View Full Version : Culturally, Berlin Is Ascending, if Slowly

February 16th, 2005, 08:18 PM
February 17, 2005

Culturally, Berlin Is Ascending, if Slowly


A street juggler wields torches in front of the Old National Gallery, part of Museum Island.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/dropcap/b.gifERLIN, Feb. 16 - It was easy for culture to be overlooked amid the heady events after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet once the city was reunited and was again the capital of a single Germany, culture took on new importance here. With many Europeans and not a few Germans worried that Berlin would soon emerge as a political powerhouse, culture was a far more appealing way of proclaiming the city's rebirth.

Indeed, seen from, say, London, Paris or Vienna, Berlin had all the ingredients to become a, if not the, European cultural capital. Almost overnight, the city government was owner of 17 museums, 3 opera houses, 8 orchestras and 17 theaters. Further, as the only city to experience German unification firsthand, Berlin itself became a work in progress. For artists, this meant unfettered freedom to explore new avenues.

So, 15 years later, how is the new cultural Berlin faring? Well, those who predicted it would be the brightest light in Europe by 2000 were wrong. One unsurprising reason is money. In the 1990's, the city not only lost the cold war subsidies that sustained West Berlin, but also absorbed a backward East Berlin. Thus even after the federal government moved here in 1999, Berlin's weak tax base - it has little industry - meant budget crises. Spending on culture was squeezed.

The former East Berlin was home to most of the city's major museums and theaters and two of its three opera houses. But these 18th- and 19th-century buildings were in desperate need of repair and renovation. Further, from East Germany Berlin inherited an ugly asbestos-riddled Palace of the Republic, built in the 1970's to replace the 17th-century Hohenzollern Palace but now likely to be razed itself.

Yet, for all that, there is cause for optimism. Organizational problems are being resolved, and long-term reconstruction projects are going ahead. In music, theater and art there is a new mood of excitement, as if the artists feel they, too, are engaged in rebuilding the city. And the Berlin Senate now seems to recognize culture's importance to the city's image.

"I think culture is the only real force for renewal that Berlin has for the next 50 to 100 years," said Barbara Kisseler, the city's under secretary for culture. "At the moment, we have more problems than we need. But these are only financial problems, not problems that cannot be resolved."

The biggest headache of recent years was, Can Berlin afford three opera houses? The accountants said no, but politically it was impossible to close any of them. Finally, with a view to cost-saving, a new Berlin Opera Foundation was created last year to oversee the Deutsche Oper in the west and the Deutsche Staatsoper Unter den Linden and the Komische Oper in the east.

The shake-up meant merging the opera houses' three ballet companies into a new Staatsballett Berlin, sharing opera workshops and trimming 18 musicians and seven singers. As a result, the city hopes to reduce its annual opera subsidy by $19 million to $126 million by 2009. At the same time, while income levels here cannot sustain sharply higher ticket prices, the opera houses are being urged to find corporate sponsors.

That said, Berlin offers extraordinary wealth in music, with a choice of opera productions most evenings and concerts galore. The arrival of Sir Simon Rattle, the British conductor, has added new buzz to the ever-prestigious Berlin Philharmonic, while the German Symphony Orchestra has flourished under its American music director, Kent Nagano.

Theater in Berlin is also thriving. After post-1990 closures, the only major theater left in the west was the Schaubühne, whose director, Thomas Ostermeier, has had a mixed response to his experiments with new authors and political theater. But the four major theaters in the east are doing better than ever.

After a few years of crisis, the Berliner Ensemble, created by Bertolt Brecht, is now pulling in the crowds with mainstream programming. In contrast, under its former East German director, Frank Castorf, the Volksbühne appeals to younger audiences with provocative "antitheater" shows. The Gorky Theater concentrates on receiving theater companies from Eastern Europe and Latin America, while the Deutsches Theater is encouraging new directors.

But it is Berlin's art scene that has stirred most excitement. Although it may be another 10 years before renovation of Museum Island in the former East Berlin is completed, the Alte Nationalgalerie, or Old National Gallery, there reopened in 2001, while the Bode Museum should be ready in 2006 and the Neue Museum, or New Museum, in 2009. Work will then start on the Pergamon Museum and the Altes Museum, or Old Museum.

All this forms part of a broader reorganization of the city's collections: classical art will eventually move from the Gemäldegalerie in the west to the Bode Museum and a new annex still to be built; modern art will then move across the Kulturforum to the Gemäldegalerie from the New National Gallery, which will then be used for temporary exhibitions.

In the late 1990's an abandoned railroad station, the Hamburger Bahnhof, became a new contemporary art museum around the private collection of Erich Marx, a Berlin construction magnate. Then last year, despite protests, an adjacent warehouse received a still larger contemporary collection on loan from Christian Friedrich Flick, the wealthy grandson of an industrialist jailed in the late 1940's for supporting the Nazis.

And Heinz Berggruen, a Berlin-born art dealer and collector, installed part of his modern collection in a Charlottenburg mansion around the theme of "Picasso and His Era." The city has now bought the collection. Before the Berlin-born photographer Helmut Newton died a year ago, he also created a foundation here, which has loaned his works to a new Photography Museum. Further, the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, an offshoot of the New York museum, has a space on the Unter den Linden.

The biggest injection of energy, though, has come from the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 artists now working here, many of whom came to take advantage of the large spaces for low or no rent that became available in the former East Berlin neighborhood of Mitte in the early 1990's. "Everything was free," recalled Johann Nowak, who now runs the DNA gallery in the district. "You looked for a flat, no one was there, you broke in, put up your name and it was yours."

By the late 1990's, as restoration of old buildings began raising prices, less successful artists moved out, but others benefited from the commercial opportunities offered by new galleries. Today there are dozens of new galleries showing work of artists from around the world, many now Berlin residents, others part of the newly fashionable Leipzig art scene.

"It's like an emerging market," said Marcus Kurt Deschler, whose Deschler Gallery is now 10 years old. "It's a good thing for contemporary art that Berlin has low costs. The price of rent and living and food is much lower than London or Paris. Artists are still moving here. But many people are now also coming to Berlin to look at the art. For younger artists, Berlin is the place."

Ms. Kisseler said: "Berlin was not known for this. It's a new era, and it comes at a good moment. German art is popular, and it now also has a Berlin label."

Cultural Berlin is demanding to be noticed. In a few years, it may be hard to ignore.

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