Fotografiska Berlin: where photography and focaccia are on the menu

It seems there’s no stopping Fotografiska. Next week, the private museum group opens its fourth branch in Berlin (after Stockholm, New York and Tallinn), with a fifth scheduled for Shanghai by the end of this year. Since launching in Sweden in 2010, the maverick photography hub has become known for throwing out the museology rule book in favour of an innovative approach that combines immersive exhibitions, trendy hospitality offerings, varied event programmes and striking architectural settings. Housed in an imposing five-storey former shopping arcade in the city’s Mitte district, its Berlin outpost promises to deliver the same.

For Berlin-born chair Yoram Roth, the expansion to the German capital has a personal significance. “One of the leading cultural cities I wanted to bring Fotografiska to was my hometown,” he says. “As a German Jew, I love the idea that [the building] was originally built as a department store by a Jewish family. Then during the wars it had a number of different roles, not all of them great, as is the entire German history.”

Indeed the building’s evolution reads like a modern history of the city. Built in 1908, it closed down as a store six years later, subsequently serving as a showroom for electric appliances, a Nazi prison and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a home for an artists’ collective. The latter’s imprint remains the most visible: the group’s name, Tacheles, is scrawled in massive letters on its facade; inside, graffiti murals nod to the creative havoc that once unfolded across its halls.

A man stands leaning against a metal railing; behind him is a concrete wall covered with graffiti
Yoram Roth, chair of the Fotografiska group

While it retains this punk spirit, the building is now entering a new, glitzier chapter. Along with four exhibition spaces, the 5,500 sq m structure has been revamped to accommodate two bars — one in a dramatic top-floor extension by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron — a bakery, restaurant, café and shop. On a tour of the site we pass an open kitchen where chefs are pulling trays of freshly baked focaccia from ovens. A few floors down, in an opulent event space known as “the ballroom”, staff are busily preparing for the opening festivities, which will feature a performance by queer feminist singer Peaches, DJ sets and panel talks.

Creating an art mecca that doubles as an all-day hangout has proved a winning formula for the for-profit museum, drawing 750,000 visitors to its locations in 2022. It points to a larger trend where museums become more like social clubs, an area of expertise for Roth, a photographer turned culture and hospitality entrepreneur who became majority owner of Fotografiska in 2021 when it merged with his company, the members’ club and workspace NeueHouse. “As neither a state museum nor private collection we are tasked with having to cover our own tab at the end of the day,” he says. “We have the responsibility to fill that space with life for as many hours of the day as we can. That’s why we like being open late.”

As well as generous opening hours (to 11pm, seven days a week), the museum sustains itself through memberships (€160 a year) and ticket sales — though the Berlin museum is more moderately priced than its New York equivalent (€14-16 compared to $30). This financial model, Roth says, also gives the museum the flexibility to stage the bold temporary shows it has become known for.

“Traditionally museums are either funded by the state, grants or through private donations, and those are all perfectly viable paths, but they can limit as well as help,” he says. “Especially when it comes to contemporary art, I think the big museums can’t act in a timely manner.”

Fotografiska also differs from traditional museums in that it has no permanent collection, which Roth says allows it to embrace an expansive definition of photography through revolving exhibitions. “Fotografiska is a Swedish adverb that means ‘in a photographic style’, so that concept enables us to go beyond photography,” says Roth. “So we’ll have three to four exhibitions up at any given time, and it’s everything from fine art to documentary work to fashion photography, and some of the biggest names all the way down to emerging talent that’s never had a gallery show.”

This wide-ranging approach is reflected across the three inaugural exhibitions in Berlin, all of which focus on female and female-identifying artists. Taking over the third floor is Nude, a group show that seeks to challenge the conventional representations of the body through the lenses of 30 international artists — from the statuesque images of black models by the Dominican Republic’s Denisse Ariana Pérez to the intense, intimate photographs of naked lovers by Japan’s Momo Okabe. Upstairs the museum is mounting the largest European exhibition to date of the trans multidisciplinary artist and musician Juliana Huxtable, who will present her stylised self-portraits and a new video installation. On the fifth floor, Berlin-based South African artist Candice Breitz’s solo show Whiteface satirises the way white political and media figures discuss race through a series of video installations.

A photographic artwork shows three images of the same woman, dressed in a white shirt, but with different blonde wigs and different gestures
Still from Candice Breitz’s video ‘Whiteface’ (2022), which features in one of Fotografiska Berlin’s opening shows

Sceptics of Fotografiska have raised eyebrows at its experience-economy model, and indeed there’s a certain irony to the idea of a swish for-profit museum moving into a former art squat which was symbolic of Berlin’s scrappy, ad hoc creative scene. But the hope is that by mounting ultra-contemporary exhibitions which engage in pressing topics, the new museum will be received as a major new art destination in the city. For Roth, the secret to Fotografiska’s success is the way it has gone beyond the traditional parameters of a museum: “By being deadly serious about art, photography and culture, we get to have fun with everything else around it.”

Fotografiska Berlin opens on September 14,

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