art collectors are leaving the city within 14 days.”
Der Tagesspiegel, a local newspaper, saw the departure of the Flick collection as “further proof of Berlin’s gradual metamorphosis from a creative hub into a stronghold for property speculators”.
The senate says its hands are tied when it comes to real-estate deals in a city where local and national structures often overlap.
But Stoschek let it be known that it wasn’t so much the imminent rent increase that had frustrated her as the lack of an invitation to find creative solutions, for example by integrating her collection into one of the state’s museums.
“Not being the competent authority doesn’t excuse you from feeling responsible for something,” she told the Observer.
For some administrators in Berlin’s local coalition government, where the culture sector has since December 2016 been in the hands of leftwing party Die Linke, declining to pamper wealthy art buyers is also a matter of principle, however.
Flick, Olbricht and Stoschek are all heirs of industrial fortunes amassed in the wealthy south-west of the country, and two of those dynasties are not without involvement in the darkest chapter of German history. Flick’s grandfather, Friedrich, was sentenced as a war criminal during the Nuremberg trials for the use of slave labour in his mines and factories. Stoschek’s great-grandfather was a member of the Nazi party and his company played an important role in the production of war materials.
In Berlin, which has a surplus of artists producing works but a shortage of collectors to buy them, even old money with a problematic past was once eagerly courted by Klaus Wowereit, the city’s mayor from 2001 to 2014.
Under the new leftwing Berlin culture senator, Klaus Lederer, the mood has changed, collectors complain. But can they legitimately expect the state to protect them from a property market that is also edging out other, less well-funded cultural institutions, especially as Covid-19 threatens livelihoods across the arts?
The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which runs the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, has been eager to be diplomatic as it parts ways with Flick. But the manner in which the patron announced his departure, in the middle of a global pandemic, has left some in the city disappointed.
The Rieckhallen annex to the museum that houses Flick’s collection stretches across a plot owned by the Austrian real estate company CA Immo, which wants to expand its “Europacity” complex of high-rise offices and residences and has ruled out selling the land back to the state.