Fotografiska’s opening party on Thursday night in Berlin featured plentiful drinks, dancing, a hip crowd of the city’s most fashionable and much art to see. More than 1,800 guests were able to roam five floors of the historic 1908 six-story department store, viewing the three photography exhibitions, cocktail in hand.
The exhibitions featured visual meditations on white supremacy by South African artist Candice Breitz, 30 female-identifying creatives riffing on the nude human body and new work by artistic polymath, artist, performer and DJ, Juliana Huxtable, in an exhibition called “_Ussyphilia.” Like all of Fotografiska’s shows around the world, each exhibition gets a run of three to four months.
“This is so there is always a reason to come back here,” Yoram Roth, the chairman of Fotografiska, explained. It’s also part of making a private museum profitable, says the Berlin-based businessman, whose private “work and social club” Neuehouse merged with Fotografiska in 2021, to form a company called CultureWorks.
Also inside Berlin’s new 53,000-square-foot Fotografiska: A rooftop bar, a fine-dining restaurant and a gift shop as well as a cosier bar, populated with printed velveteen couches, low tables and faux-vintage lamps, that give off Soho House-style vibes. A large dance floor with a huge, floor to ceiling digital screen would later be the venue for performances by the musician Peaches and assorted Djs.
But it was the stairways and halls between the bars and the long, dark rooms filled with art that were the most popular venue for a selfie or a souvenir photo for Berlin’s most fashionable — including a sizable contingent from Berlin’s legendary Berghain nightclub. Still covered in graffiti, they’re a reminder of the building’s wild past.
The opening festivities, timed to coincide with the city-wide Art Week, were a sign of things to come. Fotografiska, which concentrates on exhibiting all kinds of photography and closely related art, will be open until 11 every night. As with its other established branches in New York, Stockholm and Estonia, Fotografiska will also host artist talks, workshops, DJ nights and other events, and will make its money from food and beverage sales, ticket sales and by hiring out the premises for corporate events and fashion shows.
Berlin’s version of Fotografiska continues the private museum’s tradition of setting up in an historic building. The first was in Stockholm in 2010, in a former customs house from 1906, the second in Manhattan, New York, in a 1894 house and the third opened in Tallin, Estonia, in a former factory from the 1890s.
Berlin’s Fotografiska is located in an historic department store that was also the site of one of the city’s most notorious art collectives, Tacheles, for 22 years.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the already partially demolished building was taken over by a community of artists and came to house studios, nightclubs, bars, galleries and other facilities, as well as a scruffy outdoor courtyard filled with sculptures where anyone could sit and drink beer.
Over time, Tacheles became iconic, something of a symbol of Berlin’s wild and messy, post-Soviet-era heyday. However by 2012, the artists, by then just as well known for fighting amongst themselves as their art, were eventually pushed out.
In 2014, the whole area — described by local press as one of the Berlin downtown’s last prime bits of real estate — was sold to American financial services company Parella Weinberg Partners for 150 million euros (around $190 million at the time). In 2020, Fotografiska signed a 15-year lease with the property’s developers.
That is also why Fotografiska’s opening is also something of a controversial event in the German capital. The Tacheles building is under historical protection and the city authorities had said it could only be used for cultural purposes.
That’s why graffiti still lines the corridors — it was listed as historically significant and not to be removed. The developers report also having to follow similar instructions in an 1,800-page document listing all of the original features to be retained.
The same rules have not applied to the land all around the five-story edifice — that formerly dusty courtyard favored by beer-guzzling punks and their dogs — is now surrounded by as-yet-uninhabited apartments that come with a health club, a concierge and dog washing facilities. Designed by star architects Herzog and de Meuron, a local listing indicates they’re worth anywhere between $1 million and $3 million each. The entire area is now known as the “Am Tacheles” (in English,”at Tacheles”) quartier.
The whole development has not come without criticism. In the local media, Fotografiska has been described as being “just like Ikea — not the right kind of culture for this space…just commerce disguised as culture.” Online art magazine ArtNet has described the for-profit Fotografiksa as “a trendy experience economy model that emphasizes its restaurant, entertainment, and architectural offerings as much as it does its art.”
This is likely why Fotografiska is treading so gingerly in Berlin. The management team emphasize that they have hosted dozens of community outreach meetings and that the facility is open to everyone.
At the press walk-through of the premises the week before the opening, Fotografiska Berlin’s executive director, Yousef Hammoudah, repeated the sentiment.
“In these challenging times, in which many of us are seeking orientation, we want to be a very special place, one which celebrates life and at the same time, inspires change,” the former global director of culture and community for Adidas running told assembled journalists. Fotografiksa would be a platform where “different facets of culture” could come together and exchange ideas, Hammoudah stressed.
Roth himself has repeatedly told journalists that Fotografiska is a great place for Bumble dates.
None of that has stopped the artists that previously occupied Tacheles, who are responsible for some of the graffiti in the uniquely colorful stairwells, from complaining that a former of symbol of Berlin’s creativity has now become just another shopping mall.
Before the press walk-through, some of the former denizens of Tacheles protested outside the venue, saying that the name had been co-opted for commercial purposes.
“I wouldn’t say they were happy,” Hammoudah conceded. But, he told WWD, he had spoken with them that very day and Fotografiska was going to accede to many of their requests. The former Tacheles artists wanted regular access to their artworks, they wanted the artists identified and they wanted to be able to refresh the graffiti when necessary.
“We’re happy to do all that,” Hammoudah said, noting they would be giving the artists permanent membership of Fotografiska so they could come in whenever they wanted and adding identifying plaques to some of the graffiti.
The photo gallery also seems to be doing its best to prove its cultural credentials. After the opening of the New York Fotografiska there were complaints that the first exhibition there, which included fashion shots by Ellen von Unwerth, had been too commercial.
The first exhibitions in Germany, curated by Marina Paulenka, Fotografiksa Berlin’s new director of exhibitions, provided fodder for debate on some of today’s hottest topics: sexuality, fascism, race and gender.
“This is how I wanted it,” Paulenka told WWD, when asked if this was a deliberate choice given past criticism. “I wanted to open the museum with a program very much related to Berlin and with a strong voice. We will also have fashion and documentary photography,” she added, “but I think it has to be a very good mix. This is the way I curate.”