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Berlin Art Week builds on its strengths

The city's annual art festival has expanded beyond its commercial roots—but still keeps its mind on the local market

Crowds queued up to 30 minutes to get into the “Vertigo of Reality” exhibition during the jam-packed opening party at the Akademie der Künste. Photo Ⓒ Kulturprojekte Berlin, Foto: Till Budde

Berlin Art Week, now in its third year, has quickly established itself as the city’s leading autumn event (until 21 September). It was started to support the plunging gallery sales reported after Art Forum, Berlin’s primary art fair, which closed in 2010. But it has expanded beyond its commercial roots and now boasts 13 institutional partners, with more that 300 participating venues and several project spaces selected by a jury to highlight the most interesting non-commercial qualities of the city’s art scene. The programme also receives funding from Berlin’s Senate Administration and Deutsche Bank.

Among the museums taking part is the Akademie der Künste, which hosted a jam-packed official opening on Tuesday night, 16 September. People reported queuing up to 30 minutes to get into the “Vertigo of Reality” exhibition, which has new media, participatory and video game art by nearly 50 artists such as Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Marina Abramovic, Tino Sehgal, Olafur Eliasson, Harun Farocki and Bill Viola.

There was far less jostling on Thursday at the preview of the fair Art Berlin Contemporary (Abc), the main commercial event of the week, but as many noted, the relaxed atmosphere made it easy to explore and enjoy the art. The first hall is a wide-open space showing the work of around 38 artists in a grand “selling exhibition”, with more than 70 artists represented in gallery stands in the venue’s two other halls. A number of artists could also be spotted at the fair in person, either browsing the displays or performing works for the opening, such as John Bock and Anca Munteanu Rimnic. Only a few dealers were around and those present were friendly and relaxed. At Barbara Thumb’s stand, a frame on the wall remained empty for the first few hours because the Peruvian artist Fernando Bryce, known for his black-ink drawings, had just finished the work that morning.

And yet, “the fair has definitely upped its game this year” said the London-based art collector Anita Zabludowicz, who was most interested in the large presentation of German and emerging artists. “We’ll have a lot of research to do this weekend,” she said.

New to Art Week was Artfi, the fine art and finance conference on Wednesday. The event began with a standing-room-only presentation by Clare MacAndrew from the research and consulting firm Arts Economics. Although Europe’s art market is improving, she said, “the EU is the big loser”. The US has been able to go “from strength to strength” because of its cultural infrastructure and its more transparent and regulated market, which attracts local and international buyers. Lessons other markets would do well to learn from, she said. Transparency was also the hot topic at the “Art as Financial Asset” panel, with speakers from an eclectic mix of art businesses, including Art Vantage, The Fine Art Fund Group, Privatbank Berlin, and A&F Markets.

The panel “Berlin: the Local Art Market” emphasised the challenges faced by the city known for its artists but also for being a big exporter of art. The dealer Mehdi Chouakri, who opened his Berlin gallery in 1996, spoke of the “heavy competition” between the top 40-50 dealers. He asked why German museums lack the funding to “support local galleries, when, museums like the Reina Sofia in Madrid have a €1m budget to spend at Arco?” Thomas Köhler, the director of Berlinische Galerie, also lamented the shortage of museum acquisitions and confessed getting “very depressed at art fairs”.

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