A chorus of prominent artists and museum directors calls funding for a new arts center in Berlin ‘scandalous’

A group of art-world figures are speaking out against the Kunsthalle Berlin, saying they are “alarmed” by both the politics and the funding of the new space, which opened last month at historic Tempelhof airport. The uproar is the latest development in a storm of controversy that has gripped the art world in the German capital.

At the center of the outrage is cultural consultant Walter Smerling. The Bonn-based founder has been accused by members of Berlin’s art community of straddling an unethical line between private foundation and public entity with his Stiftung Kunst und Kultur e V. (Foundation for Art and Culture) , as well as having opaque ties with businessmen and politicians.

With a mix of private backers, Tempelhof’s project is being subsidized by culture senate funds to the tune of around 2.4 million euros, according to a local report. Critics have decried the Berlin Exhibition Hall for shutting down one of the few remaining public spaces in a rapidly gentrifying city.

This week, the art platform e-flux published the open letter addressed to state and federal officials, written by artist Hito Steyerl, critic Jörg Heiser and artist Clemens von Wedemeyer. “Berlin and its officials let themselves be exploited by private associations, companies and individuals around the ‘cultural manager’ Walter Smerling”, they denounce.

At the time of publication of this article, the letter has garnered over 650 signatures. Notable names include Gabriele Horn, the director of the Berlin Biennale; Yilmaz Dziewior, director of Museum Ludwig; Krist Gruijthuijsen, director of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art; and Kader Attia, artist and curator of the Berlin Biennale which opens in June.

A photo taken on February 3, 2022 shows an exterior view of the former Berlin Tempelhof Airport hangar housing the new ‘Kunsthalle Berlin’, Photo: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images.

‘Kunsthalle Berlin’

The Kunsthalle Berlin officially opened at the end of January with a survey exhibition by French artist Bernard Venet (until May 30) and it has been under continuous fire ever since. Critics, led initially by artist Candice Breitz and photographer Tobias Zielony, called for a boycott of Kunsthalle Berlin on social media on the eve of the fair’s opening.

The presentation of a top artist like Venet, represented by the prominent Berlin gallery König, won over critics, who claimed that the project was a sales platform. In an interview with the local press, Smerling justified himself: “It takes an intelligent combination of culture and business to be able to show art publicly.

The signatories of the e-flux letter demand the immediate termination of the lease of the Tempelhof hangars and the cessation of public funding of the Kunsthalle Berlin. The group is also demanding that the Berlin Senate disclose details of its agreement with Smerling’s private foundation. (Smerling and Berlin’s culture senate did not respond to requests for comment on their reaction to the open letter.)

Critics of the new institution also take issue with naming the institution a “kunsthalle”, which picks up on a long and prestigious history of nonprofit organizations. kunstvereins in Germany.

“If the founding of a worthy Kunsthalle Berlin is preempted by arbitrary self-designation, this indicates a need for action,” the authors write. “We therefore call for the development of ethical guidelines, with regard to the relationship between the public sector and private interests or sponsors, in order to prevent such instrumentalisations from occurring in the first place.”

"Bernar Venet, 1961-2021: 60 years of sculpture, painting and performance" to "Berlin Kunsthalle" at the former Tempelhof Airport.  Photo by John MacDougallAFP via Getty Images

“Bernar Venet, 1961-2021: 60 years of sculpture, painting and performance” at the “Kunsthalle Berlin” at the former Tempelhof airport. Photo by John MacDougallAFP via Getty Images

The Smerling system

Smerling may be new in town, but he’s a well-known curator in the German art world. Yet this is not the first time he has been criticized for opaquely blending private and public dealings in cultural projects, a trend that columnist Niklas Maas double the “Smerling system” in a recent article for FAZ.

Last year he used Tempelfhof Airport for the first time for a large-scale traveling group show called ‘Diversity United’, billed as a celebration of Europe as a ‘diversity union’ . This show included many artists from Berlin and Europe, although neither the roster of artists nor its all-white advisory board were actually particularly diverse. Critics have pointed to the incongruity of having Vladimir Putin as one of the show’s three official sponsors, alongside French President Emmanuel Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Putin recently signed into law that he can remain president until the age of 83 and jailed his opponent, Alexei Navalny.

Since concerns were publicly raised about this show, several artists have taken their names from it. He toured from Berlin in Moscowand should finish its race in Paris.

The new open letter also places the pushback at the Kunsthalle Berlin in the context of the current political crisis gripping Europe, alleging that Smerling’s institution is “actively engaging in misguided ‘cultural diplomacy’ amid a geopolitical crisis of the greatest magnitude – the simmering crisis Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his wife Elke Büdenbender stand next to candidate Chancellor and Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet;  sponsor Lars Windhorst (second from left) at the opening of the "United diversity" exposure.  Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance via Getty Images.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his wife Elke Büdenbender stand next to 2021 chancellor candidate and minister of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet (far left) and financier and exhibition sponsor Lars Windhorst (second left) at the opening of the “Diversity United” exhibition. Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Even at the time of the “Diversity United” protests last fall, as Artnet News reported, Smerling had his eye on a long-term stay. He told Artnet News last summer that he had made a “proposal” to the city to occupy Tempelhof for the long term, but details were unclear at the time.

Now Berlin has found out what the form of the deal was, helping to spark the new round of protest represented by the e-flux letter. The Berlin senate agreed to let Smerling run an exhibition space for two years while agreeing to subsidize 50% of monthly running costs, giving 2.4 million euros of taxpayers’ money.

“The use of public resources for private interests – bolstering the reputation of authoritarian regimes and poorly transparent corporate networks that are repeatedly implicated in scandals – is structurally and politically scandalous,” the letter states. -flux.

In an earlier comment to Artnet News, Smerling said boycotting his Kunsthalle was “not an appropriate response” and that “artists boycotting other artists is certainly not something we want”. He also signaled his desire to have a discussion with the local art scene: “I invite anyone who is seriously interested to view the exhibition and engage in a constructive dialogue with us.”

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