Berlin wants to be a major art player and its promotion to the world league is assured by the Gallery Weekend and Art Berlin Contemporary events – and Director Maike Cruse
Maike Cruse is perplexed – a rare occurrence. As Director of the art show Art Berlin Contemporary (abc), she has seen many things before now, from black drag queens staging ping-pong performances in occupied buildings to artists presenting their videos on construction sites in the blazing June sunshine, to excited celebrities buzzing around their idol, left-wing U.S. author Susan Sontag, on her 70th birthday – at a party Cruse herself helped to organize at a Berlin gallery. But the sight she’s confronted with right now seems questionable to her. Where yesterday there was art to be seen in the windows of Galerie Klosterfelde, now there’s a display of beach gear better suited to a provincial department store: deck chairs, beach towels, beach balls, and a mannequin in shorts. So far, she’s heard nothing about this exhibition.
So Cruse decides to investigate and bursts into the shop on Potsdamer Straße to ask what the all-but-naked figure is doing in the window. Quick answer: The gallery has been redecorated for a film shoot, that’s all. Cruse rarely misses anything that’s happening on the Berlin art market. Over the past five years, the 41-year-old has become one of the key figures on the art scene here. She connects the artists of the German capital with the growing art market. She began her career 15 years ago at the famous Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art on Auguststraße, where she was mostly in contact with the artists. Then she began collaborating with gallerists while working for the world’s most important art event, Art Basel. For the past four years, she has presided over Berlin’s annual art highlights, Gallery Weekend, which takes place in May, and the abc art berlin contemporary event in September – and made such a good job of it that the international art market portal Artnet voted her one of the most influential women in the European art world.
Both events draw thousands of collectors, artists and groupies to the city on the Spree River. For Gallery Weekend, local galleries stage their best exhibitions, and at abc, international galleries present the works of promising new artists. At the art fair, sculptors, painters and performance artists emerge for the first time from off-scene darkness into the spotlight of the art stage – and some of them later become the darlings of the public. “Berlin has the most interesting gallery scene in the world,” Cruse claims. She explains why: the presence of galleries second only to those of New York at international art events; low rents – compared with London, Paris and Zurich; the promise of freedom, “that sense of being able to be a part of creating something.” These all attract artists to Berlin. Cruse recalls the summer of 2008, when for three months she co-curated a project space in Kreuzberg, the Forgotten Bar Project, which showed a different exhibition every night – without ever having an official license. “We had 1500 people attend the last night. The street was blocked and the police drove by at walking pace, but that was it. Friends from New York couldn’t believe it. They said, ‘If you did that over here, you’d be locked up after two hours.’”
Berlin has the most interesting gallery scene in the world
Cruse is now sitting in her office on Potsdamer Straße. On the first floor, there’s a Turkish import-export store on the left that sells anything im- or exportable, from carpets to food, and on the right, a trendy restaurant that cooks lunch for hungry creatives. Above it, on the second floor, the abc flag is flying outside large casement windows. Cruse talks about the Kreuzberg guerilla event in a tone of astonishment, as though she did not rightly understand how it could have happened herself. And she’s also a little amazed that she now holds this responsible post and gets to decide – along with a team – who may show something at the fair and who may not. Cruse is genuinely inquisitive. Anyone who has ever seen her suddenly forget all of her important appointments at Gallery Weekend because she’s deep in conversation with a visitor, talking about his job, sincerely asking him “What’s next up?” will understand that this is no routine job for her, but a pleasurable journey around the world with unforeseeable stop-offs along the way.
The everything-is-possible promise was what tempted Cruse into the art world in her teenage days. She grew up in Bielefeld surrounded by a cultured family. Her father, a biologist, was a member of the local art club, and on the weekends the family would head to museums to see the like of Picasso and Lichtenstein. Her grandmother encouraged her interest in classical modernism because although, as a young woman, she had studied art herself, she had never been allowed to become an artist. In the early 1990s, he uncle bought a Joseph Beuys piece, a small plastic bag with a greasy corner: “I remember the family wondering whether that was idiotic or interesting,” says Cruse. “The plain fact that we spent so long discussing it brought me closer to art.”
She realized that art offered an opportunity to comment on the world in a different way than science and politics. It was that insight that set the young woman from Bielefeld heading for Berlin, initially as a visitor in the 1990s, when she discovered Berlin-Mitte, a place she saw as a great adventure playground. “I wandered through back yards with friends who were squatting in buildings there. We climbed onto the roofs. Punks living on Auguststraße had brought their bathtubs out onto the street, put flowering plants in them and turned it into a kind of front garden.” These images stayed with here while she continued her art studies in London. Although she attended every exhibition of the then popular Young British Artists, the likes of the Chapman Brothers and Angela Bulloch, she never had the feeling that she could become a part of that scene. The art world there was more elitist and self-contained.
I often find myself in otherwise all-male groups, having to assert my position
Back in the German capital, where she was astonished by the sudden density of galleries, things moved much faster. After a fairly informal job interview that lasted all of two questions (“Do you speak English” and “Do you have a degree?”), she began as an intern with Kunst-Werke. Klaus Biesenbach, a self-made art agent, had turned a virtually derelict margarine factory into a glittering institution of contemporary art. From him, she learned how to put exhibitions together and gain and retain people’s loyalty. At Kunst-Werke, there was a strict and welcome policy of everyone being able to do everything. “We could all be sitting in a room on the first floor, say, and when a visitor came in, one of us would go over and play host while the others discussed the next exhibition and I talked on the phone with a journalist.” Cruse stayed there for seven years, but then Art Basel offered her a job as head of communications. Moving there in 2008, she realized she might now be working for “the other side,” for the market. But director Marc Spiegler explained his belief that galleries are the driving force behind a healthy art market – and convinced her of his mission.
Cruse has no fear of major changes, or of skeptical men in suits, for that matter, be they sponsors or politicians. “I often find myself in otherwise all-male groups, having to assert my position. I just try to speak as loudly as they do and to find the better arguments.” It’s easy to imagine her voice giving powerful backing to any chorus of soccer fans or getting the best offer for her gallerists. She regards them as “hers” because she really cares about those crazy people who spend years giving encouragement and support to their artists, and in times of crisis helping them back onto their feet. “Gallerists are the greatest idealists in the art world,” she says, “a one-man show that only with a little luck will ultimately make money.”
Maike Cruse and her partner have two small children; the younger daughter was born last summer. In her calendar, children’s birthdays are marked alongside meals with sponsors. When she gave the abc dinner last year, her mother sat in an anteroom and rang through whenever the baby wanted milk. “My parents spent days pushing the baby carriage around after me at the show.” Cruse is now flying down the stairs on her way out onto Potsdamer Straße. As she herself says, she has matured over the years in the art world, “even if I do still sometimes like to party.”
At the Esther Schipper gallery, not far from her office, Cruse admires the work of Argentinean artist Tomás Saraceno, finely spun cobwebs inside small glass cubes. In Berlin, you’re not faced with a dogmatic decision between late-night bar or upmarket restaurant. “I’m just as happy going to Möbel Olfe in Kreuzberg as I am to the Grill Royal in Mitte.” Ultimately, both the alternative gay bar and the literary steakhouse deliver on the same promise, says Cruse, “Things can get crazy in both.” A good basis for art.