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Berlin galleries join forces to stay in the game

Increasing pressure to grow is pushing mid-tier galleries to find new ways to remain competitive

Two of Berlin’s leading art dealers announced in May that their businesses were to merge—a move virtually unheard of in the competitive art market.

Esther Schipper and Jörg Johnen began to discuss the merger last summer, and Schipper has now acquired the majority shareholding in Jörg Johnen GmbH. But the two galleries will operate separately for two years to allow time for an “organic development” of both structures.

“The art world is completely crazy nowadays; there is a lot of pressure to grow,” Johnen says. The merger is driven by his desire to step back while leaving his artists in good hands. “The industry is in the middle of huge, paradigmatic changes,” Schipper says. The model of the traditional Western European, mid-size gallery, which has large local support and takes part in two large fairs a year, has become untenable.

The art world was a different place when Johnen began his career as a gallerist 35 years ago. Now, production costs are much higher, he says. “I don’t have a big enough ego to create a big gallery. But as artists become more successful, they expect and need you to grow with them.”

Schipper, who has already taken part in Art Basel in Hong Kong, Arco and Frieze New York in 2015, says that she is not interested in creating a mega-gallery. Instead, she wants to preserve the legacy of Johnen’s gallery and its relationships. “If the main person who has built the relationships between artists, institutions, clients and the press is stepping down, you need someone to take over, and if the gallery wants to keep the spirit of its previous owner, it has to keep the same ethos. Often, that doesn’t happen and a gallery disappears,” she says.

The pair are on the lookout for “a bigger home” in Berlin for their artists (they have around 50 in total); whether there will be an additional project space or gallery in another city is still to be determined. But this is “a pro-Berlin decision”, where the priority is to grow and to build their presence in the German capital, Schipper says. 

Johnen and Schipper have followed each other’s work since their galleries opened in Cologne (in 1984 and 1989 respectively). “I always went to see Esther’s shows,” Johnen says. “They had a spirit I liked, and were close to what I did with my gallery.” But the dealers’ relationship is professional. “The merger doesn’t come out of a 20-year friendship,” Schipper says.

Schipper is known for finding a market for conceptual, time-based and ephemeral projects, and for being the first to exhibit work by the artists Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Philippe Parreno. She represents Thomas Demand, Pierre Huyghe and Tomás Saraceno, among others. Johnen has worked with stalwart photographers such as Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Candida Höfer since the 1980s, and his programme includes Anri Sala, Martin Creed and Tino Sehgal. Artists’ responses to the merger have been positive, Johnen says. “Most were waiting for the next step and they respect Esther’s gallery a lot.”