Berlin Battle Over Art Basel


The Art Basel fair franchise is the Harvard of art fairs. Elite, exclusive and secretive, it’s a powerful club whose members don’t willingly depart. Art Basel doesn’t take place until mid-June, but in Berlin, it is already the talk of the town. While some amount of resentment is inevitable when 300 galleries are picked out of 1,000 applicants, usually those who are left out don’t make a fuss, hoping for a chance the next year. But this time, someone made a public issue of it.

When one of Germany’s most prominent galleries, Eigen + Art, which first took part in Art Basel in 1991 and has been a regular since 2000, was not on the list of participants, its stunned founder, Gerd Harry “Judy” Lybke, issued a press release quoting the form letter he had received: “Owing to the limited amount of space available at the show, your gallery was unfortunately not among those initially chosen for inclusion in Art 42 Basel.” Lybke concludes: “Obvi- ously, this decision is not based on artistic grounds. It is nothing but an attempt to refuse market access to an unbearable rival,” referring to a few dealers who served on the jury. Eigen + Art is the gallery that put Neo Rauch and the New School of Leipzig painters on the map, and it represents other successful artists like the brothers Olaf and Carsten Nicolai and Yehudit Sasportas. Out of solidarity, Lybke’s artists have decided not to show any of their work in Basel with their other galleries, among them Neo Rauch, who is represented in the United States by David Zwirner; Tim Eitel, with Pace; and Martin Eder, with Hauser & Wirth. Lybke is a pioneer of the Leipzig and Berlin art scenes and is largely credited with bringing international collectors into the city: his clients include MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum, Fondation Beyeler, Don and Mera Rubell, S.I. Newhouse and Eli Broad.

The German public has been unequivocally supportive of Lybke, and other dealers have voiced their support in the press. Christian Nagel, a gallerist in Cologne and Berlin, calls Lybke’s exclusion outrageous. “Everyone is profiting from him,” Nagel says. “It was plain stupid to throw him out of the fair.” And Nicole Hackert of Berlin’s Contemporary Fine Arts accused the jury of “sordid politburo methods” and called their rejection of the dealer “a huge mess.”

Central to the controversy over Lybke’s exclusion is the fact that three of the six jury members themselves have galleries in Berlin: Tim Neuger of neugerriemschneider; Claes Nordenhake, who also has a gallery in Stockholm; and Jochen Meyer of Meyer Riegger, which also operates out of Karlsruhe. The other jury members are Zurich’s Eva Presenhuber, Xavier Hufkens from Brussels, and David Juda from London. There are no jurors from the Americas or Asia, and there are practical reasons for that, according to members of the jury. Convening up to 30 days out of the year is difficult to organize, they contend, especially when one of the members has to board a plane from Los Angeles, New York or Shanghai—an odd contention in this age of cultural globetrotting.

Berlin, it turns out, has its share of political infighting, which surfaced a few years back over its own fair Art Forum, when a large number of galleries split off and organized Gallery Weekend, competing with the fair for prominence. Later, those galleries also founded ABC as a more experimental rival to the main fair [see A.i.A., Sept. ’09]. Another source of discontent is Berlin’s gallery guide Index, published quar- terly with a list of current shows at galleries as well as a few museums and private collections. It is criticized for bias for picking only around 80 galleries out of well over 400.

The Berlin gallery scene has at least quadrupled over the last 10 years, and is spread over Mitte, Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and the newly minted gallery district around Potsdamer Strasse. But compared to New York and London, Berlin is not yet a strong marketplace, despite being a popular haven for international artists due to its low rents and bohemian mystique. With a few exceptions, such as Christian Boros and Erika Hoffmann, resident collectors are still a scarcity [see A.i.A., Mar. ’10].

At about $575 per 10 square feet, Art Basel is among the most expensive fairs for exhibitors, and for many galleries it is the single most important occasion of the year in business terms—more so for dealers from Berlin. While the city will be represented in Basel by 36 galleries, only one fewer than last year (and second only to New York with 58), this number does not reflect the explosion of Berlin’s gallery scene.

The total number of around 300 galleries selected to show at Art Basel is not going to grow; the fluctuation rate is about 15 percent, to open space for younger galleries and representatives from various countries. There are different sections to the fair: “Art Feature and Art Statements have a higher turnover by definition,” explains the fair’s co-director Marc Spiegler, “as galleries apply with a certain project.” Art Galleries, the main section, where Lybke could be found during the last 10 years, sees less change. But the more comfortable you get, the greater the shock of sudden rejection.

Eigen + Art is not the only established Berlin gallery to be excluded from the prestigious fair this year. Others from the same section had also been regulars. Mehdi Chouakri, who represents stars like Hans-Peter Feldmann and Sylvie Fleury, received the same rejection form letter. So did Giti Nourbakhsch, who works with artists like Tomma Abts and Corinne Wasmuht. Chouakri was incredulous—“The committee specifically praised my stand in the past”—but he did not protest. He quickly signed up to participate in Madrid’s ARCO instead, hoping he will be admitted into Basel again next year. Nourbakhsch publicly voiced her suspicions about the Basel Berlin caucus in a mass e-mail. Jurors Neuger and Nordenhake, she points out, are also board members of Berlin’s Gallery Weekend, and she suggests they may have intended to punish her for having left that organization the year before.

Most major art fairs, including Art Basel Miami Beach, the Armory Show, FIAC, Frieze and Art Forum Berlin, work with committees composed exclusively of dealers, says Spiegler: “This system has been the basis of Art Basel’s success in the past 42 years. Gallerists know the impact and engagement of other galler- ies best. They can judge the commitment, the program and the presentations of their colleagues.” There is no fixed set of criteria for their decisions. Berlin dealer Esther Schipper, who served on Art Basel’s jury for 10 years, describes the work of its members as being “like Swiss clockwork. It is very precise, but complicated.” Jurors, who are selected by Spiegler and co-director Annette Schoƌ?nholzer, typically serve for five to ten years. One of the committee members will be changed this year, and it is widely expected to be one of the Berliners. At the moment, everyone seems to agree, there is just too much Berlin on the Art Basel committee.

Photos: Neo Rauch, Die Kontrolle, 2010. Private collection, Basel; Neo Rauch and his Berlin dealer Judy Lybke of Eigen + Art; Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Enough Tyranny Recalled, 2007, at Giti Nourbakhsch.