Native Berliners have long claimed Brunnenstrasse, a street near the city’s landmark ball-on-a-stick television tower, to be immune to gentrification. A working-class redoubt with façades that still exhibit the downtrodden esthetic of old East Berlin, Brunnenstrasse has so far largely escaped the pastel-hued tarting up that has overtaken the rest of the German capital’s east side. So no surprise that a section of the street has recently established itself as the dynamic city’s newest gallery hub.
Two galleries pioneered the space back in 2004, both opened by curators who had made their mark in the noncommercial sector -- Klara Wallner and Jan Winkelmann. The petite, bright-lipsticked Wallner opened her eponymous Galerie Klara Wallner in a tiny storefront, specializing in edgy paintings, drawings and some sculpture by the likes of 27-year-old U.S. expat Hannah Dougherty, who plays with fantasy (often equine) images in paint and graphite.
As for Winkelmann, his gallery, named Jan Winkelmann / Berlin, is a slick white cube specializing in conceptualism. For instance, last year the gallery presented a solo show by Dennis Loesch featuring garments lent by such art-world celebrities as Artforum magazine publisher Knight Landsman, to be reproduced in all white for buyers on order. Winkelmann also works with a German artist who performs under the name of, uh, Evil Knievel.
When Wallner and Winkelmann settled into the street it was truly a dank wasteland of empty storefronts, down-market stores and even a sex shop. But when several more art spaces opened a few months later -- Amerika, Diskus and Christian Ehrentraut, along with Martin Mertens’ Rekord a bit further up the street -- a renegade gallery community reached what could be called critical mass.
Not only did the spaces show young art, but they went so far as to band together and distribute matchbooks and postcards displaying the websites of each gallery. For the past two summers, the group has even put on a festival in Winkelmann’s courtyard, complete with a beer garden and deejay (none other than Artnet.de’s own Isaac Bigsby Trogdon).
By late September 2006, Brunnenstrasse’s art scene expanded even further into what the German newspaper Handelsblatt calls an "explosive" boom, just in time for the city’s Berlin Art Forum art fair. Berlin’s art hotspot, having moved around consistently since the Mitte scene established itself on nearby Auguststrasse in the early 1990s, has again found itself a new perch.
Amerika, showcasing 20-odd talents from the much-hyped Leipzig school, but with a photographic and sculptural focus, is directed by the 30-year-old Sebastian Klemm, who exudes a prematurely savvy professionalism. Established as an artist-run space until spring 2007, Amerika is slated to transform at that point into a commercial venture with a smaller roster.
A similar metamorphosis is planned for Diskus, a gallery founded in March 2005 in a small, elegant courtyard space by a group of recent sculpture graduates from the Dresden Art Academy, who hired doe-eyed, 20-something art historian Birgit Ostermeier as the gallery director Come spring, she’ll become a "real" dealer, and her shooting-star sculptor Stella Hamberg, whose Malik, a haunting, life-sized painted epoxy sculpture of a barefoot man holding a golden lamb, was on view at Eigen+Art’s booth at Berlin Art Forum, joins übergallerist Judy Lybke’s Eigen+Art stable.
Called produzentengalerien, or "producer-galleries," places like Amerika and Diskus start out as what would be called "co-ops" on the New York scene, gathering together a group of artists who pay about a grand per year to keep things going, hire a director and each get a solo show. The producer-galleries are founded largely by recent grads from east German academies. They’re supposed to run for two years and then disband, but that’s not happening for Diskus and Amerika, which have become commercial successes. In some part this is due to the patronage of Lybke, who provides encouragement, sends collectors over -- and sometimes picks up the artists who do well.
In any case, the fact that young Brunnenstrasse artists are moving on to higher-profile galleries is no surprise in today’s market. But still more is happening on Brunnenstrasse -- the street has also gone international, and fast.
In a building that was once a bank is Filiale, where Zürich dealer Philippe Rey shares space with the Düsseldorf-based Galerie Conrads. Out through the back door is Fotografie am Schiffbauerdamm, known acronymically as FAS, which runs an educational program for young photographers and exhibits photogs like Israeli New Yorker Michael Ackerman, whose black-and-white images of old men smoking evoke memories of Magnum’s heyday. In the Filiale space, the two galleries and FAS take turns mounting exhibitions, and occasionally mount collaborative group shows in a funky "shared gallery" concept.
Rey’s home space in Zürich is Galerie Römerapotheke -- the storefront used to be a pharmacy, and retains its classic Art Deco signage -- boasting a roster including established artists like British painter Simon English and the Swiss artist Caro Suerkamper, whose figurative works on paper and porcelain depict an array of acrobatic female figures. Rey is clear about his motive for setting up in Berlin. "If you’re a Swiss gallery it’s difficult to get into the German market," he says, but on this particular street, both time and place were right -- along with the costs. "The Berlin space costs me less for a whole year than attending Art Cologne," he says.
The Greek-born dealer Helena Papadopoulos’ move to Brunnenstrasse, on the other hand, was less calculated. She successfully ran her unusually named Nice & Fit for a couple of years from the living rooms of her second-floor apartment around the corner, but then spotted a derelict storefront and moved fast. "It was a snap decision in March 2006. This was a thrift store with no heating," says the affable Papadopoulos, a former New York curator. "We unglued the carpet and raised the ceilings but didn’t do anything to the façade. It has this Brunnenstrasse feel to it."
Now nicer and fitter, the space has a slim, airy interior that allows Papadopoulos’ international crew of multimedia artists -- including American David Kennedy-Cutler and up-and-coming Berliner Hannes Schmidt -- to shine in often clever shows visible from the street.
And then there are the New Yorkers. Curator Sarah Belden (who in a past life was director of Mike Weiss Gallery in Manhattan) opened Curators without Borders in what had been an interim project space (called Brunnensex) in late September with the group show "Escape from New York." Generously installed in a rambling series of rooms, complete with a backyard and basement, the exhibition featured a flock of New York based artists like Kristen Schiele, Federico Solmi and Nicky Nodjoumi, most showing for the first time in the German capital.
"There’s a sense of camaraderie here among these galleries, unlike in New York -- especially on Brunnenstrasse," says Belden. "And of course the real-estate prices are low." Belden wants to create a platform for international curators, run an artist residency exchange/program, blur the lines between high and low art and still function as a commercial venture.
Belden and Papadopoulos both managed to set up quickly, but the Berlin satellite gallery opened by New York’s Goff + Rosenthal’s was long anticipated. "Some of the first artists we signed for the New York gallery are German," says Cassie Rosenthal, who had been visiting the German capital for three years with partner Robert Goff. "It seemed natural to open a space here." And it’s worked, at least in terms of sales, which have been brisk -- though Berlin’s art-world revelers, used to all-night affairs, seemed confused when the gallery doors closed promptly at 9 pm on opening night.
As it happened, the throngs simply walked up the street to join the crowd gathering on the sidewalk outside Artnews Projects, a one-room, bricks-and-mortar experimental space launched by the nonprofit artist-web portal of the same name, www.artnews.info. (One might note here that there’s a U.S. entity of long standing that already has dibs on that catchy name.) Artnews Projects provides a space for "curators from other cities and countries with no Berlin presence," says co-director Christiana von Gilsa.
Artnews Projects launched with a provocative exhibition curated by Nieck de Bruijn of Amsterdam’s Upsteam Gallery, a show that included threatening graffiti on the walls and a large sculpture of headsman’s axes. Next up was a show that jam-packed the space with works by more than 100 Berlin artists in an ode to Rio, a local club in which the Brunnenstrasse collective often holds its after-parties. Ten percent of sales went to UNESCO. Opening this weekend is "From Denmark to Berlin," organized by the Mogadishni gallery from Copenhagen.
Believe it or not, there’s still more. Brunnenstrasse has drawn transplants from other parts of Berlin, including the southern German chef-cum-art dealer Uli Krauss, who moved his art-meets-cuisine project space Zagreus into a space formerly occupied by a restaurant about a year ago, and Frederik Foert, who opened his own independent gallery in a clean white space accessible only through a colorfully trashy courtyard behind Amerika in late September.
It’s the same courtyard traversed by dark-windowed limos carrying world-class collectors, or so gossip has it, to the Galerie Christian Ehrentraut, a narrow space just big enough to show one or two imposing works. The gallery is in a building that was until recently a squat, with a nearby graffito reading -- ironically, as it turns out -- "Eigentum ist Diebstahl" ("ownership is theft.") Ehrentraut formerly worked at Eigen+Art and ran LIGA, the now defunct Produzentengalerie that helped launch the stellar careers of Matthias Weischer, and has also worked with top New York dealers like Marianne Boesky. His gallery now represents Leipzig-school painters Martin Kobe, Christoph Ruckhäberle, Tilo Baumgärtel and other emerging stars.
Most Brunnenstrasse art outlets still offer works at lowish prices, but these are, like the strip’s cred, rising quickly, especially with the arrival of the international set. But perhaps the name "Brunnen" ("fountain") will continue to prove fitting. Because many of the exhibited artists (well, even some of the dealers) are fresh out of school or otherwise wet behind the ears, youth -- a hot commodity in the global art world at the moment -- is clearly a major factor in the hub’s appeal.
Rey, a relative veteran whose original Römerapotheke was the first gallery on Zurich’s now-bustling Langstrasse, has seen it all before: "It’s like SoHo or Chelsea -- the artists and freaks move in first. Then come galleries and architects. I don’t know if I’ll be here in the future," he says, "but for now, the more galleries the better. It allows synergies to form."
The story continues, of course, as current rumors have another New York gallery ogling the area and Wallner moving her pioneering main space to larger digs on Kochstrasse this month (near Cologne dealer Raphael Jablonka’s new Berlin base -- Wallner will keep her Brunnenstrasse project room).
But for now, the rough-and-ready spirit looks as if it’ll continue. And despite the art infusion, the sex shop and the "free store" are still holding their own. "Brunnenstrasse will never be pretty," says Klemm. "It has a raw charm. Exactly this mixture is what makes it great."
KIMBERLY BRADLEY is a translator and writer working in New York and Berlin.