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A look at Berlin's art scene

Cheap rent and 'coolness factor' keep young artists in Berlin

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This story is part of a series of stories written by student journalists who participated in UB’s Foreign Reporting study abroad program in Berlin, Germany this past winter.

Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo would not be an artist today if she didn’t live in Berlin.

The 33-year-old New York City native relocated to Berlin in 2006 and insists the city offers her and other artists an increasingly rare chance to live in a culturally and historically rich environment that is financially affordable, unlike in New York, Paris, London and Tokyo.

In Berlin – unlike in those other places – D’Angelo can afford a bright and spacious studio in an eclectic neighborhood and still have time to focus on her politically centered art.

But she is also worried.

In the past 10 years, Berlin has slowly been losing its image as a grungy playground and is rapidly becoming an upscale tourist mecca with a sleek art scene. Real estate prices – though still lower than in most European capitals – have surged.

Artists – including D’Angelo – are starting to feel squeezed.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, international artists flocked to Berlin, drawn by its allure as a Nazi stronghold turned Cold War capital and by the availability of hundreds of decrepit and abandoned buildings that make perfect artist colonies. Today, more than 20,000 artists live in the city and more than 6,000 of them have galleries representing them, according to Berlin Visitor Center statistics.

But the city’s 400 galleries are becoming more discerning, D’Angelo said, and gone are the days of easy openings and first-time shows.

In addition to young, struggling artists, Berlin has become home to well-known names such as Olafur Eliasson, Daniel Richter, Jonathan Meese, Alicja Kwade and Katharina Grosse, as well as Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. That’s upped the ante for young artists and made galleries and customers more discerning.

But still, it’s among the cheapest, most appealing cities for young creative people.

Average 2016 rent for a studio space is about $600 a month, compared to $1,500 in London and $2,200 in Manhattan, according to Next City and Berlin’s Housing Market Report.

“A studio in New York like this would be way off my budget,” D’Angelo says, gesturing to her spacious workroom, located in Berlin’s buzzing Kreuzberg neighborhood.

A March 2015 report by a non-profit group of artists that calls itself BFAMFAPHD – for the degrees artists now need to succeed in the art world – found that 85 percent of New York City artists need a day job to pay for studio space. Eleven percent live below the poverty line.

“It’s so tough,” says Leen Horsford, who moved to Berlin from London. “[In London] you have to work 9 to 5 in order to pay rent, and on top of that, find extra money to pay for a studio. Plus the time and the effort to go to a studio and actually make stuff.”

Horsford, 30, moved to Berlin in 2009 after completing an apprenticeship in a fiberglass studio. She was offered studio space in London, but the expense of maintaining a practice in England’s capital was overwhelming.

But, it’s more than just money that keeps these artists in Berlin. There’s also what many call the “coolness factor.”

Obliterated by the allies in World War II and cut in half by the Communists during the Cold War, the city is the incarnation of second chances. It’s mix of old and new, of destruction and reincarnation and its cafes, bars and clubs teem with restlessness and reinvention.

“Berlin is a city of lost souls,” says Horsford. “A major thing about Berlin, it’s a place that encourages everyone to be creative.”

Horsford’s sister considered moving to Berlin because she felt she wasn’t creative enough. Horsford, who has worked as a gallery assistant, curator and art director, now focuses on performance art.

“People are excited to get into things,” Horsford says. “There’s a lot of scrappy stuff.”

Berlin’s scrappy atmosphere has gone global. The city’s status as Germany’s capital, combined with low prices, tremendous nightlife and a plethora of historical sites to tour, has made it a top tourist destination in Europe over the past five years, leading to a jump in prices.

The city is clinging to its “poor but sexy” motto, coined by its former mayor, but the grungy city is starting to become less downscale. Neighborhoods that were once littered with abandoned buildings – perfect for squatters and artist communities – now boast Starbucks and H&M stores. Industrial lofts, perfect for galleries and studios, are now chic – and expensive – apartments. Struggling creatives are slowly being edged out.

The average monthly rent in Berlin was €454.30 in 2010. In June 2015, Berlin issued a rent capping law, preventing landlords from charging new tenants more than 10 percent above local averages. Berlin’s population increases by 50,000 people each year, and despite the law, average rent rose almost €200 between 2010 and 2016.

“It probably was a little easier [to move here] a long time ago because it was cheaper and people could still buy spaces very easily,” says D’Angelo. “Now it’s a bit more discerning. I think it would be harder now to be honest with you.”

The slow gentrification process affects the affordability of studio spaces and apartments for artist, but gentrification affects their ability to find success in Berlin’s art scene, as well.

“I think there’s a lot more people aware of what is going on in Berlin, and so there’s a lot more people willing to move here, like collectors and gallerists and the more commercial side of it,” says Horsford.

An influx of collectors and gallerists seems like a positive change, but the transformation of Berlin’s art culture from grungy to chic has had a negative impact on young international artists like Horsford. Still, the city continues to be magnetic and appealing and affordable.

“That’s Berlin. That’s what I think makes it so much more interesting than somewhere like London,” Horsford says. “You don’t have any money here, but people have time and desire and space and energy. People want to make stuff; there’s more of a drive. There’s opportunity here.”

Cathleen Draper is a contributing writer. Questions and comments about this story can be directed to news@ubspectrum.com.


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