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The Rise and Fall of Art Forum Berlin
by Mara Goldwyn

Once upon a time, there was big art fair in Berlin. It was called Art Forum. In its 15th edition last year, it showed more than 200 artists from ninety-four galleries, and 40,000 people came to see it. In Berlin's flailing economy, it seemed like the path to a pot of gold: the title of European Art Capital. And over the past decade, as this giant beanstalk of a fair grew and grew and grew, a number of other events sprouted around it, too.

abc (Art Berlin Contemporary), the largest of them, didn't consider itself a fair, but rather a “hybrid between a fair and a curated exhibition.” Others also defined themselves through their difference from Art Forum—more independent, misunderstood... “emerging.” Preview: The Emerging Art Fair, claimed to show a whole “new generation of artists,” while Berliner Liste and Berliner Kunst Salon were an “alternative art fair” and “an avant-garde, sometimes experimental alternative to Art Forum,” respectively.

This year however, the fair was suddenly canceled. The alternatives seem to have cannibalized the main event. Or to belabor and confuse our original metaphor, the giant beanstalk fell, and the sprouts have taken over.

(Image:  Marie-Jo Lafontaine 'Dance the world', 2008. Courtesy Galerie Samuelis Baumgarte, Bielefeld, and Art Forum Berlin)

Earlier this year, abc entered into negotiations with Art Forum to potentially merge. According to a press release from Art Forum organizer Messe Berlin GmbH, the consortium of galleries behind abc had “complained that Art Forum was entering into competiton” with their event, and had considered coming together with their rival to establish an unprecedented mega-fair.

But Art Forum, awkwardly scheduled between London's Frieze and Paris' FIAC, had the wrong dates in abc's eyes, and there were some discrepencies in terms of “respective responsibilities,” according to the same press release. By the end of May, Art Forum was dead, and no one seemed particularly surprised.

What do observers think about this gaping hole in the Berlin fall contemporary art itinerary?

“Damn straight embarassing”, said Despina Stokou, a self-proclaimed ARTATOR (artist-curator), who created Bpigs—a humorous guide for artist-run and independent projects—out of what she perceived to be an exclusivity and “stiffness” in the art scene. “I don't think it will affect anything though, and I do believe it will start again soon. Germans are all for efficiency,” she added.

Monica Salazar, founding director of Berlin Art Link, an online magazine and travel service for Berlin Art Week, thought it a bit of a shame. “It's weird, and it's sad. It wasn't a bad fair,” she commented. “And it was a really needed thing if Berlin is [supposed to be] an art capital of the world, or at least of Europe.

“If you don't have a major art fair, it takes away a lot of credibility from saying this is a major art city,” she continued. “We're losing out on a lot of marketing for the art scene that was there for so long. I mean, the events are still going on, but centered around what?”

Artist and Preview co-director Ralf Schmitt also thought the absence of Art Forum could do no good for the city's image.

“Even in the last couple of years, the Art Forum has unfortunately never tapped into its full potential as the largest and best-funded fair of the art hub that Berlin undoubtedly is,” he said. But in the end, “'s the message that this sends: A city that claims to be a capital of culture, that derives a major portion of its tourism from the cultural variety it offers, has allowed its only state-funded platform for contemporary art galleries to drown in petty quarrels.

“The lack of political interest in the downfall of Art Forum has a negative impact on the international perception of Berlin which might damage its image for years to come.”

(Image: Claus Richter, Foggy Garden/Smoke and Mirrors, 2009. Courtesy of Galerie Eva Winkeler, Frankfurt am Main, and Art Forum Berlin)

But the changing of the guard could also mean new opportunities. abc, for its part, is stepping up to the task. According to spokesperson Joanna Kamm, “abc is now the main art event in autumn. Our goal is to call attention to Berlin and stress its importance within the art world.”

“It's an interesting shift. We'll see what happens,” said Stefanie Gerke, co-founder of (Niche Art & Architecture Tours Berlin ), which specializes in presenting visitors to non-commercial project spaces, emerging galleries and artists' studios. “We'll see what sort of resonance [these smaller events] get, how many people come, whether international collectors will be coming.”  Gerke and her partner Nele Heinevetter suggested that the Berlin Art Week in fall could become like Berlin's very successful springtime Gallery Weekend, which—perhaps not so coincidentally—is created by the same group of galleries behind abc.

Heinevetter emphasized that when it comes down to it, though, the art scene in Berlin is not all about money... at least not yet. “It's an emerging market, and it will be for some time … there's not a lot of money involved” she said.

Heinevetter continued:

“I think there's a lot of potential. We [at Niche Tours] like to expose places before they've come to the surface, when they're still experimenting. We believe that's where a lot of creative energy is being liberated. We like to bring people to look around and meet those people who have an enthusiasm to produce, exhibit and create even though they don't have money... it's what we love about Berlin.”

“It shouldn't be about the art fair anyway,” concluded Salazar of Berlin Art Link. “It should be about the city and the scene. Everything gets moved up instead of just that one main thing, and everybody maybe gets to the other things.

“What's the bigger deal in this city is the emerging art scene, not the established one."

(Image: berlin talks: Braucht Berlin eine Kunsthalle? Hamburger Bahnhof. Courtesy of Art forum Berlin)

So what will the moral of the story be?

Will emphasizing the alternatives be Berlin's best strategy for acheiving international artworld status? (After all, following the path less traveled is never a bad idea, especially in the artworld.) Or will it be its final demotion to second-class art city?

That is, will climbing up the beanstalk and bringing down the giant mean winning a bag of gold coins, or will the death of Art Forum rather be like the eviscerating of the goose that laid the golden egg, killing the city's last opportunity for riches?

--Mara Goldwyn, writer living in Berlin

(Top image: Wilhelm MundtTrashstone 412,  2008, 320 x 170 x 180 cm, Production waste in glass fiber; Courtesy Buchmann, Berlin and Art Forum Berlin) 

Posted by Mara Goldwyn on 9/12/11

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