Protests by Berlin-based artists over the curator of “Diversity United,” a traveling exhibition with ties to right-wing politicians, have led some prominent participants in the show to drop out.
The controversy over the show is related to protests surrounding the Kunsthalle Berlin, a new, temporary museum at the abandoned Tempelhof airport. Calling the Kunsthalle Berlin was a “cynical, neoliberal machine,” Berlin-based artists took issue with the space’s founder, the curator Walter Smerling, who organized “Diversity United” in its initial showing at the airport. According to Candice Breitz, an artist who has been among those leading a movement known as Boycott Kunsthalle Berlin, at least 9 of the 90 participants have pulled out the show, which is now at the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
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Artists associated with Boycott Kunsthalle Berlin claimed that the organizers of “Diversity United” failed to appropriately compensate many of the participating artists, and that the show had traveled to Russia with the explicit approval of, and funding by, President Vladimir Putin. The show, which aspires to showcase how the “artistic face of Europe is complex, diverse and permanently in flux,” was first staged in 2021 at the Tempelhof airport and is slated to travel to Paris after appearing in Moscow.
According to Breitz, Yael Bartana, Mona Hatoum, Aleksandra Domanović, Katja Novitskova, Ahmet Öğüt, Agnieszka Polska, Martina Vacheva, Dan Perjovschi, and Constant Dullaart are among those who have withdrawn—and there are others who have pulled out or intend to do so, but don’t want to go public, according to Breitz. Additional, artist caner teker is declining a prize for emerging artists being given out by a Bonn-based foundation run by Smerling.
“The artists who’ve thus far withdrawn from ‘Diversity United’ have tended to first formally communicate their intentions to the curatorial team behind the exhibition before reaching out to vocal members of the boycott group (#BoycottKunsthalleBerlin), to give us permission to share their decisions with a broader public,” Breitz said in an interview. “We’ve taken great care to ensure that we have their blessing before going public with their names.”
The Boycott Kunsthalle Berlin movement aims to highlight Smerling’s connections to right-wing politicians. “Diversity United” received support from former German officials, like Armin Laschet and Gerhard Schröder. A key funder of the show, entrepreneur Lars Windhorst, has been implicated in both the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers. The political connections of the show and artists’ dashed hopes of making use of the Tempelhof airport for themselves spurred some to act.
In an email to ARTnews, Smerling wrote, “I have no understanding for the boycott. Boycotting is not a solution, for anyone. The solution is to find common ways. There must be opportunities for private, public and cooperative exhibitions. Incidentally, I find it highly disrespectful ,and undignified when artists want to prevent other artists from being seen.”
Smerling also defended the show’s connections with Putin, even as tensions increase in Russia due to the situation in the Ukraine. “The claim of ‘Diversity United’ is to build bridges with art, open the possibility for dialogue, where everything else fails,” Smerling wrote. “Maybe that is why the foreign ministry and the president of the federal republic of Germany support this exhibition, fully aware of its patrons.”
Smerling received 1 million euros in funds from the German Foreign Federal Office to organize the “Diversity United” show, which is more than the National Gallery in Berlin has within its annual acquisition fund. While the show was organized around the theme of diversity, all of the 10 curators of the show and all of the financial backers were white. “There was significant frustration around ‘Diversity United’ when it was installed in Berlin, but the constellation of power behind the exhibition made it very intimidating for people to speak out,” Breitz said.
Smerling had been given access to two hangars in the Tempelhof Airport rent-free. And while there had initially been claims that Smerling had to find private funding to cover the Kunsthalle Berlin’s operating costs, which can run to as much as 100,000 euros a month due to the lack of infrastructure and the old age of the building, it turned out that the government had agreed to cover half the costs, according to the German publication Monopol. (These funds had come out of pool of money for buildings and real estate, not one for public museums.) Christoph Gröner, a real estate developer who Breitz alleges is responsible for hundreds of evictions during the pandemic, footed the other half of the bill for the running costs of Kunsthalle Berlin.
Asked about the show’s funding, Smerling argued that these facts don’t represent the full picture, saying, “Each art exhibition costs us far more than just the operating costs for the halls and, depending on the number of visitors, also more than the operating subsidy we receive. This is all our risk.”
Smerling has said he welcomes a “dialogue” with the artists, but Breitz believes this overture came too late. “Until a couple of weeks before it opened, nobody had even heard that we would be getting a ‘Kunsthalle Berlin,’ including our top museum directors and curators at public institutions. That is absolutely unacceptable. The purpose of a boycott is to seek to alter a situation that is unacceptable.”