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The paradoxes of the German market

[13 Sep 2016]

Twenty years ago Berlin was internationally recognised as an eldorado for art galleries and artists. The city radiated an atmosphere of tremendous vitality and incommensurate freedom and with lots of huge spaces for artistic expression. The Berlin of the 1990s is remembered as an unparalleled creative laboratory… a sort of giant uninterrupted party with a chaotic mix of art of all genres, full of experimental venues and “ephemeral” galleries in unlikely buildings, often totally improvised. Berlin’s arty ambience was a breath of fresh air, attracting lots of young artists seduced by the city’s spacious and cheap studios, as well as a good number of artists who had already achieved international recognition like Olafur ELIASSON, Thomas DEMANDAnri SALA and Tacita DEAN. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Berlin was the place to be in Europe for the younger generation of Contemporary artists. However, things have changed significantly over the past decade.

First of all, the bohemian spirit seems to have diminished somewhat over time, with inevitable criticisms that the city is becoming “gentrified”. The most famous artists squat in Berlin, the Tacheles (meaning outspoken in Yiddish) — occupied shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall — was forced to close in 2012 despite attracting 400,000 visitors a year. With the eviction of its squatter-artists following a surge in property prices, Berlin’s chaotic charm has considerably waned; but the Berlin art scene is not dead yet. There are still alternative venues like the Haus Schwarzenberg, the RAW-Tempel and Kastanienallee 86. Meanwhile, from a market perspective, Berlin has become much more “professional” with a number of powerful galleries opening in the city since the early 2000s, like Galerie Michael Janssen, the Konrad Fischer Gallery, Galerie Jablonka. The latter, in particular, has worked with Nobuyoshi Araki, Miquel Barcelo, Francesco Clemente, Mike Kelley, David Lachapelle and Richard Prince… all art market heavyweights. Another major gallery (that we see at all the major international art fairs) is Johann König who works with around thirty artists including Tatiana Trouvé, Erwin Wurm and Camille Henrot. With the city’s arty squats disappearing, Berlin’s artistic hotspots have moved to the Hamburger Bahnhof district and to the C/O Gallery… large spaces put to very interesting uses.

With its large-scale exhibitions and its internationally recognised artists, the new Berlin wants to foster its cultural influence and is seeking — along with Munich and Cologne — ways of ensuring it doesn’t miss the art market’s globalization train. Of course, Berlin has its own art Biennale (organized by KW Institute for Contemporary Art in September) and fairs, including Position Berlin (also in September with 74 galleries). But these events don’t quite attract the international audience that major biennales and fairs in other European countries like Italy or France attract. So, in order to vitalize the local art market, Berlin’s cultural luminaries organise artistic events such as Art Berlin Contemporary and Xpositions, two rendezvous that associate the strengths of various different galleries in the city and produce a joint marketing impact.

In fact, although Berlin is rich in terms of its cultural offer, the local market lacks power, a fact reflected by the country’s fifth place in the global ranking of national marketplace for annual Fine Art auction turnover. Fifth place is not bad; but it represents only 2% of global Fine Art auction sales, and it could be a lot stronger considering that some German artists fetch prices on a par with top-notch American artists, particularly its ‘historic’ 20th century artists like Ernst Ludwig KIRCHNER, Max ERNST, Emil NOLDE and Josef ALBERS. In addition, a number of the country’s Post-War and Contemporary artists rank among the world’s 500 most successful artists by auction turnover, including Neo RAUCH (born 1960), Martin KIPPENBERGER (1953-1997), Albert OEHLEN (born 1954), Thomas STRUTH (born 1954), Thomas SCHÜTTE (born 1954), Jörg IMMENDORFF (1945-2007), Sterling RUBY (born 1972) and of course Gerhard RICHTER (born 1932).
Unfortunately, as we see all over the world, market success can have the reverse effect on a local market, and Germany has not yet escaped this cruel market reality: the higher the prices that German artists fetch, the more likely they are to be sold abroad. Nonetheless, with Germany’s immense ‘historic’ and Contemporary artists being widely sought after throughout the world, its home-grown auction companies have a significant potential lever for augmenting their prestige and their market pull.

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