Based in Berlin: Policy Proposals for Living and Working
“What the city should give to the arts is a fraction of what the arts continually give to the city.”
– Haben und Brauchen
Around this time last year I learned that the studio building where I was working in Berlin was sold. Again. This was the fourth time in the two years since I began renting this studio that the building had changed hands, this time being picked up by Russian investors. We were given another 90-day notice until all 50 or so of the artists/designers/musicians/writers would have to move out, except this time were were told the deadline would stick. The studio complex was formed in 2008 by the art collective KUNSTrePUBLIK, whose projects engage public space and urban planning and have focused on repurposing a number of unused sites in the center of Berlin including Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum and the Zentrum für Kunst and Urbanistics (ZK/U). This studio building was housed in an abandoned former East German office building located along the river Spree in a once forgotten industrial corner of the Mitte (Central) district of Berlin where it had been sitting in limbo, unwanted and underutilized, until it became animated by a group of urban explorers, artists and activists (and the occasional party) looking for an affordable place to organize and practice their trade. This cycle of creative reuse flourished in Berlin since the fall of the Wall but for the past 10 years foreign capital has been flowing into the city and it finally crept it’s way down this street – one luxury loft apartment highrise at a time.
For a long time the City of Berlin was one of the largest holders of property in the local real estate market. The redevelopment plans following the conflicts of the early 20th century combined with the Cold War-era state-run housing programs and the large areas of vacancy after the fall of the Berlin Wall left the city’s Housing Authority in control of an abundance of buildings and empty lots scattered across the entire city as it entered the 21st century. This surplus of real estate gave the city significant control of local urban planning initiatives including developing affordable social-housing programs, locations of schools and kindergartens, as well as, an expansive network of parks and playgrounds.1 This stock of city owned property also gave the city of Berlin enormous influence over rental and property prices and it was this promise of affordable cost of living that contributed to the influx of artists and musicians who flocked to the city throughout the 1990’s and 00’s. However, while this abundance of building property was an asset to the city, it was also an incredible financial burden and it was no secret that Berlin was broke and desperately seeking to attract businesses and the creative community alike with campaigns like “be Berlin” or branding the city as “Poor, but Sexy.” There was incredible pressure on Berlin to reconcile this dual identity, as the economically depressed “Hauptstadt” (the nation’s capital) and as the emerging creative capital of Europe fuelled by its cheap rent and abundance of studio spaces. This reached a critical mass during the lead up to the financial crisis of 2008. Under the weight of their own debt, the city sought a quick injection of cash and decided to capitalize on its property holdings by selling off large numbers of their public housing units to foreign investment firms, including companies like Goldman Sachs who ended up buying 66,000 city/state-owned apartments for an average of €38,000 per unit. There were many other large sales that followed and the privatization of publicly owned assets has entirely reshaped the composition that once made the city so attractive. Since 2007, residential real estate prices in Berlin have increased over 32%.
With the sale of our studio building on the horizon and diminishing options for finding a new location anywhere in the same neighborhood, or even adjacent neighborhoods, the members of our studio building organized into a small self-governing group of representatives in an attempt to use our collective strength to find a space that might not be accessible to any one of us individually. The group began looking at property available on the open market and simultaneously contacted the largest artists advocacy group in the city Der berufsverband bildender künstler berlin (The Professional Association of Visual Artists in Berlin) or BBK. The BBK is the type of organization that was (and remains) difficult for me to grasp as an artist from the US living in Europe. The BBK acts as a hybrid (public/private) union with roughly 2,000 artist members that advocates for the professional, economic and legal interests of artists living in Berlin, including international artists. It is a private organization composed mainly as an independent non-profit that manages the organization and two other divisions that provide access to workshop facilities and services for artists and it receives significant funding and support from the local government, specifically the Berlin Senate.2
After reaching out to the BBK a meeting was organized with one of their representatives to discuss our needs as displaced workers and the current lack of access to affordable workspace in Berlin. This meeting was moderated by Florian Schmidt, Studio Commissioner and Director of the Studio Program of the BBK, and was attended by artists from several other studio buildings facing imminent eviction or the threat of dramatic rent increases at that time. In his role as Director of the Studio Program at the BBK, Florian Schmidt oversees a program that is designed to provide access to studios for artists living in Berlin. The Studio Program Berlin operates through two main services: a subsidized studio program and a city-wide classified listing where individuals can post studios for rent or sublet. The subsidized studio program was developed 20 years ago through a cooperation between the BBK, the Berlin Senate, housing associations, district offices and private property developers and acts as a unique tool to create new affordable studio locations for artists throughout the city. The subsidy covers 60% of the market value for studio rent and is available to artists with an income under €16,000 per year. The program is obviously quite popular but is insufficient for meeting the workspace needs of even a fraction of the artists in the city as each one-day viewing for the rentals is usually attended by ten times more people than studios available.
As Studio Commissioner, Florian also tracks the closure of studio buildings and loss of affordable studio spaces throughout Berlin. At the time of this meeting in October 2014 there were five studio buildings facing eviction, ranging from city-owned properties to semi-squats, and their closure would impact over two hundred artists. By the end of 2014, this number had grown to 350 artist displaced after the closure of seven studio buildings across Berlin.
This original meeting was a collective recognition that an entire group of artists, workers and city residents were living in a perpetual state of crisis often times to the benefit of the other parties involved (real estate developers and city government) and was the beginning of what would later become the advocacy group Allianz bedrohter Berliner Atelierhäuser (The Alliance of Endangered Berlin Studio Buildings) or AbBA. AbBA is an alliance of ten studio buildings, including over 500 artists, formed to create a self-governing network between studio buildings, preserve existing studio buildings and develop new affordable workspaces for the future. They plan to do this through a series of policy proposals and direct actions that draw attention to how artists and studio buildings contribute to the cultural infrastructure of the city and in addition protest for the redevelopment of underutilized space in the city center. AbBA has already organized two direct actions since their formation – most recently, Hier entsteht ein Zentrum – ein Produktionszentrum für Kunst, Kultur and Soziales (Here is a Center – a production center for art, culture and society), to coincide with Berlin’s largest art fair Art Berlin Contemporary (ABC) during Berlin Art Week and the beginning of the gallery season. Hier entsteht ein Zentrum began at Alexanderplatz, the former cultural center of East Berlin, and marched towards the nearby city-owned Haus der Statistik building, a former Stasi office building, to demanded that this huge centrally located vacancy be opened for the development of artists studios, rehearsal rooms and workshops facilities to offset the disappearance of these workspaces in the private real estate market. In addition to this location, AbBA unveiled a proposal for 10 other existing sites that would be suitable locations in Berlin for the development of a production center that are state or federally owned or could come under joint private ownership.3
Other groups have come together in the past several years, forming artist-led organizations to promote the political agenda of independent artists, writers and performers throughout the city and exercise their rights as citizens by taking their demands directly to the city government in the form of policy proposals. These agendas have most notably been articulated through a recent pair of policy proposals including the Masterplan “Artist Studios 2020” and the 10 Point Plan – Strengthening the Independent Scene.
Masterplan “Artists Studios 2020” was authored by Florian Schmidt from the BBK (who is also the artist liaison to the Berlin Senate) and is a proposal to create 2,000 affordable studios in Berlin by the year 2020 to address the pattern of increasing rents and lack of affordable studio spaces across the city. This crisis has accelerated in recent years and their research estimates that 60-70% of artists in Berlin, or roughly 7,000, are currently looking for “affordable” studio space. To achieve this goal of establishing 2,000 studio spaces they have developed seven strategies that rely on alliances between public and private entities, new construction, and reuse of existing city properties. These strategies include a range of different approaches for acquiring property for the studio developments including plans to work with the city and private developers to offer 5% of the area of new developments for artist studios, using existing city property on the edge of the city to develop a rural studio program, working with the city to increase the budget for subsidized studios to create immediate relief and to release more state-owned property holdings for long term development (most major cities, in the US and Europe, have large holdings of vacant property). This plan also has an additional vision towards the future that attempts to conceptualize the studio in relationship to the trajectory of an artist’s career and their changing needs for space as they approach old age from studio space to studio apartments, increased storage space and communal living by considering mixed-use combinations of these formats for their developments. The strategies outlined in the Masterplan 2020 include additional proposals, projected annual budgets and a series of architectural pilot projects working with prefabricated materials and existing building sites to keep the construction of these new studios affordable. Studies on the design and construction of these low-cost studio spaces can be found in the recently published book “Art City Lab – New Spaces for Art”.
The 10 Point Plan – Strengthening the Independent Scene (English version here) was developed by the Koalition der Freie Szene, an organization established to represent “all of the independent working artists and art initiatives in Berlin,” and is aimed at strengthening the financial support for artists in Berlin. The first version of the 10 Point Plan was introduced in 2012 and has been updated annually to demand that the grants and fellowships available under the Senate Chancellery for Cultural Affairs grant system become more flexible in order to adapt to the changing needs of how artists work. The operating principle of the Koalition der Freie Szene is that artists are workers and an integral part of the cultural infrastructure of a city. They found this sentiment echoed in the recent coalition agreement between Germany’s ruling political parties (the SPD and CDU), “Berlin is a global metropolis of culture, our cultural wealth is our capital…Art, culture and the creative community are among the main fundamental resources of the city….The coalition seeks to increase support for the Independent Scene“ and they intend to hold these civic leaders to their word through the demands in their 10 Point Plan. Their very first point directly addresses the imbalance of how value is created off of artistic labor (and the way that artists often see very little of it in return) and calls for an increase in cultural spending within the city budget (especially for independent projects) by allocating 50% of the fiscal revenue generated from the recent City Tax (tourism tax) to support the very kind of artistic activities that have made Berlin a cultural hub.4
The other proposals in the 10 Point Plan address specific issues of funding and support by advancing a range of policies such as a minimum wage for work in music and visual arts through a combination of honoraria, scholarships and exhibition fees (in amounts similar to the W.A.G.E. “Fee Calculator”), a new grant system to provide work stipends of €7,000 (Zeitstipendien) directly to independent visual artists, a moratorium on the sale of city owned properties (“urban development is cultural policy”) and creating transparency and solidarity among participating institutions and independent artists through the inclusion of artists on selection committees and review boards. They also seek to regulate the flow of public funds from grants and awards to already-subsidized institutions, instead being directed to independent and non-subsidized artists/organizations, and secure funding for production facilities with individual budgets that can be a long-term resource to independent artists. The proposal to fund these propositions through increasing the percentage of City Tax allocated to cultural spending recognizes that artists are members of the public and tax paying citizens who should be supported by policies that are funded by the taxes they have helped generate from an increase in business and cultural tourism.
The propositions made by these groups are not one-size-fits-all and may be insufficient in addressing the problems artists face in other cities. “The lively art scene has developed in Berlin less by special public support, but by their historical situation,” the artist-founded advocacy group Haben und Brauchen described in their 2011 manifesto; “Until recent years,…there was no particular pressure on the housing market and the supply of spaces allowed a diverse, often self-organized art practice.” I’m not sure that any of the policies proposed here would be very effective in addressing the cycle of rapid gentrification and displacement that many artists face in major cities in the U.S. and throughout the world. This pattern of gentrification places real estate speculation over building occupants and profits over policy – it is an effect of the market and increasingly deregulated economic policies.
These artist-led organizations did not form in order to compete in the market (a space where artists typically have little to no power), but instead formed in order to circumvent the market and assert themselves as citizens. In the face of neoliberal economic policies that do not value the labor of artists, it is this identification as citizens, that they are contributors to and inheritors of the society they live in, that can serve artists everywhere. These Berlin-based artist organizations are going public to secure a future where they have civic representation, a right to healthcare and fair wages for work, access to public funds generated through the collection of taxes and a guarantee that artists have representation when policies are made that impact their profession. These artists are engaging in a conversation that says access and open-space is valuable and that the Public is not obsolete but its tradition of being self-organized is the future. Artists can no longer accept the status of being viewed as a separate (creative) class, one that is seen as privileged but powerless, if they want to have a voice in shaping the conditions under which they can continue to practice their profession in the future. Artists will need to re-engage the Commons before it is eroded further; preserving the public is essential to having the ability to create the type of world we want to live in – to define the future before someone else defines it for us.
- Recently, many of the remaining vacant school buildings have been converted to house the increasing numbers of refugees entering the city over the past two years and this access to shelter has been fiercely defended in some neighborhoods. http://www.thelocal.de/20140630/police-close-off-part-of-berlin-for-week-in-refugee-protest ↩
- BBK also responsible for founding of the Künsterlersozialekasse (KSK), the largest public health insurance pool and social security fund for artists/freelance workers in Germany. ↩
- Since beginning this article a tentative agreement has been reached with the city in response to the artist-led initiative to convert the Haus der Statistik into a complex with artist studios and apartments for refugees. See: http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Ziehen-1000-Fluechtlinge-nach-Berlin-Mitte-article16573536.html or their website https://hausderstatistik.wordpress.com/ ↩
- “In terms of support for independent artistic structures, the evolution of the Berlin cultural budget over the past 10 years is extremely worrisome. In comparison with the situation ten years ago when 10 % of the total cultural budget was available for free allocation now only meager 2.5%, about € 10 million, is available.” – Koalition der Freie Szene http://www.berlinvisit.org/hintergrund/ ↩