It is unusually warm in April in Berlin, and I’m sitting on my balcony in Schöneberg nervously waiting for 10:30 am to come. I have an interview with Maike Cruse, the director of Berlin Gallery Weekend, the city’s leading art event of the year, and one of the most important art weekends for the international contemporary art community.
Maike greets me pleasantly as I explain who I am, and I try not to get overly excited about speaking with her. She started as the director of Art Berlin Contemporary (ABC) in 2012 and took on the role as the director for Berlin Gallery Weekend in 2013. As an association of galleries, ABC puts on Art Berlin in September and Gallery Weekend in April, and as the director of both events, her work is key to the art community and highly influential. Berlin has become one of, if not the, most important art cities in the world. Out of the 300 most important galleries selected at this year’s Art Basel, 36 came from Berlin – putting it in 2nd for number of galleries.
Berlin’s particular character has made it the home of many artists both German and foreign. The history, the style, cheap rent, the convergence of highbrow and underground culture and so many other elements have created a space for experience and exploration, which has been nearly unparalleled in any other major cities. Artists have thrived here, and more artists, both established and young, have come in to live among their peers and enjoy the diversity, which allows their practice to grow … and where the artists are, others will follow.
Over the last 10 years, Berlin has seen a rapid change in the growth of the city from both businesses and people, and,
“…It’s a little bit worrying seeing the rents get higher, artists and galleries have to move further out [of the city]. … It’s difficult for young galleries, and we need them. They’re important, because they build up young artists before the institutions do,” Maike says. But she also recognizes the advantages that the popularity is having on the art community.
“There are more collectors now, and we finally have an art market. That helps young galleries to take off. Collectors have started to move here in the last 8-10 years, because their peer group is here ... and the discourse of the art scene is here.”
Since its inception in 2005, ABC and Gallery Weekend has strived to build Berlin’s art market by attracting collectors and curators to the city, and their efforts have had tremendous success. Collectors used to come specifically for Gallery Weekend, but with the obvious quality in the gallery programs, more and more have chosen to make the city their home base, and the numbers of the public and professionals coming in for the event has grown to 20,000 each year. This popularity helps bring attention to the smaller and younger artists and galleries, and Maike explains that it’s very important to her to take care of the them, and that newcomers to the event get lots of support. She works year round to ensure the smooth operations: communicating with spaces and sponsors, planning events, promoting the galleries, and assisting in outside events (this year the New York Times has chosen to hold their Art Leaders Conference during the week of the event).
“We keep the gallery list small, so this is not expanding in anyway, but the unofficial program grows. Many people are piggybacking. I like it when it’s art events, like the artists are doing big shows, or the institutions are showing,” she says. This expansion both official and unofficial has lead to collectors from even further afar taking notice of the scene and coming to the city. New collectors from Asian and Arabic countries have increased, while many collectors from Argentina and South America are regular attendees. Berlin Gallery Weekend has also been copied by other cities, but none compare to the success and reputation of Berlin’s.
The small line-up of galleries (always under 50) is part of the unique atmosphere of Berlin as well - the large and lively feel with an intimate interworking. “We are very close with our galleries, so we can frequently meet. We choose galleries where we know they do fantastic shows and who know how it [Gallery Weekend] works. It’s more like a gallery group that I am moderating in a way. We talk, they call me, it’s easy-going.” Because it is also a private initiative, Maike and the board can be more selective in who they choose to participate. “It’s like a birthday party, you invite who you like,” she says with a good-natured laugh.
Gallery Weekend is paramount for the artists and galleries, because it’s an ability to show their work to the local and international public in their homes. It’s a different atmosphere when they present at large fairs in booths, the Gallery Weekend allows a more authentic and intimate view of the galleries and the works, and it allows the international community to experience Berlin and understand the air that allows this phenomenal existence of creativity to thrive. “People can hop on a bike and go from space to space,” Maike says – a truly particular element to life in Berlin.
The city also takes pride in being cosmopolitan transnational. This aspect of its character has a role to play in the art scene and Gallery Weekend as well.
This constant interweaving of backgrounds and cultures has created its own microcosm in the heart of Europe, and with the growth of Berlin Gallery Weekend and the city’s art market, it’s something to be recognized for the greater community, art or otherwise. “The art world is so globalized now, and if you look at the artists, they exhibit all over the world. You cannot say it’s ‘Berlin art’,” says Maike, and this is part of the allure, integrity, and spirit of the scene. Berlin is more than just Berlin at this point, “This whole Berlin thing, it’s a great city, and there’s lots of energy coming into it, but the artists are not even just German. They’re from all over the world, there’s a Canadian artist; there’s a Turkish artist…”
This blend of life, existence and art is pivotal to Gallery Weekend, and the event’s popularity offers credence to this particular path and the hard work put in throughout the year. Scattered around the city, the galleries and artists are putting on the finishing touches of their shows, and spectators anxiously wait to see what will be unveiled from artists working at the top of their game. With a brilliant line-up of regular participating galleries, and the addition of four young galleries (Alexander Levy, Dittrich & Schlechtreim, Gillmeier Rech, Lars Friedrich), it will be exciting to dash around the city, under the warm spring sun, and soak up the breadth of work waiting to fascinate through the worlds of celluloid, gauche and decibels.