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Monday, 5 October 2015

Berlin art scene boasts €700m annual turnover, 6,600 jobs

By Andrew Mulenga

The bustling crowd scenes during the multiple opening events – more than 40 on Wednesday 15 September alone – at the just ended 4th Berlin Art Week evoked an impression of locusts, swarms of them devouring everything in their path.
From the elite VIP black tie opening event of Xenopolis, an exhibition at the Deutsche Bank through to the ABC – Art Berlin Contemporary Fair, that had around 100 galleries from 17 countries exhibiting and selling art in listed halls of a former railway station and also Positions Berlin Art Fair which had 78 exhibitors from 16 countries among other venues, Berlin Art Week is in essence too much to take in or even explore in the 5 days that it is run.

In six days the event attracted more than 100,000
visitors (Photo-Edgar Berendsen)
For the ABC event alone – which had an entry fee of €20 for the opening and €12 for the daily shows -- official statistics show that in the first four days around 30,000 visitors came to the venue alone which included national and international collectors, curators, artists and representatives of museums and art institutions also about 700 guests attended panel discussions that dealt with current issues in the art market and in the 6 days of the combined events, more than 100,000 visitors were in attendance.

Honestly, sifting through the crowds it was easy to get lost in the din, the free flowing champagne and beer, the odd finger snack too and forget why you are there in the first place, to view art. It must be noted, that as organized as it may appear, art patronage in Germany is somewhat complex, with contributors from diverse subdivisions within the public and private sector. Berlin Art Week for instance, was made possible by the Senate of Berlin through its department for Administration for Economy, Technology, and Research. In fact, in the official catalogue for the Berlin Art Week 2015, department Permanent Secretary Guido Beerman gives an insightful analysis not only into the fair but also into the art industry that is the city of Berlin.

“In Berlin there are more than 400 galleries, more than in any other German city. There are over 2,600 active companies within the Berlin art world, with over 6,600 employees, generating a turnover of 700 million euros per year. This means that the entire German turnover for art objects is made here,” he states “The Berlin Art Week is an excellent platform to show itself as being the location with the largest amount of galleries and art production”.

And addressing an international group of curators, gallerists and art critics during a lunch meeting, Michael Reiffenstuel, Deputy Director-General for Culture and Communication at the German Federal Foreign Office explained that his government intends to use the expertise and life experiences of artists and civil society for development.

Vistors at the ABC venue, a converted railway station
that housed around 100 galleries from 17 countries
exhibiting and selling art (Photo - Marco Funke)
“We are looking at the ability of culture and creativity to define a new cultural order, we are trying to increase the cooperation between artists and scientists to explore solutions to environmental challenges,” added Reiffenstuel, who also gave the guests a guided tour of the AArtist in Residence exhibition as part of Berlin Art Week. The Foreign office invites a local artist to live and work at its premises and eventually exhibit the work there.

The group addressed by Reiffenstuel, which visited invited to Germany by the federal government through the Goethe Institute comprised cultural experts from countries as varied as Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Zambia to name a few, was also informed that Germany is seriously looking into more ways of reaching out to the rest of the world by means of increased cultural exchange vis-à-vis, artists exchange programmes.

Nevertheless, addressing the group earlier, at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Vlado Velvok, a lecturer at the Weissensee Art Academy in Berlin gave further insights into the importance of the arts within German culture, in a lecture entitled “The German art scene and reflections on the Berlin Art Fair”. In the talk, he also an overview of how the arts are funded and organized in Germany.

“When I came here 16 years ago, Berlin was very different, I’m always asked what it that brings people to Berlin is, and I say it’s the artists. People have been coming in in waves since the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, that’s when we had the first wave, but the city changes constantly you always have to be on your toes or you will be left behind” explained Velvok who is originally from Bulgaria, but moved to the city at the end of the cold war and unification of Germany.
He explained that after the fall of the berlin wall, a lot of buildings on the eastern side of the city were abandoned and left empty, as people moved to the western half, as a result, groups of young artists started occupying these spaces, breathing life back into dead areas which would later develop into arts districts attracting other inhabitants, businesses such as hotels and shopping malls, and when this happened, the artists felt infiltrated and would move to a different space, almost in a nomadic pattern. What was happening in turn was that art was in fact healing dead parts of the city, bringing them, back to life.

“The rent in these buildings was very cheap and the spaces very big and ideal for studio, gallery or performance spaces in Berlin,” he added.

Velvok, who is also a practicing artist apart from being an academic, indicated that artists in Berlin did not flourish in a vacuum but there has been constant and generous support through organised public and private funding.

Art school graduates as well as individuals who work in the creative industries are eligible for a wide range of financial assistance from the German government and that merely the show of a university degree from an art school officially guaranteed you to be labelled a “professional” artist meaning artistic grants and scholarships and can continue receiving benefits from the state, applying for a government grant is the equivalent of applying for a job. Ultimately by so doing, the German government has enviably tackled a thread of unemployment.

In Germany all arts funding is administered on two levels, municipal and state. This is because through research, it has been observed that local arts administrator know the interests of their communities better, they also know the quality and needs of the artists who live there.

Each city administration has an arts ministry that distributes the funding for the local institutions and artists, the cultural minister is often an elected official and usually has professional training in arts administration and is likewise assisted by a staff of specialists for each genre, such as visual arts, dance, music, theatre and film or photography. Independent artists make applications for funding and the decisions are made by the specialists, often with the advice of a jury of the artist's peers.

But this token of German generosity towards the arts also spreads beyond municipalities, states and borders, Zambia’s very own Stary Mwaba spent a whole year in the creative hub of Berlin where he was equipped with a full studio at the celebrated Künstlerhaus Bethanien, where he also got to exhibit among accomplished international artists. This was no mean achievement for Mwaba as he was the only one from the African continent.

Of course the intricacies of the Berlin Art Week and by extension the German art scene cannot be grasped within the space of 6 days, but visiting from a country that is artistically fragmented as Zambia with an equally unappreciated, uncoordinated and unacknowledged creative industry where artistes are left to wallow aimlessly in their creativity with no hope of private or corporate support, one can do nothing but reflect on the German art scene filled with an intense surge of jealousy, imagining how many lives could change for the better with just a fraction of such support and commitment from government. But perhaps things are about to change following President Edgar Lungu’s address to parliament on Friday last week.

“To further promote tourism, the minister responsible for tourism and arts will bring to this house the arts, culture and heritage bill aimed at harmonising institutional arrangements in arts, culture and heritage to reduce overheads and promote cost effectiveness,” read Lungu in part of his speech.

Frankly, an abridged version of the German arts administration model would work well in the implementation of Lungu’s new artistic vision which means the ministry and departments involved will have to employ people from an arts, tourism and heritage background. While a hand full of such individuals do exist, the general administration in Zambia’s potential creative sector are not artistically literate, they are also aesthetically blind and worse still, they do not see the arts as an industry, as for tourism, they see nothing beyond the Victoria falls or individual trips to allowance-inspired tourism conferences.

Nevertheless, a last note on Berlin, in case you find yourself there somehow, as an English speaker, you will be shocked that almost everybody speaks English, perhaps even better than you, also most signs have English translations as well as train, bus and aeroplane announcements, and if you visit the city with the preconceived notion that Germans are austere by character, you will get a rude shock at their warmth. Speaking of German hospitality, media reports indicate that the country is at the centre of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis because it has been the key player in offering favourable conditions of refuge that better any other European country, which is why for the refugees, all roads lead to Germany.

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