Little Mitte


Last March, as the U.S. economy buckled and groaned its way through one of its worst months in recent years, the art world’s eyes were on the Hudson River’s Pier 94, the location of the Armory Show, increasingly seen as a gauge of the art market’s temperature. The 200 international participants at the 15-year-old fair generally had low expectations and single-artist shows. Yet reports indicate that the event went better than anticipated, with buyers warming to its emphasis on diversity and eclectic wares. The biggest splash was the introduction of the Armory Modern on Pier 92, a hushed enclave of 60 galleries devoted to work reaching back to the 1920s that discreetly flagged in more-upmarket collectors who had previously found little to tempt them in the space next door.

The fair this year continues its evolution. Another major addition, Armory Focus, to be located in a dedicated area at the back of the Pier 94 exhibition space, is intended to redefine the overall dynamic by highlighting particular concepts, locations, or genres. The spotlight for this edition is on that most deliciously sexy of art cities, Berlin. Hoping to capture the wild, mercurial spirit of the German capital’s art scene, the fair planners have offered its galleries a series of incentives — subsidized shipping, insurance, hotel, and booth rates — and organized a program of auxiliary events designed to reflect its reputation as the center of European art. "I’m fascinated by the scene there," says Armory director Katelijne de Backer. "I think it’s analogous to New York’s scenes, such as Chelsea when it began, or Williamsburg, or now the Lower East Side."

A full list of galleries participating in Armory Focus was unavailable at press time, but a few names slipped out, among them first-timers Galerie Guido W. Baudach, the 10-year-old stalwart of the art scene; the sleek Carlier Gebauer; the brand-new western Berlin space Reception; and Barbara Wien, a leading light of the booming Mitte. Returning to the Armory will be the Mitte pioneer Galerie Thomas Schulte and the younger, more idiosyncratic Wentrup.

This list suggests that the Armory is providing a broad, commercially tested overview of the Berlin art world, rather than reaching out to some of the spaces that have sprung up mushroomlike in its nooks and crannies, amid derelict businesses. But according to de Backer, the fair will attempt to represent the city’s entire vivid art spectrum. "We have approached a cross-section of the best galleries in Berlin, emerging and established, and we want them to use our fair as an opportunity to make extraordinary presentations, to show off what makes the scene there so exciting," she says. "We are also working with the Goethe-Institut and the German consulate to do a big party, a panel at the fair, and other events."

What’s behind the hype and excitement? Although Berlin is teeming with artists, curators, galleries, and dealers, it’s often difficult to get a handle on its ever-shifting, rich, and complex art topography. Since the city bolted itself back together in 1989, its cheap rents, plentiful exhibition spaces, and permanent air of artistic activity have enticed wave upon wave of impecunious talent, especially from the United States. Post-reunification artists have embraced Berlin’s fractured, damaged psyche by reaching deep into its collective consciousness and channeling the weird energy pervading the gray streets and crumbling infrastructure.

"For most people in the New York art world, Berlin is seen as a tremendously exciting place, where some of the world’s best contemporary artists live, work, and interact," says the Chelsea-based dealer Robert Goff, whose gallery, Goff+Rosenthal, maintained an outpost in the German capital until 2006. "I think there’s a slight jealousy that New York hasn’t felt so hospitable to artists in the past decade because of the cost of living here, but perhaps that’s changing. It’s so important for galleries not from New York to show here, meet New York collectors and curators, and the Armory is the best place to do that."

The decision to make Berlin this year’s focus was motivated by more than romanticism and nostalgia. "The idea frankly stemmed from the economic situation," de Backer says. "It occurred to us that it provided an opportunity to foment budding scenes. They keep the art-market engine running, so supporting them benefits us in the long run. And it’s not necessarily a geographic focus. We are starting with Berlin, but the option is open in the future for the focus to turn to, say, women artists. We have to be flexible and we have to think ahead. We have to make sure that our standards remain high."

Given the paucity of contemporary-art collectors in their own city, Berlin galleries found the prospect of showing at the Armory interesting, to say the least. Emilie Trice, a New York writer and curator who has been involved with a number of galleries in Berlin in recent years, articulates the frustrations felt by countless professionals at the lack of incentives for artists to remain there and develop their careers. "Berlin is like a slow, draining sieve," she says. "Artists, galleries, projects flow in and are filtered out and replaced by the next, and it continues. The only thing that would plug the holes would be money. People move on because there’s so little financial support and investment." The kind of support provided by initiatives like the Armory’s program and the similar one offered at Scope this past June could significantly help Berlin’s art community in these straitened times, enabling artists to begin commanding prices on a par with those of their contemporaries in London and New York.

With the potential for significant mutual benefit and kudos, love should be flowing from both sides of this intriguing hookup when visitors enter the Armory Show next month. Whether this will be accompanied by a parallel monetary flow remains, of course, to be seen. Whatever happens this year, de Backer is optimistic about the future. "In the short run, I hope it will introduce new art to our city," she says. "In the long run, I hope Armory Focus will serve to cross-pollinate art scenes throughout the world."

"Little Mitte" originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' February 2010 Table of Contents.