Museums and Institutions in Germany

International Hotspot, Hip Community or Art Ghetto? – the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei

Die Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei © Spinnerei Leipzig
The Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei (Leipzig Cotton Mill) has become a legendary arts centre. But it is not a new phenomenon for abandoned industrial buildings to be re-used for commercial art – be it in New York, London, Moscow or Beijing. Is Leipzig a unique recipe for success?

The 125th birthday of what was once the largest cotton-spinning mill in continental Europe has just been celebrated with high media exposure, although it doesn’t even exist any more. Chancellor Angela Merkel was invited as guest speaker at the event and she took plenty of time to view the “wonderful structural transformation”. But she also recollected the chequered fate of the once ambitiously constructed industrial complex with 20 buildings, workers’ accommodation, company crèche and allotments – a fate that tracks German history. After the “Wende” (end of the GDR), over 4000 jobs were axed, mostly women’s.

Bea Meyer: o.T., 2008, 163 x 100 cm, cellotape, gold, silver on paper / serigraphy, red; from the series MAMA AUS SPASS BIN ICH JETZT MAL EINE FRAU | © Galerie b2_It was cold, dirty and dusty on the remote and inhospitable industrial wasteland in the western part of the city when not only small enterprises but also a throng of artists began to rent premises there in the mid-1990s. “On Sundays we could still hear the birds singing”, remembers Peter Bux. He was one of the first ones here – alongside Hans Aichinger, Kaeseberg, Uwe Kowski, Christiane Baumgartner, Rosa Loy and Neo Rauch.

Since 2001 the concept of a new operating company has been to market the factory site, which has 90 000 square metres of usable space, using the theme From cotton to culture.

“New Leipzig School” – a success story with a happy ending?

When five of the most important Leipzig galleries opened up large attractive premises on the site all at the same time four years ago, it almost became a “theme park”. Neue Leipziger Malerei (new Leipzig art) was the magic formula that brought international attention and attracted collectors and buyers as well as buses full of art tourists. Even the jet-set was turning up to the jointly hosted gallery tours now. In search of uncharted territory on the world map of art, always looking for something new, it was then that the old was rediscovered. The feel of the run-down production buildings from the Gründerzeit era (19th C) is reminiscent of the fallen GDR. And the new “spinners” fit well into the image of the East breaking up. Leipzig-born Neo Rauch has channelled the post-industrial nostalgia into his pictures like no other. Applying the power of his hands and imagination to the large format, he revitalised the written-off art form and is now considered a charismatic star of its new triumphal parade.

In the meantime the Spinnerei has become a desirable place of work that is still competitively priced for almost 100 artists. In a joint exhibition of their works at the moment, they are showing that by no means all of them are painters. Not all of them have studied at the Leipziger Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (Leipzig University for Art and Design), which trains excellent graduates in photography, media art and graphic design as well as the artists who have become famous. Approaches and quality expectations are varied. The Neue Leipziger Schule is establishing itself as a brand from which many people can still profit – only a few cut themselves off. Originally it only applied to a small group of young artists painting in a more or less figurative style, who are now in their mid-thirties – in particular Tilo Baumgärtel, Tim Eitel, Martin Kobe, Christoph Ruckhäberle, David Schnell and Matthias Weischer. Most of them do not even come from Leipzig and not all have studios here.

The scene is more diverse than the cliché

View onto the Baumwollspinnerei 
© Spinnerei LeipzigAlthough some of the stars dimmed even before the financial crisis – the “Miracle of Leipzig” is being nurtured. Not just by the ten private galleries. But especially by Eigen + Art: Gerd Harry Lybke, known as “Judy”, turned himself into a legend with his career from nude model to “Global Player”. As well as his premises in Berlin city centre, he is cranking up a gear with a high-ceilinged exhibition room of museum proportions and a luxurious display warehouse. The “hands-on artist” with his PR experience heads a group that includes not only Neo Rauch and Matthias Weischer, but also concept artists such as Carsten and Olaf Nicolai or Nina Fischer & Maroan el Sani.

Many of the “Young Painters from Leipzig”, but also other interesting graduates of the Leipziger Kunsthochschule were discovered by gallery owner Matthias Kleindienst.

The most exciting galleries were set up by Jochen Hempel for his Dogenhaus Galerie. He can use existing pulley systems to move the installations around. It is not only local perspectives on photography, installations and paintings that can be seen here, but also international ones. ASPN, Filipp Rosbach, maerzgalerie and der Laden fuer Nichts developed their own profiles here, which break through the restrictive clichés of a regional scene. Most surprising is the repeated success of producers’ gallery b2 with its bulky room installations – such as most recently by Markus Uhr – and abrasive paintings, for instance by Oliver Kossack.

Admittedly one New York gallery and one from London have given up their branches here again, but in their place the Munich gallery Nusser & Baumgart has taken up residence, and Hilario Galguera is running the first Mexican gallery in Europe. Not only is he exhibiting works by fellow countrymen, but also big names like Jannis Kounellis and Damien Hirst.

Enough room for ideas and experiments

Stefan Eberstadt, Rucksack House, Exhibition „Xtreme Houses“, HALLE 14, 2004
© Claus BachThe brain centre of the site is the desolate leviathan of a building that is Halle 14. The “luxury of emptiness” provides enough room for ideas and experiments for exhibition programmes at the interfaces between art and society – thanks to the inventive curator Frank Motz. Cautious renovation began at the initiative of the Stiftung Federkiel, there is an art programme for children and a library, partners who have their own exhibition platforms have been acquired – for instance the Kunsthochschule’s Universal Cubeand the Columbus Art Foundation. Less spectacularly, numerous workshops and companies on the fringes of the art world or completely unrelated have brought new life onto the site. The potholed paving and disused train tracks are here to stay.

Sigrun Hellmich
is an art researcher, freelance journalist and author. She lives in Leipzig.

Translation: Jo Beckett
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
July 2009

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