Open letter: Who Owns the Public?

Open letter: Who Owns the Public?


Tempelhof Airport, Berlin. Photo: Danica O. Kus.

February 16, 2022
Open letter: Who Owns the Public?

To the Berlin Senator for Culture and Europe Klaus Lederer, the Governing Mayor of Berlin Franziska Giffey, the former Governing Mayor Michael Müller, the members of the Supervisory Board of Tempelhof Projekt GmbH, the Berlin Court of Auditors, the German Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth, as well as German Federal President Frank Walter Steinmeier as patron of the exhibition “Diversity United.”

We are alarmed that the City of Berlin and its officials have allowed themselves to be instrumentalized by private associations, companies, and individuals around the “cultural manager” Walter Smerling, by providing infrastructural and financial support to the so-called “Kunsthalle Berlin.” Tempelhof Airport is an important, central, and historically loaded location. Organizations around Smerling are not just getting private networking and representational opportunities subsidized by public funding on this site. They are also actively engaging in misguided “cultural diplomacy” in the midst of a geopolitical crisis of the highest magnitude—the smoldering Russia-Ukraine conflict. Vladimir Putin is the patron of one exhibition (“Diversity United”) and, on the eve of the opening of the next (Bernar Venet), the designated Gazprom supervisory board member Gerhard Schröder delivered a speech—in the exhibition rooms, at the company reception of the main sponsor, real estate developer Christoph Gröner.

We are alarmed, not so much because we have a different idea of culture (even though in the case of “Diversity United” in particular, with twelve white, male members on the project advisory board, the false labeling was cringeworthy) or because we believe that this is the only case where private market interests are given a stage using public funding (unfortunately this is not the case). But many of us have known about the pitfalls of the Smerling protocol for years and now see how multiple officeholders in Berlin, naively if not irresponsibly, allow themselves to be roped in.

Here are our demands:
We call on all those who are professionally or otherwise connected to contemporary art to rethink their dealings with ethically and politically questionable “partners,” especially with regard to them being subsidized by public resources. Some of us already publicly protested against a Smerling exhibition in 2017 for such reasons; we stand in solidarity with all those who have critically researched and reported on Smerling, as well as with all those who have made their protest known, for example under the hashtag #boycottkunsthalleberlin, or are now ending their involvement in current Smerling exhibitions.

–We demand that the lease of exhibition spaces to “Kunsthalle Berlin” be stopped immediately and that their subsidies from public funds be discontinued.

–We demand the disclosure of the agreement made between the “Stiftung Kunst und Kultur e.V” and the “Tempelhof Projekt GmbH,” which manages the site on behalf of the city. We also demand a political reappraisal in the Berlin Senate of the evolution of this agreement, as well as of the decisions made by the responsible parties.

–We demand a financial and fiscal review of the process by authorities. The Senate Department of Finance has already stated that in the case of interim uses, a rent waiver in combination with a simultaneous subsidy of operating costs is “hardly justifiable.” In this case, not only were two halls in the “listed and iconic building” (Tempelhof Projekt GmbH’s own words) handed over rent-free. On top of this, 50 percent of the monthly operating costs of each of the two hangars is covered, which according to media reports could amount to up to a hundred thousand euros each, which corresponds to a sum of up to 2.4 million euros over a term of two years.

–We demand that Berlin’s cultural policy finally start to take art and the art scene seriously, and stop trying to compensate for the chronic underfunding of existing institutions by relying on private players. The public and professional experts must be involved through proper procedures, to prevent this form of instrumentalization. We demand that public subsidies continue to be directed to art workers and public institutions without pay-to-play intermediaries.

–The German Minister of State for Culture and Media is responsible “for cultural institutions and projects of national importance.” If the founding of a serious Kunsthalle Berlin worthy of the name is preempted by arbitrary self-designation, this indicates a need for action. We therefore call for ethical guidelines to be developed, with regard to the relationship between the public sector and private interests or sponsors, in order to prevent such instrumentalizations from happening in the first place…

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February 16, 2022

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