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Art and Cuisine in a School for Jewish Girls 0

Agnese Čivle,

Produced with the support of ABLV Charitable Foundation 

There are more than a couple of expensive restaurants and high-profile art galleries to be found in Berlin's former low-rent neighborhood of Mitte. Since last spring, on the popular “East Berlin's Art Mile” of Auguststrasse, right across from the exhibition space, me Collector's Room (which boasts a slew of works by world-renown artists), there is now, under one roof, both a haute cuisine restaurant headed by a Michelin-starred chef, and the world's second-largest Kennedy Museum. The person responsible for this weaving together of art and cuisine, is Berlin gallery owner, Michael Fuchs. He has given a second life to a building that once housed a school for Jewish girls (Jüdische Mädchenschule), and currently it is one of the most talked-about spots in Berlin. After a considerable “face-lift”, the 1930s-era building still retains a historical patina. The old stairwell, connecting one floor with the next, lets you imagine the universal routine of a school-day – until you realize that you have actually just left the trendy dining establishments, and have now entered the world of museums and art galleries. Alongside the photo gallery, CWC, and the Auguststrasse-pioneering gallery of Eigen+Art Lab, lies Michael Fuchs' gallery – which is also where met up with the author of this intriguing project.

Jewish schoolgirls used to flock to the 19030's-era building – today, lovers of fine cuisine and art are doing the flocking.

How did you come up with the idea to create a center like this?

I simply wanted to get everything in under one roof – exhibition spaces, galleries (including mine), and a couple of good restaurants and bars. I wanted something different than the classic gallery center. I wanted something that would attract people who, perhaps, may not be such fervent gallery goers. If they have made the effort to come here, then maybe after they have had a good meal, they will find some time to look at the rest of the building, and they will discover something new to them...

So, it turns out that this “worldly” cuisine is an instrument for luring people in to see some “sacral” art?

Yes, definitely. It makes the road to the world of art simpler; the doors of the gallery are much easier to open this way.

The aspect of a coincidence of situations plays a powerful part in this sort of format – when events are elicited by time and location. 70 percent of business contacts are established by people meeting unintentionally, in informal situations.

Restaurants are places where people meet, where communication forms. Here, my clients have the opportunity to linger for a bit longer – by having a bite to eat before they head off for their next flight; and that's how new collaborations begin.

Pauly Saal restaurant

Speaking about restaurants, what criteria did you use to select the center's “sub-lessees”?

Whatever it may be – wine or a sandwich – it must be of quality. The main criterion – quality! I also apply this to art; for instance, the second-floor photo gallery, CWC, is simply a brilliant presentation of photography.

How do you find a balance between experimental projects and exhibits that are oriented towards the market?

I've been in the gallery business for twenty years, and I simply know how a gallery has to work and how to combine all of that. I don't even know how to explain it... That's my job. Some exhibitions may be commercially more advantageous than others, however, you must concentrate on the golden mean if you want to survive and be successful in business. You have to be a complete enthusiast, but the business side also has to be well thought-out.

Right now Berlin is, inarguably, one of the most active gallery centers in Europe. But it is also just as well-known that Berlin is not a place where big money concentrates. How do galleries deal with this problem?

That's the way it is. That is why galleries go to international art fairs – to get attention. Berlin is not a place where art collectors concentrate.

Before the war, it was different – in the 1920s and 30s, practically every Cezanne or van Gogh was sold in Berlin, at such important galleries as Galerie Cassire.

After the war, Berlin became a desert. The money in Germany became decentralized, and every city in Germany became uniformly big – Munich, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Stuttgart... There was no longer just one, powerful city. Yes, Berlin has always been creative, exciting, and a culturally rich environment for artists; but absolutely unfruitful for business.

Michael Fuchs' own gallery is also found inside the remodeled Jewish school.

In the first years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this city was a place for challenging visions about social freedom, and at the time, much thought wasn't given to big-time careers for artists. Could this still be possible – in this “post-Damien Hirst-era”?

I think it is always possible – if there is a will. In Berlin, artists have unlimited advantages in terms of space. Compared with London, New York or Paris, here one has the opportunity to create a studio for little money. That attracts artists, and the art scene is very lively.

What's going on in Mitte right now? What do you think of its gentrification?

Yes, rents are rising, but, compared with other cities, this is still a very cheap neighborhood. Almost half as expensive.

Of course, you're always going to have to have some money if you don't want to work in a space that has drafts and rain seeping in. A large portion of these buildings don't have central heating, and you need money to renovate, so that's why we have to ask for higher rents.

If it has become too expensive here, then take just a ten-minute walk or drive from Auguststrasse, and you can find fantastic places in Friedrichsain and Kreuzberg, or in the Weißensee and Wedding neighborhoods. You'll find unbelievable artist studios there!

Gentrification – that's normal; that's the market. When the situation has become overwhelming, there is always opportunity to find new places because if you want to create or show art, a special space is necessary. That's why we came to this girls' school – it has high ceilings, a lot of light, and the architecture was practically created for the manifestation of art. Art cannot be created, nor shown, in a space with two-meter-high ceilings in some depressing building.

How would you comment on the sad story about the closing down of the nearby Tacheles building – a place for alternative creativity?

What sad story? That they had to move out? But did you see what was going on there? Did you like it?

A strange view... (actually, the only dubious thing about the terribly run-down building are its safety issues).

Thank you! The question has been answered. I don't think I had been there for some ten years, even though I rode by it on my bike every day. It was boring; it really didn't seem interesting.

But, in your opinion, do you think it is acceptable that artists must “squat”? Are crumbling factories and warehouses good places from which art should come?

Let's take Damien Hirst as an example... And without him, when Margaret Thatcher cut off the whole budget for art – a whole line of other notable artists started their activities. They created their own budget, organized corners in factories and held shows. If an artist really wants to work in art, then he or she simply does it – no matter the situation. And, possibly, an unsupported artist is even more creative than, for instance, an artist in France, who gets everything from the state. For the last 30 years, nothing sensible has come out of the French art scene!

Overall, I'm not in favor of the government controlling the art scene. Taking, for instance, the same Rue Louise Weiss neighborhood of galleries in Paris, which the government financed. Ten years on, there's no one there anymore, even though as far as I know, the galleries didn't even have to pay rent. Gentrification didn't end up reaching this neighborhood – it was too dull.

I don't support the showering of artists with money – if you're a serious artist, you'll create wherever, and in spite of everything. You'll work seriously, things will go forward, and you'll go far.

If a young artist in Manhattan no longer has any space, then he or she will go to Williamsburg, where things are moving ahead as briskly as for Schnabel and Clemente in 1980s Soho.

Is it possible to compare the success of galleries that are part of creative neighborhoods and centers, with those galleries that have chosen independent locations?

No, at least not in Berlin. Everything is very spread out in Berlin – there are many galleries in Potsdamerstrasse, in the Wedding quarter, in Kreuzberg... Overall, everything is dependent on the gallery's program; there's little relation with location. If somebody wants to see a certain exhibition – he or she will find the gallery.

Michael Fuchs

In your opinion, what are the mutual responsibilities of the artist and the gallery owner?

That would be having a dialog that occurs automatically, and that is based on mutual interests; but in the end, it's the artist who creates. Without the artist, without the art – there is no gallery. The gallery is always one step behind.

Every artist is different – one may be more open to cooperation, another may not be. Of course, there can be fruitful dialog that is advantageous to both parties, but in my work, the artist always has the last word. It is the artist's work of art, not mine.

The art world has yet to agree to a definition of contemporary art. How do you define the phenomenon that is contemporary art – for yourself?

Christie's auction house also attempted to define their auction sections – they came up with contemporary art and post-war auctions... One has to think about when the era of contemporary art began... For me, it is the art of the last twenty years, and the art that is being created today. But if you ask a 70-year-old man, maybe he'll say that contemporary art is the art of his peers – Georg Baselitz... And, perhaps, he is right as well.

What do you think is the reason for Eastern regions being so poorly represented in the art market?

Maybe enough time hasn't passed yet. I think that, sooner or later, the East will come up to speed. Already now you can see what is going on with the Berlin Film Festival – it's all only Eastern European films, and they're almost the only ones receiving laurels. In terms of art, it is only a question of time.

I currently don't work with Eastern artists, but if the right thing appeared – then why not? Although, I must admit that ten years ago, when other people were heading to Asia, to research China's art, I didn't go. That is not my culture; I like to stay in my social environment.