“Germany was 10 years behind”: how Brexit helped European galleries | Art and design

One of the things Stephanie Rosenthal has acquired during her 10-year stint in the London gallery world is an appreciation for the British art of queuing with a smile on your face.

After the German art historian left her position as chief curator at the Hayward Gallery following Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, she exported her specialist skills to her country of birth.

Since Rosenthal took over the management of Berlin’s Gropius Bau in 2018, those queuing to buy a ticket at her gallery can expect to be amused and entertained by one of the 12 “friends” she has hired to meet and welcome visitors.

Those who don’t feel like waiting can head straight to the atrium to watch a free sound installation by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, another symbol of change introduced under Rosenthal’s tenure. Gropius Bau once represented a German tradition of ivory-tower galleries, where visitors were more tolerated than welcomed. Security personnel would make sure they felt that way.

Today, the experience of entering the lavish 19th-century 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 the approach has always been to have a low entry threshold,” Rosenthal said. “The question asked by the galleries was: ‘How can culture affect the way we think on a daily basis?’ rather than, ‘Take this flight of stairs, and then the culture will reveal itself to you.’ In this respect, in Germany, we were 10 years behind.

Stephanie Rosenthal, director of Gropius Bau. Photography: Robert Rieger/Gropius Bau

When Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23, 2016, the result shocked many European citizens who had made the UK 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 experiences they have accumulated are changing continental European cities in unexpected ways.

For Germans, this is especially true for those in the art and museum sector of the UK, long a popular destination for graduates from a country that regularly produces more art historians than it has. can offer jobs. The British Museum, the V&A and the Tate Liverpool have or have had directors with German passports.

Stefan Kalmár, 52, spent a total of 17 years in England after swapping the University of Hildesheim for Goldsmiths in 1996, then headed Cambridge’s Institute of Visual Culture, London’s Cubitt Gallery and eventually the prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts in the capital. (ICA) from 2016 to 2021.

He recalled a “utopian period” between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, when “London was on the way to becoming the New York of Europe”. “Britain 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 felt like island thinking was resurfacing – it was much more extreme than I had imagined coming from New York.” Even on London’s globalized art scene, he recalls, colleagues made disparaging remarks about “outsiders” that often went unchallenged.

The culture wars that escalated in the years after the divisive vote also undermined his work of joy, Kalmár said. While the ICA is only 21% publicly funded – compared to 70% to 80% at comparable German institutions – the multidisciplinary venue was still seen as being largely supported by the government, and provocative programming could trigger furious right-wing complaint letters that required careful legal responses. .

The absence of an American donor culture and an equivalent tax relief scheme, he said, meant that UK arts organizations “got the worst of both worlds”.

Stefan Kalmar.
Stefan Kalmár spent 17 years in England, and is now based in Marseille. Photography: VOST COLLECTIF/Manifesta 13 Marseille

“You end up essentially running what has become a subsidized business rather than a civic institution. The mixed economy model forces you to be a lot more commercial than you want to be – you spend all your time figuring out how to make more money with your bookstore or cafe, and that ends up draining a lot of energy from you. would prefer to invest focusing on the program.

Now based in Marseille, France, where he runs a curatorial production office, Kalmár said he began to renew his appreciation for how France and Germany deal with the arts, especially when he saw how point the state was quick and unbureaucratic to support cultural institutions during the pandemic, while UK organizations struggled.

“It’s a completely different approach to what we consider public service. A German museum can close for four weeks to install a new exhibition – this is totally unthinkable in the UK.

Even then, many German directors and curators who learned their craft in the more commercial but also more audience-oriented British art world remain ambivalent. “I sometimes struggle with my own argument: well-funded German museums should be exemplary models of civic engagement. And too often, unfortunately, they are not.

“The approach here [in Berlin] it’s: even an exhibition that doesn’t attract so many viewers can be valuable,” said Rosenthal, who is leaving Berlin this fall to direct the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. “Culture is seen as an important instrument of critical thinking. But on the other hand, London taught me that a successful show is not necessarily a bad show. Under his tenure, Berlin’s most spacious gallery hosted a successful exhibition by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

Sign up for First Edition, our free daily newsletter – every weekday morning at 7am BST

Anna Gritz first came to London on an Erasmus program in 2002, then returned to work as a curator at Hayward and the South London Gallery. Since the beginning of June, she has been the new director of Haus am Waldsee, an art center in the chic Zehlendorf district of Berlin, built in the style of an English country house.

“One thing I learned in the UK is that art isn’t just what happens in showrooms,” Gritz said. “Art can also be what a gallery does with the local community in its neighborhood.”

Outreach programs, designed to attract more audiences from socially disadvantaged backgrounds to galleries, are still a relative novelty in the world of German galleries and museums. At the Southbank Centre, Rosenthal said she has a department of 30 people working to reach these new audiences. At Gropius Bau, she increased the outreach staff to three – from zero.

At Haus am Waldsee, Gritz said she was considering hiring a neighborhood curator and wanted to bring more children and young people to a gallery that currently draws its most trusted audience from retirees.

“I didn’t leave London because of Brexit,” she said.

“But looking back, the reasons why I didn’t stay may have had to do with that. And yet, I loved being a foreigner,” she added. “Sometimes I miss that.”

James C. Tibbs