Photo Gallery: Can Berlin Have Its Cake and Eat It Too?

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Berlin's Culture War Debate Pits Modern Art against Old Masters

All summer long, a heated debate has simmered in Berlin over the future of its world-famous collection of Old Masters paintings. The city wants to move the Gemäldegalerie to make room for a modern art museum that would rival MOMA. Critics say it will cause at least half of one of Europe's most important art collections to be put in storage for years.

It may have a few glaring omissions in its collection -- there is, for example, not a single Leonardo da Vinci -- but Berlin's Gemäldegalerie can still hold its own against the best of Europe's classical collections. Any talk of moving or splitting the works quickly stirs up passions in the German capital.

The Feuilletons, or culture pages, of Germany's newspapers have been brimming with a heated debate this summer over the future of the Old Masters. Following a wave of public outcry from prominent intellectuals, the city is reconsidering plans to move its 3,000-strong Gemäldegalerie collection out of its current home near Potsdamer Platz.

Spanning five centuries and including important European works by Vermeer, Brueghel, Caravaggio and Hans Holbein the Younger, the Gemäldegalerie collection of paintings was to be moved to a much smaller space on the city's Museuminsel, or Museum Island, to make way for a new museum of 20th-century art, including works from the private collection of German billionaire industrialist Heiner Pietzsch and his wife Ulla.

Earlier this week, the Prussian Cultural Foundation, which operates many of the city's top museums and is in charge of the proposed move, announced the commission of a feasibility study to weigh various alternatives. "Against the background of the controversial debate, it is a question on the one hand of developing an appropriate opportunity for exhibiting the Old Masters and on the other, of doing justice to the Nationalgalerie's 20th-century collection and the inclusion of the Pietzsch collection." The foundation is still standing behind its position to move the collection, but the study could slow or possibly end those plans.

Closing Berlin's Modern Art Gap

The saga began in 2010, when the Pietzsches put some 150 surrealist and abstract expressionist pieces, including major works by Max Ernst, René Magritte and Joan Miró, on permanent loan to the city on the condition they would be displayed together with the city's other modern holdings. In effect, this would mean the establishment of a full-fledged modern art museum for Berlin, a project that has been discussed in the city for over a decade.

The Pietzsches have been major players in the Berlin art scene for years. In 2009, the couple loaned their collection to the Neue Nationalgalerie for the show "Bilderträume," which drew some 200,000 visitors and prompted their decision to donate the works to the city. The €150 million ($195.5 million) donation, Pietzsch points out, closes the gap of expressionist and surrealist works seized by the Nazis during their "degenerate art" purge.

Together with the works from the Mies van der Rohe-designed Neue Nationalgalerie and the Erich Marx collection, currently exhibited at the Hamburger Bahnhof, they would constitute a modern collection on par with the MoMA in New York. The problem is lack of space. The Neue Nationalgalerie does not even have room to exhibit its own permanent collection -- including works by Max Beckmann, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter -- most of which is currently kept in storage.

The city announced in June that the Pietzsch works would be moved to the current Gemäldegalerie, at the Kulturforum arts complex near Potsdamer Platz. Officials spoke of vague plans for a €150 million extension to the Bode Museum that could fully accommodate the Old Masters and transform the city's UNESCO-listed Museum Island into a world-class location comparable to the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi in Florence or the Metropolitan in New York. Yet no funding or timeline for the project was released. Until the Bode extension was complete, said the city, only about half of the currently exhibited Gemäldegalerie would be on display. The rest would be placed in storage.

What followed was a public fracas that divided the city's art world and saw accusations slung across institutional and national boundaries. The Association of German Art Historians argued in an open letter to Germany's federal commissioner for culture and the media, Bernd Neumann, that the plans were "unjustifiable" and "irresponsible on conservation grounds."

'The Gemäldegalerie Killer'

Others complained that the Gemäldegalerie's current building, designed by Munich architects Heinz Hilmer and Christoph Sattler, was perfectly suited to house the Masters. In the words of Niklas Maak of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, using the Gemäldegalerie for 20th-century modern works would be "like using a Rolls Royce as a delivery van for veggies."

Soon, newspapers throughout Germany were calling Pietzsch the "Gemäldegalerie Killer," claiming the 82-year-old and his wife strong-armed the city into pushing aside the older works. The protracted battle, which the city's state secretary for culture, André Schmitz, called "irritating summer theater" in an August article in the daily Die Welt, has threatened to derail the acquisition.

"Instead of all of this arguing, a decision is indispensible," says Pietzsch, who made his fortune in wholesale synthetics. "Let's stick to the facts," he continues, "if the condition that our collection is exhibited in the context of a 20th century museum is not met, we will cancel the donation contract."

Following this week's decision to conduct a feasibility study, it could take some time before the city fulfils that obligation. "We will not close the Gemäldegalerie until there is a reliable action plan and financing in place for the expansion of the Bode Museum," insists Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, who has been on the defensive since the announcement of the move. "Should a portion of the Gemäldegalerie be placed in storage, this would be for a brief period, not 'indefinitely'," he says.

Berlin To Consider Alternatives

Now, in what seems to be a capitulation to the outspoken criticism of the project, the foundation is considering other alternatives, including waiting until the Bode extension is complete before moving the Old Masters, building a new 20th-century art museum and the original plan of partially displaying the Gemäldegalerie collection at the Bode while the extension is in progress.

"It is gratifying to see that the foundation is taking steps to respond to its critics in a constructive fashion," says Jeffrey Hamburger, a professor of German art and culture at Harvard University who began a petition opposing the proposed move that at the time of publication has over 13,000 signatures. "Their willingness to explore alternatives represents progress," he adds, "albeit compromised by their statement that they are doing so 'in order to avoid any appearance of hasty decisions. One is left to wonder what the need for such a study at this late date says about the years of planning that supposedly took place previously."

In his petition, Hamburger said it would be a "tragedy" if parts of "one of the world's premier collections of Old Master paintings" were to disappear into storage, even if only for six years until the Bode extension could be completed. "In the current political and economic climate, and with stiff competition for funding from politically more expedient, if culturally more dubious Stadtschloss, we fear that six years could easily become a decade or more." The Stadtschloss Hamburger refers to is the city's plan to rebuild Berlin's city palace, heavily damaged in World War II and destroyed by East German officials later, on property neighboring the Museum Island complex at a cost of more than a half-billion euros.

City culture officials appear to be concerned about the damage the debate is causing to their image. "None of us wants to go down in history as the one who put half of the Gemäldegalerie in storage indefinitely," says Julien Chapuis, head of the Sculpture Collection at the Bode Museum and one of the key figures behind the museum's planned extension. "We have said 20 times we will not do anything at the expense of the Old Masters. What we want is to create the ideal situation for all collections involved."

Four Homes in Less than 200 Years

The current Gemäldegalerie is actually the fourth home of the Old Masters, which have been moved more than nearly any other major European collection. They were originally exhibited in 1830 in Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Altes Museum (then the Royal Museum), the first art space in Germany that was designed as a public institution. After expanding the museum's collection of renaissance and medieval pieces, influential curator William Bode opened a new institution, the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum -- now the Bode Museum -- and the Old Masters found their second home. There, paintings, furniture and decorative arts from the 13th-18th centuries were assembled under one roof in an integrative approach that was largely unprecedented at the time.

After World War II, the Old Masters were divided by the Berlin Wall, split between the Bode Museum in what became the east, and a temporary exhibition space in Dahlem, a western suburban district of Berlin. In contrast to the current controversy, public opinion at the time of reunification strongly favored a return of the Old Masters to their historical home at the Bode. Yet Wolf-Dieter Dube, the then director-general of the State Museums of Berlin, pushed through his plans to move the collection to the Kulturforum, a modernist complex that had been West Berlin's answer to Museum Island. The Gemäldegalerie has resided in a building built especially for the collection since 1998.

That left Berlin with a collection split between Museum Island and the Kulturforum -- and no proper home for its 20th-century art. At stake now are competing views about what Berlin's future museum landscape should look like.

Funding for the feasibility study comes from the €10 million that Culture Minister Bernd Neumann allotted to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to convert the Gemäldegalerie into a modern art museum. The results of the study are expected to be released in spring 2013.

"We are taking the criticism very seriously," says Chapuis. He adds, "In a sense, the one positive thing to come out of this is that anyone who doubted that Old Masters were popular, I think this shows those doubts were unfounded."

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