Johann König on Berlin: “This city is still a place of liberty, freedom and hedonism”

by Mara Sartore
October 8, 2018
Mara Sartore
König Johann

During our stay in London, for the occasion of Frieze Art Week, we met Johann König to talk about König gallery’s identity and the brand strategy he initiated in Berlin and brought to the London branch. He has also shared with us his perspective on the Berlin art scene.

Mara Sartore:  Ok, let’s start with the space we are in now, König London, which opened this time last year, why this decision to open a space in London?

Johann König: I thought it was a good idea to open a space in London, we wanted to offer books and our König souvenirs label, we wanted to include this as part of the gallery.

Mara Sartore: I’m really interested in your concept of brand strategy. I am especially drawn to the European Union hoodie!

Johann König: In Berlin we have thousands of visitors for each exhibition and we represent a young generation of artists. The gallery is considered more of a museum or foundation: although there is no entrance fee, it’s a really big space with large shows and we are open on Sundays, have workshops and tour for kids. We could sense that our audience wanted to participate and take a part of it. We developed the building with the landlords and tenants and were inspired by them and their initiatives so we started to develop a magazine, a brand…we started to create products with the artists themselves.

The first product was a blue hoodie with the European Union flag with a missing star which you find on the back and this very quickly became a must-have fashion item, even in London.… We also produced a kippah hoodie as a supportive message to Jewish people who are often attacked on the streets, we try to deliver ‘opinion wear’ with a certain degree of political connotations.

Mara Sartore: When you arrived in Berlin the city was new for you. What is the state of the Berlin art scene today, how has it changed over the years since the opening of the gallery? How do you see the Berlin art scene within the European context?

Johann König: Berlin has a strong identity, with the London space for example, we wanted to bring a little bit of Berlin to London, with a sort of 90s vibe. We purposely decided to not have a townhouse here, opting for a more Berlin type of space. Our original plan was to allow visitors to walk through the courtyard which looks like a Berlin courtyard, even the neighbourhood is “Berlinisch”.

Berlin has changed a lot. The city is still a place of liberty, freedom and hedonism, there’s an extensive club scene there but the city today has rent problems, it’s very hard to find a space. The reasons are related to tourism, airbnb and also because Berlin is becoming more and more popular, people come here from all over the world and there is boom of tech starts-ups and a lot of people prefer to work in Berlin with a half the payment instead of working in another place in another German city with double the salary simply because they like living in Berlin. And this makes the prices of real estate rise. We own our building and we rent also our space for low rent to support the initiatives we like.
The city is now difficult for artists, especially finding studio spaces, although still easier than London and Paris. It’s not as it used to be anymore, Berlin is in a phase of transition, it is somehow getting older and perhaps more bourgeois, there is more money in the city but it is not a financial capital like London, we have to make sure it will remain interesting, the pressure is increasing… a commercial pressure to get the rent in.

Mara Sartore: What about the market? Is the collectors scene in Berlin is local or is there an international base? How was Art Berlin this year?

Johann König: The fair was really beautiful to look at, but it was very slow. There was no international attendance. This is good enough for us as the German market is really strong. There are big collectors and the situation can be compared to the Italian market scene, it’s on the rise. For example, these collectors start having five Fontanas and they have the conditions of becoming serious collectors of young and mid-generation artists. We have some clients who are second generations art collectors, for example…

Mara Sartore: Why do you think the fair is unable to attract international collectors?

Johann König: The beautiful venue should be able to attract visitors in itself, but it’s running at a bad moment, just one week prior to Frieze. Next year, it will be held during early September.
The problem is that the Berlin gallery community has somehow changed the brand seven times…everybody has lost track. We used to have a functioning art form identity, there was ABC, then it was hosted in a hangar, then it became a curated fair, then it fused with Art Cologne…nobody knows what is going on anymore.

Mara Sartore: Is Art Cologne the main fair in Germany?

Johann König: Yes, it is a very financially strong fair.

Mara Sartore: And what fo you think about MCH acquiring Art Dusseldorf?

Johann König: I think it has to do with the area, Cologne is a Catholic area and they have a big sense for art. Berlin is a protestant city and it’s a disrupted city, it’s both a working class city which of course is rather poor as well as a bourgeois society. The buying people mostly come from areas with big companies, like other places in Germany. With regard to Berlin, I would say that the Gallery Weekend in Berlin which runs in mid April has a much more international attendance and format. 

For us it is a bit different, we have a high number of visits throughout the year due to the exceptional building. Anyone interested in art who comes to Berlin comes to the gallery. The experience of being there is so unique and incomparable to any other kind of gallery. Because of the architecture, the projects we host, as well the sculpture garden in the city centre. I bought the building in 2014 and it was sustained thanks to the sale of artworks. We have no money in the family, my father is a curator…

Mara Sartore: What about the very beginning?

Johann König: The previous gallery was in Rosa-Luxembourg Platz in the east of Berlin where there was originally only a Vietnamese vegetable market, a Hungarian travel agency, a brothel and nothing else and now this is the city centre of Berlin and a prime location, all the big brands have opened there, it’s now the commercial area. It was only 15 years ago but at that time I was paying 10% of what the rent is today.

Mara Sartore: Did you move from there because of the increase in rent?

Johann König: I moved because of annoying tourists. I had an intermediate stop in Potsdamer Platz in a former fabrication hall, a location which I was also lucky enough to buy…that’s what happened also with Paula Cooper in Chelsea, New York for example, when you can buy the venue you step out of the spiral of the increasing rents, but then you become your own ‘gentrificator’, we gentrified the area somehow, we kicked ourself out because we couldn’t afford it anymore

Mara Sartore: How did you find the church?

Johann König: I started looking at alternative real estate because I couldn’t afford normal real estate anymore. I was looking for places which were off the market like train stations, police stations and bunkers and then I found this church. It was in a very bad condition – look at these vintage photos from the 60s – it was 25 meters high and very large and basically nobody knew what to do with it.

Mara Sartore: But it was still owned by the church, right?

Johann König: Yes it was owned by the Catholic Community

Mara Sartore: You bought it from them?

Johann König: Yes, and I contacted the architect Arno Brandlhuber to make the space usable. Today we have have a new floor and at the back of the building we have staircase that leads to the garden.

Mara Sartore: What about the selection of your artists. Your current shows are by Alicia Kwade and Annette Kelm. I would like you to talk about the female presence in the contemporary art scene? How do you select the artists? Do you have personal relationship with them?

Johann König: Yes, most of the time I know them personally. Many of our represented artists are women but this a coincidence or maybe not, but yes, we have a strong presence of female artists.

My career was a bit unusual as you might know. I lost my eyesight when I was young and this led me to think that there’s a certain connection to the work that needs to be physically encountered and this is a connecting point, to be really understood. And this is what happened with Katharina Grosse for example, or with the swimming pool by Elmgreen & Dragset currently on view at the Whitechapel Gallery or Alicja Kwade’s work at Hayward Gallery.
I believe that perceiving art is not just a matter of visuality but it should involve all senses, it’s an  immersive experience, the show by Michael Sailstrofer – “Tear Show” opening tomorrow is another example of this.

Mara Sartore: What about future projects? What will happen in London after Frieze and this current show?

Johann König: We have 5/6 weeks long exhibitions, a very fast pace rotation, it’s quite an active programme…maybe we need to slow down a bit!

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