‘Germany was 10 years behind’: How Brexit helped Europe’s galleries | art and design
One of the things Stephanie Rosenthal has acquired over her 10 years in the London gallery world is an appreciation for the British art of queuing with a smile on her face.
After the German art historian left her job as chief curator of the Hayward Gallery in the wake of the British referendum on leaving the European Union, she exported her specialist knowledge back to her native country.
Since Rosenthal took charge of Berlin’s Gropius Bau in 2018, those lining up at her gallery to buy a ticket can hope to be amused and entertained by one of the 12 “friends” she hired to help to meet and greet visitors.
Those who don’t want to wait can stroll straight into the atrium to check out a free sound installation by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, another symbol of change introduced under Rosenthal’s tenure. The Gropius Bau used to represent a German tradition of ivory tower galleries where visitors were tolerated rather than welcomed. Security would make them feel that way.
Today, entering the 19th-century palatial building on the border of Berlin’s Kreuzberg and Mitte districts is more reminiscent of entering a London exhibition space such as the Royal Festival Hall or the Tate Modern.
“In England, it was always about having a low entry threshold,” Rosenthal said. “The gallery’s question was: ‘How can culture influence our everyday thinking?’ instead of: ‘Take these stairs and then the culture will reveal itself to you.’ We were 10 years behind in Germany.”
When Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23, 2016, the result shocked many European citizens who had made Britain their adopted country. Six years later, many have returned to the countries where they grew up. However, it is also becoming increasingly clear that the lessons learned are transforming continental European cities in unexpected ways.
For Germans, this is particularly true of the UK arts and museums sector, which has long been a popular destination for graduates from a country that regularly produces more art historians than it can offer jobs. The British Museum, the V&A and the Tate Liverpool have or had directors with German passports.
Stefan Kalmár, 52, spent a total of 17 years in England after swapping the University of Hildesheim for a goldsmith in 1996, then headed the Institute of Visual Culture in Cambridge, London’s Cubitt Gallery and finally the capital’s renowned Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA ) from 2016 to 2021.
He recalled a “utopian period” between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, when “London was on course to become Europe’s New York”. “Britain has totally shaped my idea of culture.”
But the Brexit referendum marked a turning point for Kalmár, the son of an East German mother and a Hungarian father. “Even before the Brexit vote, I had the feeling that island thinking was creeping in again – it was much more extreme than I had imagined from New York.” Even in the globalized London art scene, he recalled, colleagues had derogatory remarks made about “foreigners” that often went unchallenged.
The culture wars, which intensified in the years after the split vote, also took away the joy of the job, said Kalmár. While the ICA is only 21% funded by public funds – compared to 70% to 80% at comparable German institutions – the multidisciplinary venue was still perceived as largely state-backed, and provocative programs could spark angry right-wing letters of complaint that prompted careful legal responses required .
The lack of an American donor culture and tax break regime, he said, means that British arts organizations are “getting the worst of both worlds”.
“In the end, you essentially run a subsidized company and not a civic institution. The mixed economy model forces you to be a lot more commercial than you’d like – you spend all your time trying to figure out how to make more money out of your bookstore or your coffee shop, and that ends up consuming a lot of the energy that you would rather invest in focusing on the program.”
Kalmár now lives in Marseille, France, where he runs a curatorial production office, and said he’s begun to renew his appreciation for France’s and Germany’s approach to the arts, particularly when he’s seen how quickly and unbureaucratically the state has been supporting cultural institutions during the Pandemic while UK organizations struggled.
“It’s a completely different approach than what we see as public service. A German museum can close for four weeks to install a new exhibition – that is completely unthinkable in Great Britain.”
Even then, many German directors and curators, who learned their craft in the more commercial but also audience-oriented art world of Great Britain, remained ambivalent. “Sometimes I struggle with my own reasoning: financially strong German museums should be role models for civic engagement. And all too often, unfortunately, they are not.”
“The approach here [in Berlin] “Even an exhibition that doesn’t attract that many visitors can be valuable,” said Rosenthal, who is leaving Berlin in the fall to head the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. “Culture is seen as an important tool for critical thinking. But on the other hand, London has taught me that a blockbuster show doesn’t have to be a bad show.” Under her direction, Berlin’s largest gallery hosted a blockbuster show by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
Anna Gritz first came to London in 2002 as part of an Erasmus program and later returned to the Hayward and the South London Gallery as a curator. Since the beginning of June she has been the new director of the Haus am Waldsee, an art house built in the English country house style in the posh Zehlendorf district of Berlin.
“One thing I learned in the UK is that art doesn’t just happen in the exhibition spaces,” Gritz said. “Art can also be what a gallery does with the local community in its neighborhood.”
Educational programs designed to bring more audiences from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to galleries are still relatively new in the German gallery and museum world. At the Southbank Centre, Rosenthal said she has a department of 30 people working to reach such new audiences. At the Gropius Bau, she increased the number of field staff to three – from zero.
At Haus am Waldsee, Gritz planned to recruit an outreach curator and bring more children and youth into a gallery that currently has its most trusted retiree audience.
“I didn’t leave London because of Brexit,” she said.
“But in hindsight, the reasons I didn’t stay may be related to that. And yet I liked being a foreigner,” she added. “Sometimes I miss it.”
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