What draws you to an art gallery

On the situation of the Berlin galleries : The precarious business with glamor

Everyone takes pictures of these insect boxes. Colorful butterflies and beetles, made of bottle caps, wires and found scrap, pricked on and behind glass. Gallery owner Werner Tammen is happy. Matthias Garff is his artist, whose sculptures are sold in Tammen's Berlin gallery, and now he has brought them to the “Positions Art Fair” at Tempelhof Airport.

The boxes come in many sizes, the small ones for 400 euros. The largest, two meters wide, for 15,000 euros. Tammen will have sold them all that evening. So with this fair he will not make a loss. It's never safe.

180 galleries were moved to hangars 4 to 6 at the former airport in September. You can already see from this: The art business is going well. It was “Berlin Art Week”, a festival that is proclaimed every autumn.

During that week, financially supported by the cultural and economic senate administration, they want to show what the city has to offer in terms of art: museums, independent scene, clubs, 8000 artists from all over the world. Anyone on one of the VIP lists is invited to a studio visit and can drive to hidden project rooms in an electric limousine.

Next door in hangars 5 and 6 at the “art berlin” art fair, the galleries that are even more international and more expensive than those at “Positions” are exhibiting. The visitors, who have already been invited to the exclusive Collectors Preview before the opening, come well dressed, with chic skirts, fine jackets and eye-catching shoes.

Where are the very rich collectors?

Later there will be a party on the tarmac. One on one side, the other on the other. The wind occasionally carries a few scraps of music back and forth between the two masses. At “art berlin”, ice cubes clatter in long drink glasses, a queer band sings in Brazilian. Nevertheless, afterwards it will be said: predominantly local audience. Heavily wealthy collectors from America and the Middle East, like you saw a few years ago? Barely.

The city's art scene is known beyond the borders of Europe: It is considered experimental, open, and open to discourse. Berlin politicians and Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters emphasize it on a number of occasions: culture is a positive success factor for Berlin.

Beyond the established museums and institutions, creativity is discharged in countless projects. This favors tourism and attracts startups - a benefit for the city.

That is exactly how the gallery owners Werner Tammen and Andreas Herrmann see it. As members of the board of directors in the regional association of Berlin galleries, they fight to ensure that it is recognized that commercial galleries also make a cultural contribution to the city.

[Our new newsletter BERLINER - Art brings the most important things from the art capital every 14 days. Register now at: www.tagesspiegel.de/berliner-kunst]

Most gallery owners advise against their job

They build young artists, sell their works, talk tirelessly with collectors, and organize 3,000 free exhibitions a year. It can take ten to 15 years for a young artist to establish himself on the market. Until then, a gallery owner will spend an average of 250,000 euros on him.

"The situation is alarming," said Andreas Herrmann a few weeks ago at an event in a Charlottenburg gallery. The new representative survey conducted by the regional association among 100 galleries of all sizes and ages shows that only a few have real glamor. 41 percent of the galleries generate less than 100,000 euros in sales per year. If you deduct the costs for rooms, staff and trade fair participation, many of them can hardly make a living from it. But there is also dissatisfaction among those who implement significantly more. 85 percent of Berlin gallery owners said they would not take this career path a second time.

Further results of the gallery study:

  • When asked about the three biggest problems faced by the galleries, 81 percent of the galleries surveyed named the increase in VAT for works of art from 7 to 19 percent.
  • Around 50 percent consider rental costs to be one of the biggest problems.
  • For 45 percent, this also includes the museums' lack of purchasing budgets.
  • In 2011, when the lvbg last asked Berlin galleries about their situation, there was talk of over 450 Berlin art galleries. According to the new count, there are 339.

And this here, where many can still remember the euphoria that came over the city in waves of gallery foundings and hearts since the early years after the reunification - via Mitte, the "old" Charlottenburg, Kreuzberg - and waves of public attention too. For a long time it seemed as if this should go on forever, as if it were taken for granted.

So is the situation of the Berlin galleries really that bad? We asked the very small and also slightly larger ones: What is gallery work anyway - beyond the vernissage with sparkling wine and smartly dressed guests?

Awarded, but unsuccessful

Often it is now a yawning empty room. "The vernissages are full, as are the evenings where artist talks take place, otherwise hardly anyone comes," says the owner of the Hunchentoot gallery in Prenzlauer Berg. He would like his name not to be mentioned in the newspaper because he has: a main job that he needs to live.

And don't want any of his clients to think that he is not fully focused on the matter because he still runs a gallery.

It is one of those who is not economically viable, he makes less than 50,000 euros in annual sales with his artists, who, like graphic artist Philipp Hennevogl, who has received several awards for his linocuts, are recognized by institutions.

Hunchentoot has been on the market for twelve years, has presented itself in various cities with the help of the trade fair program of the Berlin Economic Senate Administration, and has also received an award. “None of this had a lasting effect,” says the man. Since March he has been running the gallery on the back burner, "I no longer do exhibitions, no longer take part in trade fairs."

For 64 percent of the galleries, the fair costs are among the greatest burdens, according to the study by the State Association of Galleries. “Participation in a trade fair costs 10,000, more like 20,000 euros with a stand, set-up, transport and personnel,” explains the Hunchentoot manager.

Not everyone also sells something at the art fair

"For me, the last time fair meant renting a seal, driving the pictures to the fair - and taking most of them back with me on Sunday evening." the mini-gallery owner to buy interested customers, even if he only took part in one of the side fairs.

Those days are over. The current Berlin art fairs can't do just that. Galleries in particular that promote and establish young artists have closed down in Berlin in recent years.

Christian Gräff, economic policy spokesman for the CDU parliamentary group, shares the concern that small and medium-sized businesses are being lost in the creative industries. “When it comes to business development, we always look at the following: How many jobs can be created here?

The galleries share the suffering of the retail trade. He has never received funding in Berlin either. ”Gräff is in favor of structural funding for the galleries - for example in the form of assistance in finding affordable premises.

Economic development? So, as a consequence, is it tax money that goes to marketers and ultimately to artists? Gräff explicitly does not speak of it, he said "structural funding". But the demands for public money or some other distribution of this money have long existed.

Collecting customers abroad

The boxes didn't arrive. They got stuck somewhere on the way from the Texas desert to Berlin. "Can happen," says gallery owner Michael Ruiz. It still annoyed him. The invitations for the exhibition with Dustin Pevey, an American painter, had already been sent.

But because the paintings didn't make it to Ruiz's gallery on Schöneberger Ufer in time, he had to show the guests something else for Berlin Art Week, the big autumn event. When he opened a week later with the brand new Pevey pictures, the gallery was empty.

It's a Friday evening. So there is no big premium in Berlin for Pevey, who was born in 1980.

And no big business for Ruiz either. He takes it with composure, his business takes place elsewhere anyway. Ruiz's customers are from New York, London, Asia. A year ago he opened a branch in Mexico City, a small room with a large roof terrace in a building named after Humboldt.

The mainstay in the 21 million-inhabitant metropolitan area has brought new energy into the program and aroused interest, also in Germany, says Ruiz.

The vernissages are full, after that it gets thin

“It was clear to me from the start that the gallery would not work if I only rely on the collectors in Germany or Berlin. I wouldn't survive just selling to these customers, ”he says. Although the vernissages are full, there are hardly any visitors to the gallery who really buy.

Ruiz used to be an artist himself, he did his master class at the Berlin University of the Arts. He was on the verge of moving to a major Parisian gallery when he organized the first exhibition in his Kreuzberg apartment in 2013.

From then on he no longer wanted to make art himself, but instead wanted to support others. He opens the Future Gallery and represents artists from his generation. Their common theme is the internet and digital culture.

Spiros Hadjidjanos from Greece, like Ruiz, studied at the University of the Arts and uses art and technology to make visible how data streams flow or what a historical plant photograph looks like as a 3-D print.

No big financial backer, set up small

One of the first articles published on Hadjidjanos appeared in a computer magazine. In his latest sculptural pictures, he used a high-tech machine that prints out ink in 360 degrees.

Ruiz 'Future Gallery is a typical example of the kind of gallery that is having a particularly difficult time at the moment: no big financial backing, with two small employees, the program young, experimental, in need of explanation.

The kind of art to which Berlin owes its reputation as a place of exciting discovery. But: a risky strategy. All of the artists in Ruiz's program are at the beginning of their careers. Nobody brings money reliably.

Ruiz brings them into discussion with curators, recommends, explains and tries to place them in collections and institutions. It may take a while, but once the Center Pompidou has bought it, the collectors will too.

He wouldn't necessarily recommend the job to a friend either, says Ruiz. You work hard: tax, office, logistics, archive, he is responsible for everything. And of course collectors also want to be accompanied to dinner and drinks. Ruiz has to generate at least 250,000 euros in annual sales to make it through.

Art actually fits the start-up clientele perfectly

Actually, the art he shows would be a perfect fit for the startup clientele who are now moving to Berlin and are making good money. So far, however, hardly any new art buyers have come from the scene. “It takes time,” says Ruiz. "As in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, it took years of development work for the startup people to notice the art scene."

At the moment, Ruiz finds the Berlin scene a bit sluggish. “You could support each other, promote the location together, lure collectors into the city.” But what he lacks is the dialogue with other gallery owners. At the prestigious “Gallery Weekend” in spring, the second big event in the city, which a group of renowned Berlin gallery owners established in 2005, only those invited by the organizers are allowed to take part in the official program. Ruiz has never been.

He still profited because a company boss who was in town for the weekend walked into his office and bought something. He has already successfully taken part in the trade fair, but deliberately not this year. “The Berlin trade fairs don't bring me anything,” he says. And his suggestion to include a gallery swap with lesser-known galleries in the supporting program was "not very friendly" rejected.

"There are just too many trade fairs, too many biennials, too many galleries"

The Zak Branicka gallery has made a good name for itself in Berlin over the past twelve years and was present at the “Gallery Weekend” and the trade fairs. It has recently ceased to exist. Instead, Zak Branicka continues as a foundation. The way they started.

Asia Zak Persons and Monicka Branicka joined forces in 2007 to make the action and conceptual art from Poland and other Eastern European countries known in this country, fueled by everyday life and lack. And because they had to finance their activities, they founded a private art gallery at that time.

Both were newcomers to the business, they had hardly any money or family roots in the art trade. But their plan worked, artists presented by them such as Zofia Kulik, Jaroslaw Kozlowski or Ryszard Wasko are now represented in collections and have museum exhibitions.

The video artist Agnieszka Polska, who was born in Lublin in 1985 and who she supervised as a student, won the National Gallery Prize in 2017 and has been of interest to large galleries and institutions since then. The successful development work is now also your problem: It cannot go any further in a market that is concentrated on a few global players.

Galleries invest a lot in young artists. And then they shut up

“We have been thinking about how to continue for some time,” says Zak Persons in the gallery's office in Kreuzberg's Lindenstrasse. "You can either be small and very distinctive, what we were, or you can be very big."

If the artists have only reached a certain point, exhibitions in a small gallery will not help them. Then they need appearances in museums or, like the young Polska, a large, international gallery.

To be such, "we would have to invest a lot of money and bring famous and very expensive artists into the gallery and open branches in America and Asia," says Zak Persons. If you now look after the estates of your Eastern European artists with the foundation, research, digitize and make them fit for the future, you can at least apply for funding.

And the artists who want to sell them on to their collectors integrate them into the gallery of Zak Person's husband.

Berlin institutions hardly ever buy art

“Our problem in Berlin has always been that the institutions” - museums, administrations, government bodies, universities, corporate foundations - “don't buy.

In twelve years, no Berlin institution has bought from us, ”says Zak Persons. That is different in other countries, in France for example, in Scandinavia. Such a commitment is essential, especially for socially relevant, critical art that does not fit into the living room.

And there is another problem: “There are too many trade fairs, too many biennials, too many galleries, interested parties buy less, only one work, not five more.” Berlin used to be a must for collectors. Now there are many other destinations too. “A collector may come to Berlin this year, but not for the next two years,” says Zak Persons.

Although she also observes “more rich people in the city”, this has hardly any effect on sales. “90 percent of our business is a trade fair,” says Zak Persons. "We are now at a point where people hardly ever get into the galleries."

High proceeds, little profit

Make yourself smaller in order to grow up - that is also the strategy of the gallery owners Stefanie Feldbusch, Andreas Wiesner and Jette Rudolph. Three years ago they made one out of their two galleries. The three have thrown together and consolidated their contacts and their lists of artists.

Now they are jointly exhibiting on Jägerstrasse between ministries and construction sites, currently the wooden sculptures carved from walnut by the South African artist Wim Botha.

"It is an incredible effort to run a gallery in the price segment in which we work - from 2000 to 50,000 euros - successfully and economically," says Feldbusch, who is the business economist in the team. The prices for works of art often sound high. After deducting all costs, there isn't much left over.

“The other day someone asked if he could buy a stone sculpture painted with tiny handwriting that was supposed to cost 12,000 euros for half the price. We then calculated for him that the artist's hourly wage would still be one euro. "

Nobody buys just like that anymore

Feldbusch and Rudolph observe how the spheres of the art dealers are drifting more and more apart. In the upper price segment, collectors often see art as an investment that has to be worthwhile. So they don't buy medium sized artists from medium sized galleries.

"We have to open up completely new, own customer groups," says Feldbusch. The fact that painting almost sells itself, as it did a few years ago, is over.

They also know the problem that fewer visitors come to the gallery. "A lot of people look at the artist portfolios at home on the computer," says Jette Rudolph. Now they are thinking about shortening the opening times and bringing people into the gallery with targeted events in the future.

After the trade fair in Berlin, the team of three immediately drove to “Vienna Contemporary”. And although Vienna is the much smaller and more regional trade fair, it is organized more professionally and the VIP program more attractive. And again the appeal to the city. "Why don't you stand confidently towards the art location?"

In France, President Emmanuel Macron visits the “Paris Photo” and adorns himself with the “largest photo fair in the world”. You will often look in vain for Michael Müller at trade fairs in Berlin. Not to mention Angela Merkel.

Location disadvantage Berlin

Gallery owner Johann König has been politically involved for some time. In open letters he criticizes the decisions of the Berlin Senate and makes demands that not everyone likes.

Money from the city, says König, should go directly to the art industry and not to “Berlin Art Week”, which also promotes the museums and non-profit spaces under its roof. During “Art Week”, König complains, the galleries would not appear at all. You bring the dealers - nothing.

However, he does not want to play off anyone against each other. “We need them all, from the auction house to galleries of various sizes to the off-space. It's like in the forest, an existential cycle. I see him in danger right now because Berlin is becoming increasingly unattractive for small galleries. "

In 2002 he was Berlin's youngest gallery owner. He is now one of the city's most important traders, at least that's how he is perceived.

The church that the gallery moved into in 2015 in Kreuzberg is an architectural sensation, the artists - including Jorinde Voigt, Erwin Wurm and Katharina Grosse - are selling splendidly. Just not from Berlin, but at international trade fairs.

Large gallery owners are relocating their activities abroad

He has not seen some of the important collectors here for a long time, says König at the table in his gallery, which visitors flock to even on Sundays. But a lot of visitors does not automatically mean that a lot will be sold. König does have customers who spontaneously drop by for two million pieces of art.

But even he wants to meet the newcomers. Sometimes he opens a shop with art souvenirs, then he holds political discussions in his gallery. He wanted to close the branch that opened in London in 2017 because of Brexit - he has since made a different decision - and another branch in Tokyo.

The disadvantages of Germany's location can be avoided abroad. An important Berlin gallery owner like Max Hetzler has been relocating its activities more and more to London and Paris for years. “In Paris in particular, VAT is lower and there is no obligation to pay the artist's social security fund,” says König.

Perhaps the situation is really so serious that one of the most successful gallery owners speaks in one sentence of a tax cut and at the same time of not particularly fond of paying social security payments to low-income artists - the ones who provide him with the raw material he deals in .

König says that at some point these galleries would ask themselves why they are still active in Berlin. "Then we lose the gallery owners who represent world stars." König's main question is how to make Berlin more attractive for collectors.

Keeping large galleries happy, encouraging small ones

“Art Week in its current form is not the right instrument,” he says. From the point of view of the economy, a program is needed that is aimed at global “high net worth individuals”.

To those whose wealth is over the million mark. "You might not like to hear that," says König, "but it is the reality: if you want to bring purchasing power into the city, you have to address these people."

He says: "We have to keep the big galleries happy and encourage small ones so that they can get going."

It may be that he has already been heard. "We see the problems of the galleries and want to specifically promote the young, innovative ones in particular," says Daniel Wesener, spokesman for the Green parliamentary group in the House of Representatives for Culture and the Budget.

In the current plans for the 2020/21 double budget, there is talk of “150,000 euros for the support of the 'Gallery Weekend' and for the promotion of young galleries”. If both are related, this could quickly turn out to be a disadvantage for those who are not allowed to participate in the “Gallery Weekend” anyway.

Collaboration: Christiane Meixner and Ronja Ringelstein

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page