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Save Berlin: High art for the little people

Dan Borden on the ulterior motives behind the city’s private art bunkers.

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The Boros bunker houses works by Ólafur Elíasson, Alicia Kwade, Ai Weiwei and myriad others. Photo by Noshe

Dan Borden on the ulterior motives behind the city’s private art bunkers.

Does a painting exist if no one can see it? Today’s art collectors are confronting that existential question head on, throwing open their doors to the public to maximise eyeballs on their once-vaulted art. They’re also changing the cultural face of cities worldwide by creating landmark buildings – see the around-the-block lines at Los Angeles’ new Broad Collection. 

As with many things, Berlin set the trend… 200 years ago. In 1815, Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm III gave his subjects a one-time look at his royal art hoard. The exhibition was such a hit, he made it permanent – and Berlin’s Museum Island was born. 

Like today’s collectors, there was more to the king’s generosity than meets the eye. He was celebrating his triumph over Napoleon and showing off the war booty his troops had hauled back from Paris. Today’s magnanimous Berlin collectors get substantial tax benefits and a boost in value by “branding” their collections. Still, it’s an artful win-win: These open-door collections raise Berlin’s cultural profile and invent smart new uses for unloved-but-historic buildings that might otherwise face demolition. 

The duke and duchess of Scheunenviertel

As West German art lovers Rolf and Erika Hoffmann watched Germany’s peaceful revolution of 1989, they hatched a vision of East Berlin as Europe’s new capital of Kunst. By the mid-1990s, they were lording it over Mitte’s arty makeover from atop their refurbished machine factory on Sophienstraße. At street level: art galleries and the beloved Barcomi’s café. Upstairs: artists’ studios and loft apartments. The topper was a luxurious new glass penthouse by architects Becker Gewers Kühn & Kühn where the Hoffmanns could live among modern artworks by premium names like Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Bruce Nauman. The Sammlung Hoffmann not only jump-started Mitte’s transformation into an international art centre, it was also the first collection to open its doors to the public. Since 1997, tours are available by reservation every Saturday.

Your bunker is my castle

Taking his lead from the Hoffmanns, communications magnate Christian Boros moved his West German collection into the heart of Mitte, but picked a building with a much higher profile. The castle-like Reichsbahn-bunker was built in 1943 to shelter train passengers from Allied bombs. When Boros bought it in 2003, the windowless concrete behemoth hosted a techno club and weekly sex parties. This ultimate white elephant got a genius makeover by designers Jens Casper, Petra Petersson and Andrew Strickland with galleries highlighting 21st-century conceptual art (which even Herr Boros admits he doesn’t entirely understand) and, once again, a glass penthouse on the roof. The Boros Collection has eclipsed the Hoffmanns as Berlin’s must-see art mecca, with tours Thursday through Sunday booked out months in advance. 

Subterranean zen 

Berlin’s latest private museum is Désiré Feuerle’s stunning reuse of another World War II bunker. The shelter was built to protect S-Bahn electrical panels, but became flooded in 1945 when missiles punched a hole in an adjacent S-Bahn tunnel under the nearby Landwehr Canal. British architect John Pawson’s minimal re-do exploits the bunker’s otherworldly serenity, even keeping some of that water as an underground pond. Feuerle’s collection of ancient Asian artefacts contrasts with cleverly chosen contemporary work. Open for previews since April, the Feuerle Collection officially opens for weekend tours this month.

While these collectors soak up good karma, they also take comfort in knowing their treasures are still their own.

While these collectors soak up good karma by putting their treasures in the public eye, they also take comfort in knowing those treasures are still their own. That beats the old way of sharing art: donating it to museums. These savvy collectors get to share their cake and keep it, too. And those doors that swung open to the little people can just as quickly slam shut. It’s no coincidence that these collections sit in isolated, even fortified buildings. They provide the ideal shelters for these multimillionaires to safely watch, surrounded by their treasures, when the next revolution comes.