I expect the e-mail box to start filling up with pointers to today's New York Times story about the cultural renaissance in Berlin, a story which must have been kicking around for ten years, from the looks of it, and updated with a couple of details by its author, Alan Riding, sometime this week. [Note: I have changed this link so it won't expire, so don't freak when you see it's the Herald Tribune instead.]
There's very little in the story which is outright incorrect, mind you. Sure, he posits my neighborhood, Mitte, as the art center of the city, when the fact is that rising rents here have forced most artists and other culture types first to Prenzlauer Berg, then to Friedrichshain, in search of affordable housing. But there are facts, and there are facts, and the article is deceptive.
It's only on the article's second page (as measured on the website; those of you reading the dead-tree version have another measurement) that things get weird, when, after discussing the problems of reunification with what's become almost journalistic boilerplate, and talking about the crisis in the symphonies and particularly the opera houses and how they've been dealt with (one hesitates to say "solved") he moves on to the world of visual arts.
It is, as Riding notes, a Good Thing that the city's once-divided museum collections have been assembled under one roof, and that the resulting mass of objects will soon be rationalized in an oh-so-Prussian way by being divided between the various new and old buildings which exist to house them. By the end of the decade, if all goes well, we should be able to visit specific eras of art history in different museums dedicated to those eras. It's also good that the Neue Nationalgalerie will be turned into a venue for temporary exhibitions, since the building is a mess: originally designed by Mies van der Rohe as a building which would house Bacardi's main rum-producing facility in Cuba, the plans were bought by the city of Berlin and jiggered into an art museum. As an art museum, it makes a great corporate headquarters cum distillery: the impressive ground floor is an empty cavern, and one can only hang art downstairs. Wasted space in a museum is not a Good Thing.
I'm less convinced by Riding's paean to the new visual arts. He lauds the Hamburger Bahnhof, the old train station converted into a contemporary art museum, and, while it's a great space for shows, it's rarely on my list of must-see places, even though it's about a ten-minute walk from my house. The reason? The shows there suck. And while the blame for this may rest at least partially on the shoulders of its curators, the main impediment to anything worthwhile showing there is the fact that, like most other cultural institutions here, the museum is broke. The last show I went to there was called Face Up!, supposedly a survey of hot young artists from Australia, but if this is the state of Australian art, I recommend the Australian government subsidize immigration by artists, because currently they don't have any. What was a travesty like this doing in Berlin? The whole thing was paid for by Australian cultural foundations and the government. It didn't cost Berlin anything.
It's true, as Riding says, that there are galleries all over the place, particularly in the east: there's still a city subsidy for anyone who wants to open a cultural space in the east, and initially, this led to the establishment of a red-hot gallery district in the Scheunenviertel, the triangle more or less bounded by Oranienburger Str., Torstr., and Rosenthaler Str. Ten years ago, a friend who was monitoring the situation warned me never to sign a lease in the Scheunenviertel without having it looked at very, very carefully by a lawyer, and would that the majority of these galleries had listened: one by one, the truly excellent ones, the ones who truly cared about showing innovative, interesting work (and, thus, weren't either a rich man's folly or a money laundry) closed up and moved, victims of sudden and brutal rent increases. Of my favorite galleries from that period, only Barbara Blickensdorff is left, although I'm happy to see Hannes Nowak's DNA across the street (and happy to see him quoted in the Times, savvy media dude that he is). Nowak, I think, is there because of the settlement of his dispute with the city, which forced both his amazing Aktionsgallerie (a great hangout in the old days: a rockin' bar upstairs, and an anything-can-happen gallery in the basement; DNA stands for Die Neue Aktionsgallerie) and his equally fascinating Mori Ogai Gallerie (in an apartment upstairs once occupied by the revered Japanese translator of Goethe and Hoffmann -- revered by Japanese, that is, since no one else has ever heard of him) out of the building they occupied.
But there's something Riding misses in the story. If, as he says (and I'm not going to dispute this as hotly as I might), Berlin has become a magnet for young artists because it's cheap and open, I'm here to tell you that artists don't just do art and go to sleep. They want a scene, a place they can get together, clubs, events, hangouts. The city of Berlin pretty much systematically eradicated the ones in my neighborhood one by one. The Aktionsgallerie scene was only one of them. Berlin/Tokyo went. The Glowing Pickle, Spätverkauf, and Schmalzwald were hounded out of business. A half-dozen other dives whose names I've either forgotten or never knew vanished. Maybe similar things exist in Friedrichshain these days, but that's an awful long ways to go.
And what about the case of Podewil? This center for avant-garde music and art set up in an 18th Century townhouse over behind Alexanderplatz under the inspired direction of a woman named Elke Moltrecht. In just a few years, she turned it into a place that had musicians around the world fighting each other to get programmed in the various festivals she put on. But Podewil kept getting starved by the Berlin Kultursenat in order to feed redundant opera houses and keep the Hamburger Bahnhof from shutting down. At one point Moltrecht announced that they'd have to leave the house, but Podewil would remain as an institution, curating events and festivals. But in December, they died. Podewil, as far as I can determine, is no more. One of Berlin's signature outposts of the avant-garde has been shut down. And, as much as the grungy art-spaces like Berlin/Tokyo, with which it often shared musicians, Podewil was a place where you'd see the artists and gallerists who were putting Berlin on Alan Riding's map.
Berlin is famously €40 billion in the hole, and I loved the quote Riding has towards the top of his article: "'I think culture is the only real force for renewal that Berlin has for the next 50 to 100 years,' said Barbara Kisseler, the city's under secretary for culture.' At the moment, we have more problems than we need. But these are only financial problems, not problems that cannot be resolved.'" Waitaminnit, lady: the next 50 to 100 years??? The only real force for renewal?
Yikes. But...it really is that bad. And there's no money to put where their mouths are, either. Last one outta here turn out the light, okay?