Interview Germany

“Is there a Berlin market? Yes, there is!”

The German gallerist on her move away from the Mitte district and why she hopes Berlin Gallery Weekend won’t be too busy

Berlin dealer Esther Schipper

For over 20 years, Esther Schipper has been running a successful contemporary art gallery, initially in Cologne and for the past 15 years in Berlin. She was among the first to see the potential of the new German capital and to make the move. Her artists include Thomas Demand, Carsten Höller, Ceal Floyer, Angela Bulloch and Gabriel Kuri. This month the gallery is moving to a new location just across the river from the Neue Nationalgalerie, and the first exhibition in the new space—of Philippe Parreno—opens on 18 March.

The Art Newspaper: When did you open your gallery in Cologne?

Esther Schipper:
I founded the gallery in 1989. At the beginning I didn’t really have the intention to open a commercial gallery, it was more an idea for a project space, to publish multiples and for writing—something not quite defined. I was already working with a couple of artists with whom I am still working today.

How did you get involved with contemporary art?

I worked for Monika Sprüth for two years after she opened her gallery in 1983. I had grown up in France and returned to study art theory and art history. I didn’t like the way it was taught in Cologne: I thought it very academic and conservative. So I went back to Paris to study and started to do multiples. I commissioned the famous Bala­klavas [1986] from Rosemarie Trockel, and did projects with Thomas Locher and Rudolf Stingel.

Then, in 1987-88, I went to the Ecole du Magasin in Grenoble. And during that year, we had to do an internship in an international institution, so I spent three months in London at the Whitechapel Gallery, which at that time was still run by Nich­olas Serota, and encountered all these people who were in­volved in the “Freeze” show [in 1988].

Before I opened the gallery, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and I curated a show in Moscow in 1988; we also produced multiples, and I did a project with Philippe Parreno. I included Angela Bulloch in a group show in 1989 and we started to think about working together, Liam Gillick joined a bit later. It then quickly turned into a gallery, because at the time it was not accepted that activities could at the same time be commercial and non-commercial. There was a lot of pressure from the artists, as well as from the general public, to define what I was.

And then? When did you move to Berlin?

I stayed in Cologne until 1994, when we got the space on Auguststrasse in Berlin. It had previously been the first site of Kunst-Werke [the Institute for Contemporary Art], and after they moved it was the location for an exhibition called “37 Spaces” and then Kunst-Werke used it for a while for their artists in residence. They still had the lease but didn’t want to pay for it anymore, so they asked us. At first, we did two or three projects a year, and then it was completely re-done, and we moved in with the gallery at the end of 1996 and re-opened in mid 1997. I’ve been in Berlin-Mitte now for 15 years, five years on Auguststrasse and then ten years on Linienstrasse.

So it is time to move on?

I like this space very much, but it is not a very flexible architecture to say the least. For many artists, after they’ve done two or three shows, there are not enough variations and possibilities. It is always a problem that after a certain time artists get tired of playing with the same space, and most of the gallery artists work [specifically with] space and architecture. It is not as if I was choosing a couple of paintings in the studio and then hanging them. The whole dialectic with the space is part of the work, and if the space is not flexible, a lot of the vocabulary is used up. It was also clear for some time we would have to expand our offices.

Is your new location a conscious decision against Mitte?

This place has changed so tremendously and I am not so sure that I like what it’s become. It is certainly still a great place to live in, but gentrification took hold and if I look at it closely it’s missing a certain kind of friction. It is quite interesting to see how, a couple of years ago, people started to speculate about what could be the next neighbourhood. If you open a map of Berlin, the area we are now moving to is really the most central location, and it is quite an absurdity that next to Potsdamer Platz, which was conceived to become the heart of Berlin, is almost a no man’s land. However, one of the first galleries I saw in Berlin was Barbara Weiss (then on Potsdamer Strasse) and I was always very impressed by it. That gallery had a certain grandeur only these really big, old Berlin apartments have, and a very special character. I always liked the area, and in recent years some of the most interesting young galleries moved to the neighbourhood.

So what will the new space be like? Is it one of those grand flats?

Yes, very much so…you only have them in the western part of the city. But it will still be a gallery: I didn’t think it appropriate for the times we are going through to open a little “kunsthalle”. And again, it has also a lot to do with the group of artists I am working with. We have to generate support and fundraise for all those big and challenging shows, like Carsten Höller’s “Soma” at Hamburger Bahnhof, and I think the gallery show should be complementary to that. It really should be possible to show another aspect of the work. So I was looking for a place that was very multi-faceted. In the new space, the first of the two exhibition rooms was the former studio of the architect Arno Brandlhuber. He had already reduced the space to its most raw: supporting walls and floor. With him as the architect, we went one [stage] further and removed a wall, as the space was too partitioned. The second exhibition space is quite different from the first, because it has a wooden parquet floor, plaster mouldings and large art deco windows.

So it is also a domestic space?

It really is both, which I think is very interesting because it allows for a lot of different usages and parallel shows.

What is it that interests you in art?

That is difficult. Gilbert & George said: “To be with art is all we want”. Actually, I can’t answer that question…

Many of your artists are quite minimal in their approach, even if the work itself is not necessarily minimal.

It is more an attitude towards life. I don’t just like what I am representing, I grew up with a certain generation of artists who started working when I also got active in the field, and we were asking the same questions. The result is the work we do today. Then the second generation joined, because I saw parallels with concerns we’d been dealing with. You sometimes see people from very different cultural contexts who question the given parameters on a similar level, even if the answers are quite different. Sometimes it is very good to get some fresh air, but I have always been loyal and tend to work with people over a very long period of time. It is one of our main jobs in the gallery…to build careers.

Has the Berlin market changed over the last couple of years?

Is there a Berlin market? Yes, there is!

It must at least have become easier to get buyers to Berlin.

It was actually never difficult. In the 1990s Berlin was so incredibly popular. Only about ten years ago it was, for a while, out of fashion internationally, and we had to be a bit more active. But generally, people love to come to Berlin. The bigger problem is to establish a domestic market. Many collectors have moved here, for the same reasons as artists, and we all have come here—space is not expensive, there’s a very alert and interested community, lots of people come from all over the world. But it doesn’t seem to have bred a new generation. However, we should not paint [too dark a] picture. People are slowly getting involved and interested and are even buying daring work.

You work internationally—is it a problem for the local collector base that there are so many galleries now?

I don’t think that is a problem. If there are so many galleries, there should be many more collectors. Our primary job is to bring people to buy art, as that is what we and our artists make our living from. It is much more difficult coming from outside. If you are in Berlin for two days and you would like to get an idea what is going on, it is getting more and more complicated.

Nevertheless you still think those big events with all those numerous openings are important for Berlin?

That is a bit of a difficult question, as I was one of the founding members of the Gallery Weekend. I certainly think that it is very important to have it. It might be problematic that there are now so many people hooking up to the event that it could get out of proportion. Like the Love Parade became a victim of its own success [twenty-one people died in a crush at the Love Parade music festival in Duisburg in 2010, leading to the event’s permanent cancellation, p9.]

Do you think the Art Forum fair is still important for Berlin?

Yes.

Interview by Axel Lapp

Gallery history

1983-85: Works with dealer Monika Sprüth in Cologne

1987-88: Studies at the Ecole du Magasin, Grenoble

1989: Opened project space in Cologne which gradually developed into a commercial gallery

1994: Moved to Auguststrasse, Berlin, initially sharing the space with Kunst-Werke, the Institute for Contemporary Art

1999: Moved to Linienstrasse, also in the central Berlin-Mitte area

2011: Moves out of Berlin-Mitte to a new gallery in West Berlin, to open with Philippe Parreno in March

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