How Investment in Cultural Infrastructure put Leipzig on the International Art World Map

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With a long-standing legacy of alternative subculture movements and a constant re-branding of eco-retro-punk, Berlin presents itself as the ultimate signifier of alternative urban culture. Collective community events such as the Hipster Olympiade and Mauerpark Bearpit Karaoke Show capture a sense of criticism on the commercial branding processes of cultural trends. But if you think Berlin is the only place in Germany where alternative urban living meets contemporary arts, think again. In Leipzig, just a few km south of Berlin, you can find resourceful and authentic urban-cultural developments.

Leipzig is the largest city region of the German federal state of Saxony, with about half a million inhabitants. As a popular university town, home to Johann S. Bach and church reformist Martin Luther, Leipzig has an extremely rich cultural heritage to build upon.

After German Reunification, three investors from Western Germany bought a decommissioned cotton factory, turning it into a space that now houses more than 100 contemporary artists. Many of them are internationally acclaimed, most prominently Neo Rauch who is one of the lead figures of the New Leipzig School, an emerging movement of German artists.

The Leipzig Baumwollspinnerei (in short ‘Spinnerei’), which is located in the west of Leipzig, now accommodates 11 galleries, including some of Germany’s most commercially renowned: Galeries Kleindienst and Galerie Eigen+Art. This area provides everything a creative mind needs including a well equipped art warehouse, a cinema, and several exhibition spaces for permanent and temporary displays.

When Spinnerei (pictured below) was conceptualised in the early 1990s, the aim was to offer flexible studio space at a reasonable price to the many artists who had started renting derelict manufacturing spaces independently. However, due to increasing international reputation and extensive brand development, rents have now become more competitive. Despite this, emerging artists still have the opportunity to take part in a variety of residency programs run by the Leipzig International Art Program, and other artist-led projects including Pilotenkueche.

Halle 14 is a think tank and visitor centre, and the heart of the Spinnerei. Aiming to encourage discourse about art, Halle 14 also had a well-curated library containing, amongst others, books published by the institution’s internal educational department. In addition to international residencies and internship programs, Halle 14 offers a range of art engagement opportunities for young people under the ‘Kreative Spinner’ programme (which translates as ‘Creative Weirdos’ and references the term Spinnerei).

The program offers workshops for local schools and classes for individuals aiming to study fine art at university level. This involves inexpensive skill-based fine art classes and studio visits with local artists. A project I found admirable involved school children creating a publication in which they analysed Neo Rauch’s paintings by touring Leipzig and photographing urban details that match scenes in Rauch’s paintings.

While Leipzig’s cultural infrastructure is small compared to some cities, the quality of projects and institutions is of a very high standard. This is partly due to subsidies from municipal, national and European funds which enable institutions to sustain non-commercial interest educational programs. Growing up in East Germany, I found there is still a strong notion that art education for children and adults should be free. Where I grew up in Zwickau, there was a local art society based at Domhof Galerie called Kunstverein Zwickau of which I was a member. Their weekly workshops run by practicing artists and ex-university tutors are free and subsidised by the local council.

I believe that long term investment in quality art education and the provision of flexible space has allowed Leipzig to establish an excellent foundation for innovation, exchange and creativity away from the fast-moving trends of finance-driven global cities. With an enormous new contemporary art space opening in 2004 and an increasing number of exhibition weekends and tours, Leipzig has attracted many of the international collectors that regularity participate in events such as Art Basel and Frieze.

With the sudden attention of art markets on the artists of the New Leipzig School, a wave of international media coverage started to break in 2005, followed by coverage in travel guides and ratings in the Guardian, NY Times and many internationally renowned German newspapers. Leipzig’s tourism agency has responded to this by creating marketing material and guides that brand ‘Creative Leipzig’ as the centre for fine and applied arts in Germany.

With these developments and the fact that Leipzig is just over an hour from Berlin by train, it seems likely that Berlin’s cultural development will splash over to Leipzig. I hope this encourages international exchange, attracting culture-avid tourists, creative professionals and international entrepreneurs in the process.

For the East German area, a region often portrayed as one with high unemployment and isolated fractions of extreme right ideology, this could mean increased recognition for what is missing in much of today’s commercially over-saturated cultural landscape: authentic and purposeful long-term cultural developments for local communities that inspire global audiences.

Silvie Jacobi is an artist and cultural strategist studying urban geography and creative industries at King’s College London.