Berlin Arts Walk with Context

Berlin Arts Walk

Considering Germany’s history of lens and camera craftsmanship, it’s not surprising to find great photography galleries in Berlin.

Berlin’s a city begging to be recognized for something other than its cold war history. On our second visit, we were interested in getting to know different neighborhoods and meeting the town on its own terms rather than approaching it via the usual tourist sites.

One of our hopes was to join our friends at Context Travel for the “Cooking Across Borders” program, an initiative involving meeting up with refugees to discuss their native cultures and their new lives in Germany while preparing and enjoying dinner together. We just couldn’t coordinate schedules to do that (but hope to interview directors of the program to share more information).

Instead, we joined a Context walk through the Mitte neighborhood to take a look at Berlin’s highly touted arts scene. Naturally, the walk took into account the history of the buildings and streets we visited; there’s no getting around the changing use and disuse of various quarters of Berlin.

We met up near the Oranienburger Tor U-Bahn stop and worked our way east from there. In the 1920s, this was a thriving Jewish area. (Let’s remember that in the 1920s, Berlin was a city of 5.5 million people. After World War II, it had declined to 2.3 million, and about half of that population was homeless.) Like many sections of the city, this neighborhood dealt with “intermediate use” of buildings during and after the cold war, given that owners were gone, industry had evaporated, and the lengthy processes to determine ownership and regulate the use of spaces allowed for all sorts of creative interim uses. In addition to squatters and artist studios, industrial spaces housed circuses, concerts, cinemas, party scenes and also the decay that vacancy absorbs. Most of the activity was superfluous. “There was no market for it but to impress your peers.”

Berlin Arts Walk

A corner of the massive Kunsthaus Tacheles building, once a center of artist studios and creative events. Now it’s in transition, again.

The Kunsthaus Tacheles was one of those buildings that became undefined “art space.” In 2001, it was sold to investors and the artists in residence got a 10-year lease for one Euro while the investment group decided what to do with the place. Nothing much was decided, and eventually the Tacheles was sold again. Now its future is uncertain, or at least a mystery to area residents.

Our guide, Jason Benedict, a freelance curator who’s lived in Berlin since 2006, explained that the arts community is prodigious. Artists and independent galleries are trying to organize to get Berlin support. The downside is that the buying market isn’t sufficient for the amount of art being exhibited, so artists and galleries flock to the big international shows elsewhere: Basel, Venice, New York. Locally, artists tend to have a bit of a rivalry with Dusseldorf. Internationally, as a newer player on the international art scene, Berlin contends with Shanghai and Moscow, too, though we’re told Berlin has avoided the influence of shady investor money compared to the others.

What we saw on this tour wasn’t, as we might have expected, artist collectives and private studios, but world caliber galleries. While the buildings still exude the history of Berlin, the exhibition spaces, mostly developed since the 1990s, are decidedly in the international art scene milieu.

Highlights of our visit included:

Alexander Beer Building, Auguststraße 11-13

A Bauhaus-influenced former school built in the 1930s, still sporting some of the GDR mustard yellow wall color. The Kennedys museum is here, exhibiting photos and artifacts based on the famous John F. Kennedy speech in Berlin. We visited the CWC Gallery (opened by Camera Work in 2012) to view an absorbing exhibit of large scale photo illustrations jointly produced by Tina Berning and Michelangelo Di Battista.

KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststraße 69

The Kunstwerk building, a former margarine factory now protected by its historic designation, is currently a “museum without a collection.” The KW was founded in the 1990s by Klaus Biesenbach (formerly of MoMA’s PS1), and it was here the Berlin Biennale was hatched in an attempt to put Berlin on the world art map. It remains an event-driven center of the contemporary art scene in the city.

Berlin Arts Walk

Entering the Neugerriemschneider gallery in the converted factory at Linienstrasse 155. A section of Majerus’ work is visible through the window.

LinienStraße 155

Walk into the courtyard and galleries of this imposing Wilhelmine era Art Deco building to see examples of the reuse of industrial space, complete with neon lighting. The Neugerriemschneider gallery featured an installation of Michel Majerus’ large aluminum paintings; we were treated to a walk-through and passionate description of the artist by the gallery’s director. With its own street entrance, the small pleasant Feldbusch Wiesner Rudoph Gallery is being purchased by the larger space–a typical example of Berlin-Mitte’s ever-evolving art landscape.

Berlin Arts Walk

By the Cologne banana artist.

Also noteworthy:

Thomas Baumgärtel, the Cologne banana artist whose work pops up here and there. His exhibits feature correspondence with building managers about placing his banana art on their walls.

Jordan-Seydoux Gallery, Auguststraße 22
Drawings and limited edition prints

Galerie Deschler Berlin, Auguststraße 61
George Grosz nudes

IFA Galerie Berlin 139 Linienstraße

And on our own we visited:
Werkstadt, Emser Straße 124
Center for multi-disciplinary arts, events, and discourse

Camera Work, Kantstrasse 149
Photos by Jean-Baptiste Huynh

As we walked with Jason on our Context tour (Context Travel offers a couple dozen small group options in Berlin), we realized again how much we rely on arts and artist communities to introduce us to a local scene, wherever we are. We ended our day having a beer and salad at Strandbad-Mitte Cafe, watching children at play in the park across the street.

Berlin’s intense need to excel as an international arts and culture center is succeeding, even as it’s struggled to dominate in areas of finance and entrepreneurship. (Check out the addition of a Roma cultural center opening in September 2017, as noted recently in the New York Times.)

Our hope is that these earnest efforts continue to accommodate working artists along with the commerce of art.

Berlin Arts Walk

Bust by Wim Botha at the Feldbusch Wiesner Rudolph Galerie

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10 Responses to Berlin Arts Walk with Context

  1. Scott J June 24, 2017 at 7:32 pm #

    How long is now. Kunsthaus Tacheles feels so much like a walk through Chernobyl – at least to me.

  2. Suzanne Fluhr June 28, 2017 at 5:11 pm #

    As the spouse of someone whose parents had to flee their European home when the Nazis decided they should be exterminated, I admit to a residual angst and anger that keeps me out of Germany as much as possible. I realize that this is possibly misguided as Germany is probably the country that has confronted its murderous past with the deepest contrition. We enjoyed a Context travel tour in Edinburgh. so we’ll keep them in mind if we ever make it to Berlin. It is one of our son’s favorite cities.

    • Kristin Henning July 3, 2017 at 8:56 am #

      Glad to hear your son has taken to Berlin. But yes, it’s really true that the recovery from Germany’s past is a slow process for both Germans (and for various reasons, maybe Berliners in particular) and for international visitors. We felt lucky to be focused on the gallery scene which is more tuned to the future than the past. (Could have sworn I posted this reply a few days ago. Thanks for your comment, Suzanne!)

  3. Karen Warren July 1, 2017 at 7:19 am #

    I keep hearing good things about Berlin and the art looks like another reason for visiting. I can’t believe I haven’t got there yet!
    Karen Warren recently posted…TBEX Killarney, A Sneak PreviewMy Profile

    • Kristin Henning July 3, 2017 at 9:34 am #

      It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump. I hope you have a chance to visit Berlin and check out one of Context’s tours there.

  4. Carole Terwilliger Meyers July 1, 2017 at 5:32 pm #

    I’ve seen some of the major art museums in Berlin and would definitely enjoy visiting some of these smaller art sites next time I’m in town.

    • Kristin Henning July 3, 2017 at 9:32 am #

      Yes, the benefit of the smaller galleries is that you end up visiting a neighborhood in addition to the art installations. Next time….

  5. Ursula Maxwell-Lewis July 4, 2017 at 6:59 pm #

    Berlin always has so much to offer in almost any arts sector. No wonder they are so proud of the talent the city attracts. Did you got the Pergamon Museum? It’s on my ‘list’ for a future visit,.

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