Does Berlin really need a permanent Kunsthalle?

A Kunsthalle should shift the focus of the art world from western markets towards the emerging countries to the east

Weltoffenheit (“Openness to the world”), once reckoned to be a German virtue, but one that has been obscured by the history of the 20th century, is blossoming again in Berlin—a quality that once again makes the city a hospitable place for foreigners. Artists from many cultural backgrounds have flocked here in recent years. The city not only provides excellent conditions conducive to their practice, but it has also become a place where their work can be as highly visible as in New York and London, but without the market pressure. Berlin is now one of the foremost centres of artistic production in the world.

How this artistic wealth should be presented has, however, led to a heated public debate. It began with the opening of the exhibition “36x27x10” in 2005, which featured 36 of the most famous artists living in the city at that time—including Franz Ackermann, John Bock, Candice Breitz, Thomas Demand, Olafur Eliasson and Rirkrit Tiravanija among others—and was an event that was the envy of the Berlin museum world. The exhibition not only led to the initiation of the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin in 2008, it also prompted the Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, to commit to developing a permanent Kunsthalle. He believes that such an institution will have a “Bilbao effect” on the city—his dedication to the project indicates a willingness to found and fund an organisation substantial enough to have an international impact, and place itself firmly on the global map. But four years later, it is still unclear how this vision can be achieved.

The first issue is: does Berlin need a new institution? There are at least two art organisations in Berlin—the KunstWerke Institute for Contemporary Art and the Berlinische Galerie—that could make a legitimate claim to the role of presenting art made in Berlin, but so far none has come forward.

The next issue is what exactly the institution is for. Indeed, instead of asking whether Berlin needs another institution for contemporary art, or what its mission should be, the debate has centred almost entirely on its location. Right now, there is an abundance of special interest groups vying for the city administration’s attention, each proposing a host of potential building sites, but none of these has come forward to present an artistic or cultural vision for a new Kunsthalle. Perhaps this is because the concept of presenting art from Berlin is not strong enough to justify a new institution. What is missing in Berlin is an agenda-setting, curatorial laboratory, similar to the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which has galvanised artistic practice and cultural discourse in France.

Despite the absence of informed public debate about the purpose of a permanent Kunsthalle, the city remains committed to it, apparently as an abstract idea. In comparison with its three expensive opera houses, a new contemporary art institution is arguably an economical way to create an impact.

Of course, outsiders may say, what about Udo Kittelmann, the new director of six of Berlin’s art museums, including the Hamburger Bahnhof? He is finding it difficult to stretch his budget across his exhibition spaces, which he himself notes are the equivalent in scale of a single edition of Documenta, the massive art survey held in Kassel every five years. However, despite a difficult start, there are high hopes for the museums under Kittelmann’s direction. But the city of Berlin has no direct influence on or involvement with the Hamburger Bahnhof, which, like the other 16 of the city’s high profile museums, is federally run.

So what could a permanent Kunsthalle offer? Germany has attained a lot of cultural credibility in recent years by creating a culture of dialogue. We have welcomed many people from the Middle East, Asia and large parts of Africa. In the world of visual art, which communicates beyond the restrictions of the German language, Berlin has benefited from a positive cultural “prejudice” for well over a decade now. In the absence of politicians, most of this has been achieved by artists and a handful of dealers. Now that politicians have discovered contemporary visual art, it is important that their rationale for creating any institution is clear.

Berlin needs to connect institutionally to the art world on an international level, as it did for a few years through KunstWerke under Klaus Biesenbach, now a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This is what a Kunsthalle should be doing: shifting the focus of the art world from ties to western markets towards art worlds in the emerging countries to the east of Berlin that, after the current financial crisis is over, will have an even larger cultural impact than now. The next few years will be crucial for preparations for this phenomenon. Whoever creates strong ties now will emerge in a strong position later. Berlin could and should work as a cultural hub between the west and the east. This is only a reflection of what is already happening in Berlin in the artistic community, but has not been given a tangible presence in the form of an institution. But if the city wants to do this, it will have to fund it properly. The mayor has to be reminded of his commitment to give Berlin a world-class institution with sufficient means.

So why don’t we at the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin lobby for this permanent role? Because it is the very idea of temporality that we find fascinating. Located on Schlossplatz in the heart of Berlin, we have an official “expiry date” of September 2010—and after that we plan to move on. The goal is to learn through the process of becoming a “peripatetic” institution moving from city to city in two-year increments. There are currently many fundraising and political efforts to bring Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin to Istanbul by the end of 2010, and to collaborate with artists, curators and institutions there until 2012. Two years is long enough to get into challenging cultural areas: the time is too long to gloss over cultural differences. How all this can be instituted and how this cultural knowledge will resonate between the various locations and back in Berlin remains to be seen, but it is an inspiring cultural idea and—unlike a permanent Kunsthalle—one that is attracting more and more support.

The writer is the managing director of the Temporäre Kunsthalle, Berlin

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