The Price of Cool: Berlin's Struggling Artists Demand Share of the Pie

By Tobias Rapp

Part 2: A (Temporary) New Identity

But, then again, Berlin is a city for which the arts are probably more important than they are for any other major European city. This isn't because other cities fail to appreciate the arts, but simply because Berlin has little else to boast about. The city has no financial industry, little in the way of media and next to no other industries. Indeed, if you're looking for the source of Germany's prosperity, you're forced to look elsewhere.

Both Cultural Affairs Senator Schmitz and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit are lucky that this city has at least temporarily found a new identity. Berlin has long since outgrown its role as the newly reunified city, where East and West clashed and a lack of clear property ownership opened up space for both artistic creativity and capitalist greed.

No, this is the Berlin that comes after. After the economic megalomania of the post-reunification years and rapid deindustrialization, after a period of ever-increasing debt, the city has rediscovered itself as a creative center and cultural mecca.

Still, the main protagonists of this new city are its newer residents. Since German reunification in 1990, the capital has seen about half of its population leave and be replaced by newcomers. If theaters, operas and museums are looking to be places of middle-class self-awareness, this raises the question of which middle class is meant. Is it the "Wilmersdorf widows" (a stereotype for conservative West Berliners), the yuppies from southern Germany who have gradually repopulated the trendy eastern district of Prenzlauer Berg and supposedly stripped it of its former edge, the Turkish middle class in Kreuzberg, the international community of artists or the residents of the government quarter?

The city's Senate has benefited from a particular aspect of Berlin's desirability, though this is a benefit that simply fell into the Senate's lap: A lack of capital investment in the city's more central urban districts made it particularly attractive to people looking for a place to experiment. Though the Senate and city's administration can't take credit for the tremendous success story that resulted, they have certainly managed it well.

Presenting Shared Demands

However, this surge is now losing force. There are no longer as many empty spaces and buildings available to the bohemian arts scene as there were even a few years ago, and rents have risen considerably.

Now the resistance has begun -- and it's making demands. In recent weeks, independent arts groups have managed for the first time to team up, present a united front and formulate their shared demands for cultural policies. Usually notoriously at odds with each another, such diverse groups as the highly acclaimed alternative Neukölln Opera, the Sophiensäle independent theater, the Tanzwerkstatt ("Dance Workshop") and the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst ("New Society for Visual Arts"), as well as many others, have joined forces.

They are circulating an open letter demanding that its signatory organizations receive at least half of the income generated by the so-called "city tax," a special tax the Senate plans to begin charging tourists. The protesters also want a set minimum for artists' fees and their own studio spaces. Most of these groups have international contacts and work at a professional level similar to that of the large, highly subsidized institutions -- but for a fraction of the money.

Making Way for the New and Exciting

The various threads of this protest converge in Jochen Sandig, director of Radialsystem V, a respected arts center established a few years ago on the bank of the Spree River with private funding that is home to a number of artistic groups, such as Sasha Waltz's renowned dance company. So far, none of the protesters have been calling for a theater or museum to be shut down. But Sandig makes it clear that the spaces housing established arts institutions are understandably coveted objects, especially now that vacant buildings are no longer so easy to find. To explain the situation, he uses the analogy of hardware and software: No one is looking to turn off the hardware, he says, but he would certainly like to see the buildings allowed to use different software.

State Secretary Schmitz knows that these calls are not unjustified, and that the most cutting-edge performances tend to take place outside the large institutions. Schmitz himself mentions the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theater, under the direction of Matthias Lilienthal, for having developed into a "space for discourse on global, ethical and urban questions." He also cites the "post-migrant" theater Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, founded by Shermin Langhoff in the Kreuzberg district, an area with a strong immigrant influence, as well as the Maxim Gorki Theater, which brings classics into the modern day under Armin Petras' direction.

In its own way, each of these theaters is trying to open itself up to the rapid change taking place in the city. HAU operates without a set ensemble, providing performance space to hundreds of groups, from pop performance artist Peaches to South African dance theater groups. To celebrate the end of its current season, the theater is organizing a "global exhibit" of the arts, in the park created on the former grounds of Tempelhof Airport.

Could Germany Follow the Dutch Path?

HAU, Ballhaus Naunynstrasse and the Maxim Gorki Theater are all losing their artistic directors at the end of this season. Petras and Langhoff are both moving to other cities -- in part because they consider their theaters underfinanced. Regardless of what Schmitz might suggest to the contrary, this is where Berlin comes up against its limits.

Indeed, there's a deep-seated fear within the German arts scene that the country might go the same way as the Netherlands, where the current center-right coalition government slashed the country's arts budget last year. Likewise, pessimists fear that the theses presented in the "Kulturinfarkt" book could provide a rationale for doing the same in Germany.

In any case, for a few years at least, Berlin's arts policies successfully fed the illusion that it is possible to change as little as possible of what already exists while simultaneously basking in the glow of the new.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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