One of the things Stephanie Rosenthal acquired during her 10-year stint in London’s gallery world is an appreciation of the British art of queueing with a smile on your face.
After the German art historian quit her job as chief curator at the Hayward Gallery in the wake of Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, she exported her specialist skills back to her country of birth.
Since Rosenthal took over as director at Berlin’s Gropius Bau in 2018, those who stand in line to buy a ticket at her gallery can hope to be amused and entertained by one of 12 “friends” whom she hired to meet and greet visitors.
Those who don’t fancy the wait can amble straight into the atrium to hang out at a free sound installation by the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh, another symbol of change introduced under Rosenthal’s tenure. Gropius Bau used to represent a German tradition of ivory-tower galleries, where visitors were more tolerated than welcome. Security staff would make sure they felt that way.
Now, the experience of entering the palatial 19th-century building on the border of Berlin’s Kreuzberg and Mitte districts is more reminiscent of stepping into a London exhibition space such as the Royal Festival Hall or Tate Modern.
“In England, the approach was always to have a low threshold for entry,” said Rosenthal. “The question that galleries asked was, ‘How can culture affect our everyday thinking?’ rather than, ‘Take this flight of stairs, and then culture will reveal itself to you.’ In that respect, in Germany we were 10 years behind.”
When Britain voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, the result shocked many European citizens who had made the UK their adopted home. Six years on, many have returned to the countries they were raised in. However, it is also becoming clearer that the experiences they gathered are changing continental European cities in unexpected ways.
For Germans, this is particularly true of those from the UK’s art and museums sector, long a popular destination for graduates from a country that regularly produces more art historians than it can offer jobs to. The British Museum, the V&A and Tate Liverpool have or have had directors with German passports.
Stefan Kalmár, 52, spent a total of 17 years in England after swapping the University of Hildesheim for Goldsmiths in 1996, going on to head up the Institute of Visual Culture in Cambridge, London’s Cubitt gallery, and eventually the capital’s prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) from 2016 to 2021.
He recalled a “utopian period” between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, when “London was on the way to become Europe’s New York”. “Britain totally shaped my idea of culture.”
But the Brexit referendum marked a turning point for Kalmár, the son of an East German mother and a Hungarian father. “Even before the Brexit vote, it felt like insular thinking was creeping back in – it was much more extreme than I had imagined coming from New York.” Even in London’s globalised art scene, he recalled, colleagues made derogatory remarks about “foreigners” that went often unchallenged.
The culture wars that were amplified in the years after the divisive vote also sapped his job of joy, Kalmár said. While the ICA is only 21% publicly funded – compared with 70% to 80% at comparable German institutions – the multidisciplinary venue was still perceived as being largely government-supported, and provocative programming could trigger furious letters of rightwing complaint that required careful legal responses.
The lack of an American donor culture and an equivalent tax-break regime, he said, meant that British art organisations “get the worst of both worlds”.
“You end up running essentially what has become a subsidised business rather than a civic institution. The mixed-economy model forces you to be a lot more commercial than you want – you spend all your time working out how to make more money out of your bookshop or your cafe, and that ends up draining a lot of energy you would rather invest in focusing on the programme.”
Now based in Marseille, France, where he runs a curatorial production office, Kalmár said he had started to renew his appreciation of France and Germany’s way with the arts, especially when he saw how quick and unbureaucratic the state was to prop up cultural institutions during the pandemic, while UK organisations struggled.
“It’s a completely different approach to what we see as public service. A German museum may close for four weeks to install a new exhibition – that’s completely unthinkable in the UK.”
Even then, many German directors and curators who learned their trade in Britain’s more commercial but also more audience-orientated art world remain ambivalent. “I sometimes struggle with my own argument: well-funded German museums should be exemplary models of civic engagement. And too often, unfortunately, they are not.”
“The approach here [in Berlin] is: even an exhibition that doesn’t attract that many viewers can be valuable,” said Rosenthal, who is leaving Berlin this autumn to head the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. “Culture is seen as an important instrument for critical thinking. But on the flipside, London taught me that a blockbuster show isn’t necessarily a bad show.” Under her tenure, Berlin’s most spacious gallery hosted a blockbuster show by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
Anna Gritz first arrived in London on an Erasmus scheme in 2002, later returning to work as a curator at the Hayward and the South London Gallery. Since the start of June, she has been the new director of Haus am Waldsee, an art centre in Berlin’s genteel Zehlendorf district, built in the style of an English country house.
“One thing I learned in the UK is that art is not only what takes place in the exhibition rooms,” Gritz said. “Art can also be what a gallery does with the local community in its neighbourhood.”
Outreach programmes, designed to bring more audiences from socially disadvantaged backgrounds into galleries, are still a relative novelty in the German gallery and museum world. At the Southbank Centre, Rosenthal said she had a department of 30 people working on reaching such new audiences. At Gropius Bau, she increased outreach staff to three – from zero.
At Haus am Waldsee, Gritz said she planned to recruit an outreach curator and wanted to bring more children and young people into a gallery that currently gets its most reliable audience from pensioners.
“I didn’t leave London because of Brexit,” she said.
“But in hindsight, the reasons why I didn’t stay may have been tied to it. And yet I liked being a foreigner,” she added. “Sometimes I miss it.”