Shaking Up the Art Scene In ‘Self-Centered’ Berlin

By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published 26 June 1993, International Herald Tribune

Whether it is because he is new to the Berlin art world or in spite of it, the gallery owner Thomas Schulte is not shy about making his strong opinions known. He has no regrets about announcing in a podium discussion that “Berlin has more bad artists living well that any other city in the world,” a quote that has since been much repeated. “No one said I was completely wrong,” says Schulte, adding that several members of the art community outside Berlin sent him telegrams and letters of support. In Schulte’s assessment, the visual arts in postwar Berlin have existed in almost total isolation, cut off from international contacts and influences. Artists and art organizations supporting what he says can be called a Marxist approach to evaluating art have been heavily and unselectively subsidized with government money.

“It is a system that definitely existed outside of the commercial world….From my point of view, that was not in the end a big advantage for Berlin because it led to extreme self-centeredness in the art world here.”

Flipping through a special Berlin issue of the German magazine Art, which features six Berliners deemed important to the local art scene, Schulte is critical. “Some of them stand for the biggest mistakes in institutional curating in Berlin,” he said. “They receive millions of marks in public funds to arrange exhibitions, but they have practically no idea of the international art scene…and the quality is below standards expected.”

In contrast, Schulte praises the curator Rene Block, who represented the Dusseldorf artist Joseph Beuys at “the best gallery in Berlin” before taking over as director of the DAAD Gallery, a position he left last year. The DAAD Gallery displays the work of foreign artists brought to live and work in Berlin as part of the DAADacademic exchange service. The Berlin artists program was set up after the building of the Berlin Wall in an attempt to counterbalance the city’s physical and artistic isolation. Past participants include Alex Colville, Edward Kienholz and Nam June Paik.

“The artists’ program was a real link to the international art scene,” said Schulte, who believes that unified Berlin has become a more attractive and interesting place to be for both artists and gallery owners. Although Cologne remains without question the art center of Germany, two of its major gallery owners – Max Hetzler and Paul Maenz – are moving to Berlin.

They will be arriving almost three years after Schulte and his partner, Eric Franck of Gallerie Eric Franck in Geneva, opened Franck and Schulte in Berlin in 1991. Before that, Schulte, 37, had been in charge of the John Weber Gallery in New York and worked at the Museum of Modern Art as assistant curator. A German, born in Dusseldorf and educated there and in Berlin, he was fed up with working and living in New York and wanted to return to Europe.

After much deliberation, Schulte chose to set up in Berlin not only because he sees it as “the only cosmopolitan city in Germany,” but also because it gave him the chance to represent artists who would not have been available in cities with a more diverse gallery scene. Franck and Schulte’s artists include Rebecca Horn, Sol LeWitt, Richard Artschwager, Robert Mapplethorpe and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Since Berlin has not yet developed a serious art market, Franck and Schulte is relying extensively on its already existing international clientele as it tries to build local sales. Once the gallery is established, it will concentrate more on promising Berlin artists. Schulte names Maria Eichhorn, the East German Via Lewandowski and the Israeli Eran Schaerf as a few who are garnering attention.

As another project, Schulte has proposed that Berlin build a gallery house along the lines of the 420 West Broadway Building in New York, which houses different galleries on every floor and which was emulated by Hetzler and others in Cologne. Ideally, the house would be situated in eastern Berlin or close to where the Wall used to stand. Galleries in Berlin are scattered throughout town and such a location would provide easy access to the National Gallery, Museum Island and the Martin Gropius exhibition hall.

Schulte says that with limited financial support from the Berlin Senate, a gallery house could become a reality in three years. But having been such an outspoken critic of Berlin’s subsidies, Berliners’ dependence on them and the city’s nonmarket-oriented art policies, Schulte is careful to point out that the kind of financial help he is advocating is a different type.

Instead of giving so much grant money to artists and entrenched institutions, he favors programs such as lending money to people buying works of art. He would also like to see money given to qualifying galleries to help them hold important individual exhibitions.

Berlin is still trying to figure out just how much the unified city can afford to spend on culture, including the visual arts. Many cultural institutions still exist in duplicate in east and west.

Along with several others, Schulte is calling for an in-depth study to examine the roles of Berlin’s museums, art academies, art schools, art unions and private galleries, and suggest how they can best serve their own and each other’s needs.

“I think there’s a lot of money being spent here unwisely at the moment,” he said. “Whatever’s being spent should be spent, but we should really look at these institutions and where the money goes and what we are spending it for.”

Tell us what you really think