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Artists’ survival kit: Has Berlin become a trap?

Among 8000 artists based in Berlin how can you make it? Artists’ talk.

Image for Artists' survival kit: Has Berlin become a trap?

Photo by Maxime Ballesteros. Anna Nezhnaya in her studio in Berlin Weissensee, 2019.

Berlin still claims to be a ‘melting pot’ for art and creativity. But is Berlin the right choice to build a successful career as an artist today? With expectations of cheap studios and low rent, many artists from around the world are moving here. Can a young artist make a living or expect to have visibility in such a high competitive territory?

8000 professional artists are based in Berlin, just a handful of them are lucky enough to have coveted a gallery representation. There are just a few contemporary art museums managed by a small elite. The art gallery’s pool of artists is dwindling down to their very selected and well-known represented ones. Many alternatives spaces have been disappearing in less than two years of existence.

On the occasion of Anna Nezhnaya’s exhibition, A LOT IN MY PLATE: TAPAS NOT FOR SUGAR DADAS, herself, Ryan and Fabia Mendoza have discussed their own experiences and whether there could be any rules which could help to survive the Berlin art jungle?

Young Russian artist Anna Nezhnaya, an art graduate from Moscow, is trying to joggle off her Fine Arts Master and is constantly on the lookout for artist grants and affordable studios. Her carrier has just started and already became a scandalised fleur – after Anna’s first show in Grunewald the owner of the villa was putting her paintings out in the streets. The reason was that her show was crushed by a mob of young Berliners in seek of free drinks. The organiser had expected a high-class cocktail preview and was shocked by the party crowd consisting of 300 visitors.

Ryan Mendoza, a well-established artist from New York City, together with his spouse, Berlin-born filmmaker Fabia, are living and creating between Sicily and Berlin. They chose Europe – after Ryan’s manifesto project of moving Rosa Parks house from Detroit to Berlin, which EXBERLINER. Fabia is a film director and a winner of 18th Beverly Hills Film Festival. The artist couple has been through all kind of situations – even once being arrested in Italy for one of their art performances while Fabia was eight months pregnant with their son.

Risk everything

By Anna Nezhnaya

Five years ago I drank tea in my kitchen in the center of Moscow, and black FSB helicopters circled above me in the sky. One of the major anti-government rallies took place on the streets – mass arrests and detentions of civilians had already begun. I finally made the decision – to leave, get a second higher education, learn German from scratch and try to settle in Berlin – my favorite European city. This path was not easy – my family was skeptical and of course my ex-husband didn’t support me in that decision. Today, after receiving my diploma, I am – albeit far from Putin – but at a crossroads. I pay for my studio myself and I’m anxious as everybody else with the gentrification of Berlin. Every year I need to show my income to the German state, proving that my work can provide for me as a living wage. If I do not, I simply will not get my visa extended. Every day brings me a challenge and I still risk everything – every single day.

Last year, I organised an exhibition called I WANT – four young female artists and me. I got lucky with the exhibition space – a friend offered his luxurious villa in Grunewald. Of course he was furious when he realized that we had created an event on Facebook – 300 people came to the villa that Saturday summer night! After the show he had a nervous breakdown, tried to throw away our works. My attempt was to make a beautiful art show, but the crowd and drugs lead to a newspaper publication about ‘a Russian orgy on the villa of West Berlin’. I had a terrible time last summer dealing with that villa situation – and felt as a crisis negotiator the whole time.

However, among these 300 people coming there was also an independent curator from Latin America – Dermis Leon, with an amazing museum biography and a great desire to work with young European artists. Dermis soon came to my studio, we became friends and began to plan projects together. It was she who had the idea to hold mentoring talk in Claerchens Ballhaus and attract Ryan and Fabia Mendoza as my mentors.

Possibilities are in the air

Yes, it sounds so beautiful – embrace a chance, but often it’s difficult. I was puzzled over how to arrange an exhibition at the Berlin Gallery Weekend, when suddenly the independent curator suggested that to me. In the studio of a famous artist, together with another famous artist! We had to literally manually prepare the show, hang up our works there and bring the studio in Uferhallen in complete order. In addition, not many people came to the opening itself: Gallery Weekend is localised mainly not in Wedding, of course, but in more central areas of Berlin. Nevertheless, the result was impressive – from a strong exposure to reviews in the press.

About Selling Art and Selling Yourself Alongside

by Fabia Mendoza

During one of Ryan’s museum shows, the friends of Paris’ Centre George Pompidou came to visit the exhibition. It was a great chance for us. A young, female, French collector walked into the show, pointed to the biggest oil painting and stated: “I want this.”

That was amazing news! Ryan and I were excited like little children. The collector promised to swing by our studio to discuss details. We were busy the whole day getting ourselves ready and the studio prepped for her arrival.

I was especially pleased to welcome her as she was, contrary to older collectors, not only wealthy, but young, cool and full of ideas for future collaborations.

After her arrival at our studio, we agreed on the final price for the painting and shook hands. We were broke at the time but for this celebration, and to impress her, we opened a €700 bottle of wine, a gift from another benefactor, as if it were part of our daily routine. After a toast and some sips, the lady put down her glass, looked me straight into the eyes and said: “Ok, now let’s fuck.”

I was in shock. We had just agreed on a deal that would allow us to survive for almost an entire year. I was speechless. Hoping my quick-witted husband would react somehow I glanced nervously in his direction – but he was just as speechless as I.

The lady went into the bathroom to refresh herself. “What should we do now?” I whispered in Ryan’s ear. “Did she just buy us?” was Ryan’s helpless response. “Well, we kind of need the money, don’t we?” I answered.

The best solution, without offending anyone, seemed that I would excuse myself, explaining that I was to shy to do such a thing. Our hope was she wouldn’t feel rejected by Ryan, the artist, and consequently might still consider to purchase the painting anyway.

“You are very attractive and I feel so honored.” I tried to persuade her. “But I simply can’t do this, I’m so sorry.”

“No problem, then you can watch,” she smiled.

In the end we manage to sell the painting without having to sell ourselves alongside, but it was a complicated procedure. I like to tell this story to make clear that the art world is ridden by dependency relationships. You shouldn’t take everything too seriously, more like a game. If you manage you might also have some fun.

Advice to Young Artists

by Ryan Mendoza

To be considered a valid artist in today’s art world you have to be either a little bit stupid or have some freak talent. Being a little stupid will take you a lot further than having talent. Stupidity is essential, because it is the quality necessary that allows people to feel compelled to emerge in the first place. You hear a lot about emerging artists but what does the word ‘emerge’ mean? It means to separate from the whole. It is the opposite of ‘yoga’, which means to ‘merge’ or to ‘join.’ If you have ever been around emerging artists, mostly you will feel the tension because they are trying to do something incredibly stupid, they are trying desperately to be different from others.

Eventually some posture themselves so utterly crooked that they are awarded entrance into the art world.

In reality there are no emerging artists, for artists don’t need to emerge, they just need to be themselves, not try so hard, show a little humility perhaps, or not show any at all, depending on their innate character.

I recently spent the weekend with Robert Wilson – a man quietly delightful, beautiful, at ease, constantly observing and looking and wondering. His humility and grace were really astounding. He reminded me in a way of Milan Kundera, who wrote an essay on my artwork called “Touched by the Hand of Nothingness” whose profound thinking I witnessed not as an act of contortion but rather one of depth. 

I would say to a young artist: don’t emerge, it’s too painful. Set your standards higher than just being different from those around you.