Neue kunsthalle berlin criticized : controversy over art

With works by sculptor Bernar Venet, the Kunsthalle Berlin opens in Tempelhof Airport. The privately run art space is causing controversy.

Bernar Venet in conversation at the opening of his Scghau at Kunsthalle Berlin

The artist speaks, his art in the background Photo: Daniel Biskup/Stiftung fur Kunst und Kultur Bonn

When did it ever happen in this country that artists called for a boycott of an art exhibition?? Anyway, last week this happened in Berlin. It concerns the French artist Bernar Venet. Although the few Berlin artists who have called for a boycott are actually concerned with the new Kunsthalle Berlin at Tempelhof Airport, the boycott has not yet taken place. But the fact that Venet as an artist is hit and is to remain without an audience during his exhibition in the new art space, is accepted for this purpose.

Said Kunsthalle is a "cynical, neoliberal vehicle," according to the verdict of the call for a boycott posted on Instagram. An art gallery as a private enterprise is apparently per se suspicious to the Berlin artists in the environment of the Berufsverband Berliner Kunstler_innen (BBK) – including Zoe Claire Miller and Heidi Sill, two of its board members.

The originator of the idea of this cultural interim use of two hangars in Tempelhof Airport, which are in need of renovation and practically unrentable, was the then Governing Mayor Michael Muller himself. On the occasion of the "Diversity United" exhibition there last September, Venet offered the new Kunsthalle director Walter Smerling the opportunity to display art in the hangars until they were renovated and made suitable for a history walk on the roof of the airport building.

Smerling is head of the Foundation for Art and Culture, which was founded in 1986 as a private initiative e. V. with headquarters in Bonn. "Diversity United" was his creation. Thanks to Smerling’s good contacts in the political arena, the project, which is under the patronage of German President Steinmeier, is currently on tour in Moscow and will then be shown in Paris.

The Kunsthalle Berlin

The show In addition to the sculptural works of the French artist, the Venet exhibition at Tempelhof Airport also features his entire body of painterly work. The show runs until 30. May, daily except Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission 10/5 euros.

The place The comprehensive show of Bernar Venet’s work is the first exhibition of the new Kunsthalle Berlin in Hangars 2 and 3 at Tempelhof Airport. The exhibition space is initially planned for a period of two years.

What opened last Friday in the Tempelhof hangars with a comprehensive retrospective of the 80-year-old successful artist Bernar Venet is something that a public art gallery would probably not have been able to put together in such a short time. Thanks to private capital from real estate developer Christoph Groner as a sponsor, the several tons of steel from Venet’s sixty-year creative period could be brought together in Tempelhof.

Creator of the steel arch

Venet is probably best known in Berlin as the creator of a huge steel arch. Placed in the middle of the An der Urania car lane, the arch opens upward – originally inaugurated as a gift from France for Berlin’s 750th anniversary celebration – but today, graffiti-covered and hidden behind trees, its 40-meter span does not really show to advantage. Already in 2019, the Embassy of France had intervened because of the neglect of the arch in Berlin. Venet therefore wants to have his work moved (at his own expense) by a few meters. A decision has not yet been made.

For Smerling and his Kunsthalle, Venet was something of an ideal solution for the start of the show. His steel sculptures, which sometimes resemble oversized balls of spaghetti, defy the lack of heating without any problems and fill the huge halls as only a few works of art would be able to do. The hangars can only be poorly heated anyway. The airport building is technically still partly at the level of the 1930s. Smerling’s foundation association therefore accepts the lack of air conditioning, which at least has the advantage of not making operating costs even more expensive. Smerling otherwise pays no rent. This was the deal with Michael Muller: a display of art in return for rent-free use of the space.

Apparently, however, the artists calling for a boycott are not at all concerned with the existence or non-existence of an art gallery in Berlin. Berlin’s artists "do not necessarily need a new Kunsthalle," according to the manifesto of the initiative "Haben und Brauchen" ("Having and Needing") from 2012, which is now explicitly invoked. At that time, it was more a matter of countering the displacement of artists from the city (community), who could no longer find affordable studios in a privatized real estate landscape and in an urban development brushed with profitability.

Problematic word

But the BBK is apparently still allergic to the word "Kunsthalle". "By calling itself the ‘Kunsthalle Berlin,’ the ‘Foundation for Art and Culture e. V.The artists have also claimed that the use of the historic Tempelhof airport hangar by this association is publicly legitimized. However, this is by no means the case", it says now in a press release of the BBK.

However, the Foundation for Art and Culture is at least officially certified as "non-profit". And Smerling’s association, by its own admission, wants to work publicly and "actively for art and cultural diversity". His association has for it not only quite financially potent members, but is also well into the policy interlaced. A mixture that also occurs elsewhere and makes possible what Smerling’s association calls in its self-description "design aspirations".

Whether the interests of the Berlin artists calling for a boycott are, so to speak, more generally beneficial than those of people with money and good contacts, such as those gathered in Smerling’s association, is perhaps debatable. But the artists have so far ignored an offer by Smerling to talk to him. Incidentally, as Smerling announced on Friday, the new art gallery in the airport is yet to get an advisory board, which will first determine the future -program.

That Smerling’s Kunsthalle will one day draw Senate money, as explicitly feared by the artists calling for the boycott, is currently speculation. And it is quite understandable that one is saddened about the fact that the capitalism in Berlin in the meantime just as elsewhere through-strikes.

The cheap studios are a thing of the past, free spaces are used up. This can be regretted, but is not really new. And a call for a boycott that hits artists like Venet first speaks less to a penchant for culture than to an urge for publicity in one’s own interest – in other words, exactly what the Kunsthalle project is accused of doing.

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