With 200 museums, 440 galleries, and literal thousands of artists scattered throughout the city, Berlin has certainly earned its reputation as one of the world’s leading artistic centres. Experimentation, innovation and Berliners’ famous open-mindedness all contribute to the unique conditions that make Berlin an ideal artists’ haven. It often used to be the case that artists first gained notoriety in Berlin before moving to other cities like LA, New York, or London. However, Berlin’s art scene is increasingly standing on its own. Let us take you on a dive into the city’s artistic culture and find out all about art in Berlin.
An artists’ idyll
The things that make Berlin such an exciting, fascinating, youthful metropolis are the same things that make it a sanctuary for artists from all over the world. A perfect storm of factors, all gathered in Goldilocks-style balance, have made it an ideal environment for artistic exploration. Following the fall of the Wall, Berlin’s relatively low cost of living, coupled with abundant unoccupied spaces, caused artists to flock to the city. The trend of repurposing these unoccupied spaces, both officially and unofficially, led to studios and galleries being opened all over the city. Disused industrial yards could be turned into studios, leftover bunkers could be repurposed as galleries. Entire abandoned department stores could be occupied by artists’ communities and transformed into a sprawl of residences, cafés, exhibition spaces and even nightclubs. Even today, you can come across art in the most unexpected places.
It wasn’t just the material conditions that caused art in Berlin to flourish. Both East and West Berlin had a history of countercultural dissidence. In the west, it was the instability of life in a privileged yet precarious enclave, cut off from the rest of the world. The exemption from military service for citizens of West Berlin led many young people to flock there, and the extraordinary atmosphere in the city proved a fertile breeding ground for the counterculture, with punk bands and radical left-wing politics abounding. In the east, meanwhile, it was a reaction to the state-sanctioned oppression and ever-present surveillance from the Stasi (East German Secret Police), which caused an underground counterculture to proliferate amongst its youth. Once the Wall came down, and the two sides met once again, one thing they had in common was a predisposition for radicalism, rebellion and innovation. When coupled with the unique situation in which the city found itself, you had the perfect ingredients for a diverse, impassioned and truly unique artistic community.
Galleries in Berlin
In keeping with the artistic diversity in the city, Berlin’s galleries are equally varied and distinct. There are the more “classic” contemporary galleries, such as the Berlinische Galerie or Hamburger Bahnhof. Both have extensive collections of modern art, photography and architecture. The Hamburger Bahnhof in particular houses one of the largest and most significant public collections of contemporary art in the world, while the Berlinische Galerie focuses on modern and contemporary art created in Berlin.
The city’s reputation for repurposing buildings has practically become official policy for anyone wanting to open a gallery in Berlin. The Boros Collection is a private collection of contemporary art featuring works by international artists dating from 1990 to the present, and is housed in a WWII-era bunker. Also known as the Banana Bunker (for its time storing fruit from Cuba), it was briefly an illegal techno club before housing one of the most visited collections in the city. Capitain Petzel stages ambitious solo exhibitions in a 1,300sqm glass-encased landmark on Karl-Marx-Allee in Mitte, a classic example of East German Modernism preserved from the Socialist Era. KINDL – Centre for Contemporary Art is a vast, sprawling exhibition space housed in the former Kindl brewery in Neukölln.
Museum of Modern Art
Yet even this plenitude has been deemed insufficient by Berlin’s authorities, who have just broken ground on a new Museum of Modern Art, set to open in 2026. The Nationalgalerie has one of the largest collections of 20th-century art in the world — and it is almost entirely in storage at present. It is hoped that this new museum will be on a par with those in other capitals, like the Tate Modern in London and New York’s MOMA.
Art in Berlin has never been separate, hidden away for the privilege of a few elites, as it has in many other cities. For a while, in Berlin, everyone was an artist. The democratisation of art as an occupation, the proliferation of creativity, have helped to keep art accessible for both viewers and doers. This egalitarian ethos is exemplified by events such as 48 hours Neukölln. An art festival taking place throughout the neighbourhood of Neukölln for 48 hours in June every year, the event sees projects in all conceivable artistic disciplines staged in around 300 exhibition spaces, most temporary. This is art made by, and for, all people, “regardless of age, ethnic background or social standing”.
Street art in Berlin
In a city for so long defined by a wall, is it any surprise that some of Berlin’s best art should be found painted, sprayed and pasted on walls? Although graffiti and street art obviously have a much longer history, the birth of modern street art in Berlin is inextricably linked to the Wall. In the West, Berliners daubed their thoughts and feelings about their current situation on to the Wall itself. After it came down, artists from all over the world were invited to paint on the Wall’s empty east side, celebrating the reunification of the country and the city. Though most of the Wall was torn down in the days and weeks following the surprise reunification of the city, a large portion of it, covered in over one hundred murals, became the East Side Gallery, one of the largest open-air galleries in the world.
In the 80s, graffiti developed in response to the social, cultural and political climate of the time. Following the fall of the Wall however, street art became more about reclaiming public spaces, first from the political forces that had separated the city, and later from the cultural forces that sought to commodify these very spaces. A common ethos was, “If Giorgio Armani can have his name in giant letters in this public square, why can’t I?” As the political focus was more ambiguous, street art could develop into various styles, intentions and expressions.
The 2000s saw street art take off as a global craze, and Berlin was at the forefront of these developments. What had been (at least partially) underground, became fashionable and hugely in demand. This led to street artists being commissioned to create pieces on huge walls throughout the city and produced some of Berlin’s most-loved images. Famous works such as the Cosmonaut by Victor Ash, ROA’s dead animals, and Blu & JR’s “east side/west side” gang figures, have become iconic representations of Berlin, adorning t-shirts, bags and postcards. This has of course in turn led to discussions about the commodification of street art, and Blu in fact painted over his murals in Kreuzberg in 2014 as a protest against the gentrification of the city, and the appropriation of his art in selling a certain image of Berlin.
From the street to the gallery
The East Side Gallery was one of the first examples of street art being displayed in a “gallery” setting, but Berlin has certainly seen more progress since. Places such as the (now sadly defunct) Skalitzers Contemporary Art gallery, or URBAN NATION’s MUSEUM FOR URBAN CONTEMPORARY ART have been reinterpreting street art in a gallery context, and attempting to continue its development. Since 2013, URBAN NATION has been transforming Berlin’s facades into a giant outdoor gallery and connecting people with their city using outdoor art and integrative neighbourhood projects. Street art can do more than simply look nice. It can push us to re-evaluate our relationship with a city.
Art is never created in isolation, it is always a reflection and distillation of its circumstances, of what is going on around it. Art in Berlin has a unique situation from which to draw inspiration – turbulent history, favourable conditions, vibrant subject matter and a willing and enthusiastic audience. And if you want to see the best art the city has to offer, all you have to do is take a walk down the street.