Thomas Fischer’s gallery is hidden away on the second floor of a Berlin Altbau, looking out on a courtyard behind what were once the drab offices of a Berlin newspaper.
It is on Potsdamer Strasse, a grubby run-down street in West Berlin, still filled with Turkish supermarkets, cheap casinos and brothels. But now, it is also the epicenter of one of the hippest and most productive art scenes in the world.
Even though it was the empty spaces of the former East Berlin that first attracted thousands of artists and gallery owners to create one of the world’s most vibrant art scenes, the focus has now shifted firmly back to the West.
Yet, East or West, the commercial scene remains still underdeveloped. Despite a plethora of increasingly professional galleries and a burgeoning collectors’ scene, Berlin is still not a site for making money from art. But some critics warn that the city is not doing enough to collect and document the vibrancy of the city’s art output for prosterity.
Nonetheless, the international art world makes sure it has a presence in Berlin. This week collectors, gallerists and curators from around the world are descending on the city for ABC, the city’s art fair.
The fall of the Berlin Wall played a huge role in the creation of what is now one of the globe’s most important art scenes. The artists rushed to the vast post-industrial spaces and huge dilapidated apartments of the former East, to paint, sculpt and live.
Mr. Fischer was no exception. When he first came to Berlin in 1997 from his native Ulm, in southern Germany, he lived and spent all his time in the former East Berlin. “No one was interested in the West in the 1990s,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “Many people are only now discovering that there is a district here that is unbelievably exciting,” he said.
Mr. Fischer feels that part of the charm is that it is a place where people live and work. “It is not like the East was. It isn’t full of empty spaces.”
The 39-year-old has managed to achieve success quickly since he opened in 2011. He represents both emerging artists, like Sebastian Stumpf and Friedemann Heckel, both young Berlin-based artists who are increasingly well regarded, as well as established artists like 86-year-old Brian O’Doherty originally from Ireland and based for many years in the United States.
Mr. Fischer not only knows how to spot important artists, he is also astute in his choice of location. Since he moved to Potsdamer Strasse, some 40 other galleries, including the international player BlainSouthern, which represents Damien Hirst and Bill Viola, as well as non-commercial project spaces have set up in the area.
It is all part of an exodus from the former hub in the East Berlin district of Mitte, particularly Linienstrasse and Auguststrasse. The area had become too expensive and as hostels, bars and high-street stores attracted more and more tourists and shoppers, the art world moved on.
For a while it was thought the warehouses on Heidestrasse behind the Hamburger Bahnhof, an important contemporary art center, would give rise to the new art hotspot but that never really took off.
Many big names like Esther Schipper or Arndt & Partner instead turned their back on the East altogether. Others were pushed out. The major photo museum CO Berlin fell victim to the real estate interest in the old East. After being evicted from a former post office depot on Oranienburger Strasse last year it plans to open in West Berlin on October 30, in Amerika Haus, the former cultural center of the U.S. in the old divided city.
“Everyone has great nostalgia for the way it was before, and the way you could present in these amazing raw spaces.”
As the art scene has dispersed from Mitte it has also become more professional. Previously art was often shown in disused factories and post-industrial spaces, or in art bars, where openings were essentially parties with people smoking around the art works and leaving beers on sculptures. The scene has grown up a bit in recent years.
“Everyone has great nostalgia for the way it was before, and the way you could present in these amazing raw spaces,” says Monica Salazar, editor in chief of Berlin Art Link, a multimedia platform for the arts. “But now I see the younger galleries stepping up and making a more professional presentation.”
Yet, for the estimated 20,000 artists who work in the city it is more about connecting with other artists.
Many established artists have settled in the city. Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson, Scandinavian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, British film artist Phil Collins, are based here, as are German artists Thomas Demand and Daniel Richter, Candice Breitz from South Africa, and Israeli video artist Omer Fast.
And most young people now turning up in Berlin to get in on the creative scene want to live in the Western districts of Neukölln or Kreuzberg, rather than say Mitte or the very gentrified Eastern district of Prenzlauer Berg, which had been a creative hotspot in the 1990s.
All of them want to plug into the buzz and community rather than having any hopes of selling their art in the city.
“Artists move to New York because they want to sell in New York,” said Ms. Salazar. “I don’t think artists move to Berlin because they want to focus on selling in Berlin, a lot of artists that live here show elsewhere, so this is their production place.”
“It is a major checkmark on everybody’s agenda to be exhibited here,” she said. “There is a certain reputation that Berlin has.”
For galleries too, it is essential to have a foothold in Berlin. Many international players are here, like BlainSouthern or Sprüth Magers, to experiment and to discover young new artists. Yet for most of the city’s 450 galleries, when it comes to selling they are largely forced to rely on art fairs both in Berlin and abroad.
Berlin itself just doesn’t have the wealth to sustain all of the artists based there on its own, nor is there much of a tradition of collecting. The city is still one of the poorest in Germany, with high unemployment and without any major industries or a financial hub. As such it lacks the base of wealthy buyers that say London, Paris or New York has.
There are some exceptions.
Christian Boros, an advertising entrepreneur, houses one of the most impressive collections of contemporary art, much of it by Berlin-based artists, in his five-story former Nazi bunker.
Another is Ivo Wessel, a software developer, from Paderborn in northern Germany, who moved to Berlin specifically because of its reputation for contemporary art. He lives in a spacious apartment in a former garment factory near Berlin’s central station, with walls covered with the art he has collected.
“Berlin has this great potential. So much art has been created and bought over the past 25 years by people with enough know-how. ”
Mr. Wessel, whose collection is so large that he keeps 99 percent of it in storage, complains that Berlin as a city has not done enough to promote or collect the artists that have built the city’s important cultural reputation.
“The artists who have been living in Berlin for 20 years and who started their careers here, are often never given an institutional show, even though they are known and shown abroad. And Berlin is not doing anything about this. If you look at London or Paris, they deal with their artists very differently.”
Mr. Wessel argues that the city is missing an opportunity to chronicle now what will later be regarded as a pivotal epoch of art production and that work by artists from Berlin should be shown at an institutional level in the city, and systematically collected by state-funded institutions like the New National Gallery. The city, he argues, could also help collectors to show the works they own.
“Berlin has this great potential. So much art has been created and bought over the past 25 years by people with enough know-how. We could put on really great exhibitions.”
The author, who has covered culture in Berlin for international media for the last decade, is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin. Contact at: email@example.com