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Backstage: Jörn Merkert of the Berlinische Galerie

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal Europe, 13 May 2005


For the past 17 years, 58-year-old Jörn Merkert has been the director of the Berlinische Galerie: until recently, a museum without a home. Founded 29 years ago by an art historian, Eberhard Roters, with the aim of collecting art made in Berlin, the museum finally left its temporary home at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum and opened the doors to its own building this past October in a quiet neighborhood not far from the city center. As director of the museum, Mr. Merkert is in charge of one of Berlin’s most important collections of 20th century and contemporary art. Mr. Merkert talked with Daniel Mufson in the museum’s library about the museum’s past and future.


Why did it take so long for the Berlinische Galerie to find a home? 

It was not so much a question of money, it was really a question of communication. We had a brilliant place, the Gropius Bau, and sometimes when there were no other exhibitions, we had the chance to use the whole Gropius Bau. But when the wall came down, the [culture] senators had the idea that major cultural institutions should be financed by the federal government. Mr. Radunski [Berlin’s culture] senator at the time, had in mind that the Gropius Bau should only be used for international exhibitions. In 1999, there were discussions of how to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany, and this was a pretext to restore the Gropius Bau. So that was the point, to get us out of there—we had to leave because of renovations.

How are you going to build the profile of this museum?

The profile is clear: Local focus, international impact. We’re collecting painting, photography, and architecture, including archives on the artists represented here in the collection. One of the problems is, since our founding, we have never had an acquisition budget.

How are you currently looking for contemporary art?

I haven’t done it for the last two years because I’ve been so busy raising the money for the museum. But I have my deputy director, Ursula Prinz, I have the head of the department for drawings and graphics, and the head of the photography department–they’re constantly going to the galleries and to artists’ studios.

The Third Reich has just a little corner of the museum’s permanent collection. When will Germans–or anyone else–be capable of looking at Nazi art as an integral part of German art history? 

About ten years ago, we made a huge exhibition, “Moscow-Berlin; Berlin-Moscow” at the Gropius-Bau museum, and for the very first time we showed in a critical context Socialist Realism as akin to Nazi art. But at our founding in 1975, we were much too young for Nazi art to be in our collection. Everything we showed at the Gropius-Bau was from the Military Museum in Washington, or from the Estate of Nazi Works in Munich.

It’s harder to collect from the Nazi era? 

It’s hard to collect, and we don’t spend money on that. The rare space I have, I’m not giving the honor to Nazi non-art as long as we have too little space to show the art of persecuted Jews, or others. We are an art museum and not an historical or cultural-historical museum.

How did you become a museum director? 

In Berlin, and in Bonn as well, I always tried to earn some money working at museums. In the Neue Nationalgalerie’s first days, they needed help, and I was lucky enough to get one little contract, and then another little contract, and then another–for very little money–but it was fantastic to see Werner Haftmann, one of the great masters of German art history, install the collection. I spent more time in the museum than at the university.

Is Berlin still a great city for artists or are people just dreaming about re-creating bygone eras that can’t be re-created? 

Well, if you ask artists, they think it’s a great city. Berlin, fifteen years after the wall came down, is still a place where things are not yet fixed, so that artists think it’s a very creative atmosphere here. Many galleries might not have financial power, but they have their passion. A generation of artists and galleries with the same problem–having no money–get together because they fight for each other. We do not have an established art gallery scene, do not have an established scene of collectors, but we have the most mobile, flexible, living organism: exchanging ideas, taking risks, and building up something. What the quality itself is, well, I think the contemporary art scene here is much more lively than in Paris.

You work 14 to 16 hours a day. What takes up most of your time? 

A lot of time is consumed managing. Another major thing is raising money and pure administration–there’s a lot of renegotiating special contracts for museums in Berlin to lower the salaries, and this is immensely time-consuming. And then: a lecture here, a speech there, catalog text there.

[One day] a lady all of a sudden dropped in, I knew her, she says, “Oh, I’ve just forgotten to tell you, in May I have my eightieth birthday, and I want to celebrate it here in the museum, and I want to talk about it with you.” All of a sudden, one and a half hours are gone, but she already has arranged in her last will to leave us 80 to a 100,000 Euros, so I cannot say, “Oh, please go to my assistant.”

What do you find least rewarding about the job? 

Administration, tax problems–I can’t tell you. One year ago, we asked the Berlin administration–and there are four or five different offices that you have to ask–to get signs in the streets showing people where to find us. It took us a year to get the allowance: four weeks before the opening. For eight places, it would cost us EUR4,000–which we didn’t have, and I raised the money for that. And I have five e-mails, ten remarks in the visitors’ book, and even the press says: “You should think about putting signs up to communicate [the location] of your place.” I mean, we have, for a year, been trying to do this, but I know why we are doing it. You’re doing it for the art.

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