Interview with Anne Schwarz, founder of the gallery Schwarz Contemporary in Berlin
When you go to visit Schwarz Contemporary, in the hip neighborhood of Neukölln, you wonder where the entrance is. The gallery, in fact, has two windows on the street, but the frosted glass does not allow you to look inside. Take the gate to the backyard and there, on the left hand, you find the door: an original 1950s entrance in wood and glass with authentic buzzer and registration desk.
What was here before?
It was an office for calibrating devices. This entrance is a sort of “museum”, with original floor and ceiling. In the rest of the space I had to change them because I show a lot of painting, which requires a more neutral setting. But I wanted to maintain some attributes of the original space, like the shelves in the main exhibition room, or the floor and the wall in the second exhibition room. The desk in the first room is an Italian desk from the 1960s and it includes a side table where the secretaries used to have their Olivettis. It is like my front desk.
What made you choose this space?
I fell in love with this space because of its natural light from the south. At the same time, the frosted glass protects you from the outside. I did not want to create a white cube. Before opening my gallery, I worked at the gallery Contemporary Fine Arts and I learned how influential architecture is. When I started at Contemporary Fine Arts , we were in a typical Berlin space with wooden floors in the Sophienhöfe. When we moved to the Chipperfield building at the Museumsinseln, you felt as if you were in a cathedral of architecture. A reason for moving here was also the rent, of course. It was quite convenient when I moved in.
How long have you been in this space?
In March 2016 it is going to be five years since the opening. When I arrived here there was nobody. Now, here in the courtyard there are some important startups. You can really see the change.
Why did you choose Neukölln?
I had started looking for a space around Potsdamer Straße, but I soon understood that everybody was looking there, so I reconsidered. I did not want to be part of a movement. I knew I did not want to move to Mitte. The most affordable rents were in Moabit, Schöneberg and Neukölln, so I went for Neukölln. Here I can afford a space of 160 m2, with large office and storage. In other areas this is not possible, and I like it here. This is my center. Many of my artists have their studios around here, and there are other art institutions like Künstlerhaus Bethanien. I have many collectors who come from Charlottenburg to visit the gallery and then go to the bars and restaurants of Weserstrasse. It is an attractive area.
Do you ever think of another location?
Yes, I am thinking of Warsaw, which has been a revelation for me. I went there for the Warsaw Gallery Weekend three times. They have emulated the format of Berlin and the atmosphere is like that of Berlin’s gallery weekend at its beginning. At that time there used to be twenty galleries, not fifty like today. People in Warsaw’s art world are very nice; they are often supported by the government, so they are sometimes referred to as “fundacja” even if they are commercial galleries. In the 1970s the art scene used to be even more interesting than today, but they have suffered a lot during the Iron Curtain years. It could be more international, but I think that will change. On my side, I am doing an artist exchange with Galeria Starter: in March I will show one of their artists, Bownik, and they will show one of my artists, Johanna Jaeger. She works with photography but not in a documentary way. She combines it with painting, sculpture and drawing.
How many artists do you represent?
Ten artists, five male and five female artists. Don’t call me feminist, but I care about this aspect. Sometimes you flip through a magazine, and you only see interviews and features with male artists. For four years I had eight artists, then one left, and Johanna Jaeger joined. This year two new artists joined the program: Henrik Eiben and Janne Räisänen.
How did you find them?
In the case of Henrik Eiben, I had been following his work for some time, but he had a gallery in Hamburg, so I thought it was too close to Berlin. Then the gallery in Hamburg closed, so I convinced him to join my program and I presented him at ABC in collaboration with Galerie Nikolaus Ruzicska from Salzburg. At the same time, I gave him his first show here in the gallery. It was not easy because Henrik works with five galleries.
And Janne Räisänen?
In 2012 I co-curated with other three gallerists – Thomas Fischer, Heike Tosun and Tanja Wagner – a show at Salon Dahlmann, a space promoted by Finnish collector Timo Miettinen. It was the collector who introduced me to the work of Janne Räisänen, who is also Finnish. Normally it is the other way round. In other cases, I discovered the artists at the Berlin University of the Arts (Universität der Künstler) and introduced them to the collectors.
Do you still go to the Universität der Künste to discover your artists?
Now we are a family of eleven, including myself. I cannot expand anymore. I try to stay curious and open my house to guests, for example in December I will invite Portuguese artist Ana Manso and Polish artist Natasza Niedziolka to show in the gallery, but I cannot represent more than ten artists the way I want: I speak to my artists everyday and I go to their studios very often.
What do you talk about?
About their work, about their shows, also outside of my gallery, about which works they should show. We decide everything together. I am their main gallery.
Is this a condition that you set in advance?
I have severe rules, but it has never been necessary to discuss them, because my service to my artists is so complete that there have never been any problems. I take care of everything for my artists.
How would you describe your program? You said that you show a lot of painting…
There is not a common thread from a thematic point of view. They all live in Berlin (apart from Henrik Eiben), and this is important to me because I follow their work very closely and I do not see myself getting on an airplane every week to visit them in their studios. They convey their enthusiasm to me and we grow together. There are no labels for their artistic practices, and I do not want any.
What is your background?
I studied art history, Italian literature and German in Bonn. I worked as a translator and I was about to move to Munich to work in a publishing house. But then, gallerist Max Hetzler offered me a job in Berlin. I had met him at the fair in Cologne, where I had worked for him for a day. I used to work as a fair assistant during my studies. I had also worked at the Bundeskunsthalle before, but I had no intention of working in contemporary art and in a gallery. Anyway, Max Hetzler could offer me a job which was better than the one I was going to do. It was 2004. After two years at Max Hetzler, I moved to Contemporary Fine Arts.
How did you leave Contemporary Fine Arts to found your own gallery?
I worked at Contemporary Fine Arts for five years, then I understood that I could not grow there anymore. Also I had the honor of working with important artists like Georg Baselitz, but I knew many artists with whom I could not work. I could not develop my own ideas. I could do that only if I would set up something on my own.
Before you mentioned other young Berlin gallerists. Is there collaboration among Berlin galleries? Or is there more competitiveness?
I started more or less at the same time as Thomas Fischer, Heike Tosun and Tanja Wagner. At the beginning it was very important for us to talk. There was a regular exchange. Today we are on good terms, but we are all much busier. It would be nice to talk more but we are absorbed by our businesses, which have assumed new dimensions.
Which are the difficulties for a young gallery at the beginning?
The fairs costs are a problem for a young gallery. If the smallest booth costs €10,000 and the gallery presents a young artist who has just graduated with paintings valued at €1,000 each, you have to sell 20 works to cover the participation fee and the other costs like transport, insurance, travel, hotel, etc. And you are not even making profit. There is an imbalance between the idea of being a young gallery and showing young artists and the costs of taking part in the fair.
What about your choice of the name of the gallery?
First of all, the decision was influenced by the fact that there is an Australian gallery that has a name very similar to mine: Anna Schwarz Gallery. I went for Schwarz Contemporary because it contains my name, but you don’t get it immediately. I did not want to call it “Galerie”, because it is too local, while I liked the fact that the gallery could be also somewhere else. At the same time, I did not want to call it “Gallery”, because I am German.
Do you think that the gallerist should not be too much in the foreground?
The gallery’s character is very much tied to the person who runs it. Of course the art is in the first place, but you also have to find your main concern. Each gallerist has his/her own model. For me, for example, it is the very intense relationship I have with my artists and collectors. After our interview, one of my favorite collectors is coming to the gallery. He is not a friend, but we have a very personal relationship, a deep connection. We talk, we go to the artists’ studio, we eat together, we go to other galleries together. I could meet 30 people a day, but just one meeting like this is enough for me for a whole week.
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