The opening of Studio Berlin at Berghain was a main feature of this year’s Berlin Art Week. But the large-scale exhibition, which showcases contemporary art from Berlin and has made it possible for the famous club to open its doors again, has also been met with criticism over the fees paid to participating artists.

Studio Berlin opened on September 9, 2020, during Berlin Art Week and will remain open until Berghain can resume its regular operations. The exhibition is a cooperative effort between Berghain and the Boros Collection, featuring works by artists living in Berlin — many of which were created during the pandemic. The long list of participants, 117 in total, includes both well-established and lesser-known names. An extensive catalog is also being planned. 

The exhibition came about when Berghain’s owners, Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann, approached the collectors Christian and Karen Boros with the idea to host an exhibition at the club, as the time frame for its reopening remains uncertain. The Senate Department for Culture and Europe, led by culture senator Klaus Lederer, also got on board with its support following a request from the Boros Foundation. 

Their collaboration has brought life back to the space, which has been shuttered since March, as well as financial support through entrance fees (tickets are priced at €20 for a guided tour and €18 during open house). Some of the club’s staff have also been brought back to work as exhibition guides. 

However, the impetus for Studio Berlin wasn’t only about reviving the club. It was also to showcase current artistic activity and production in the city. According to the Studio Berlin website, “The main purpose of the exhibition project is to reflect current trends and changes in art and society and to give Berlin artists a place to present their artistic work.” 

To bring the large-scale exhibition to fruition, the Senate contributed €250,000 for the project, with additional funding provided by the Boros Collection. But in spite of its substantial budget, from both public and private funds, shortly after the opening, it began circulating that exhibiting artists had been paid a fee of €150 for their participation, with some also receiving financing for additional production costs.  

In a Tweet from September 9, the bbk berlin (professional association of visual artists) mentions this and also questions the use of such a substantial amount of public funds to produce an exhibition without running an open call or including a jury process. 

Speaking about the fees, Zoë Claire Miller, the spokesperson of bbk berlin, elaborates: “It is extremely problematic to pay artists such low fees in an exhibition with so much funding and of such large scale. This continues the myth that it is morally acceptable if everyone in the art world except the artist can live off of their work.” 

In 2016, bbk berlin, together with the city’s communal galleries negotiated minimum wage standards for artists presenting artistic works or performances in publicly funded projects. A special fund, anchored in the state budget, was created exclusively for Berlin’s municipal galleries, which Miller describes as “chronically underfunded”. The fund ensures payment of artist fees without cutting into the overall production of the exhibition. 

This “Berlin Model” includes a payment scale that corresponds with the number of artists participating in a project — as all artist fees are taken from a single fund. This means, for an exhibition featuring one to two artists, the minimum payment is €1,500 per artist, and the more artists participating the lower the fee becomes. For larger projects featuring more than 30 artists, a minimum of €100 is to be paid to each artist. 

The wage paid to Studio Berlin artists is considered to have met the minimum standards as set forth in this payment scale. But, these standards are specifically oriented towards municipal galleries, which are smaller in size, have a much lower budget for individual exhibitions, and are not allowed to charge entry fees. The question being raised is, should the minimum requirement for artist fees, as set for municipal galleries with far lower budgets, remain the same for an exhibition of this scale and with this kind of financial backing? 

“The allocation of so much public funding to an exhibition organized, curated and co-funded by a collector with a lot of money and power, without artist fees that correspond fairly to the total budget, shows how hierarchies and power dynamics work to the detriment of less commercially successful artists within the art world — where many precarious artists cannot afford to say no to an opportunity to exhibit their work,” says Miller.  

But some see it more as a way to give something back to the city in these challenging times. As one participating artist, Jeewi Lee, emphasizes: “I think it is great that the Boros Foundation takes the initiative in these special and difficult times to illuminate such places as Berghain again and allows the artists to share what they have done behind closed doors during the Covid-19 Lockdown.” Regarding the finances, she points out, “the exhibition ticket is financing/supporting Berghain in their crisis and not Boros Foundation.” 

Of course, clubs, as well as artists, have been heavily impacted by the corona crisis, and the importance of such support measures is not in dispute. “I’d like to add that it’s great when private collectors take the initiative to help cultural institutions such as clubs in times of crisis – but transparency about funding and fair pay is necessary, especially when huge sums of public funding are involved, like in this show,” concludes Miller. 

Photo by ArtConnect.

The issue of fair pay for artists continues to be a big one, with artist unions, associations and networks initiating campaigns and establishing wage standards in different cities internationally. As many emphasize, artists, as workers, should be compensated just as others working within an institution or organization would be — and not just for the expenses associated with the artwork’s production. 

Remarking on the fee paid to artists participating in the Studio Berlin exhibition, artist Jeewi Lee says: “Even if I find such questions about artist fees and justice and taking a closer look important, I think the debate about artist fees in this exhibition context is completely unproblematic. We should discuss some other exhibition organizers, who actually do not pay €1 artist fees; on the contrary, they let artists produce and transport the works themselves, in order to decorate and show off their spaces with artworks.” 

Such guidelines and standards for wages as mentioned above not only ensure that artists are paid to exhibit their work, but also help to provide artists with the tools and support necessary to negotiate wages with institutions and protect their rights. Of course, standards for minimum fees often scale in correspondence to the budget and the number of participating artists; and in some cases, as in the guidelines set up by a network of art and artist organizations in the Netherlands, factors such as exhibition duration and whether the presented work is new or existing are also taken into account. The US-based independent organizing body W.A.G.E stresses that artist fees are distinct from costs associated with basic programming and production, and sets minimum fees as a fixed percentage of an institution’s projected Total Annual Operating Expenses.  

In response to discussion about the artist fee on Twitter, bbk berlin points to the present instance as indicative of a broader need to rethink the minimum wage standards in Berlin and how they should be applied: “The MINIMUM fee guidelines are all the more urgently in need of revision if they are used in such cases as a justification for the fact that artists hardly earn anything from the presentation of their work.”

 

The Senate Department for Culture and Europe did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

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