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The WD Interview – Julie August, Gallery Owner & Art Dealer

March 16th, 2009 · No Comments · Arts & Culture, Berlin, The WD Interview

 

What do you do with an 18 metre long corridor that’s dead space? Julie August converted part of her Berlin apartment into a gallery, playing with the concept of living with art versus living IN art. Here she explains why a White Cube is not always the best home for contemporary paintings and sculptures.

It is a peculiarity of late 19th Century Berlin architecture that has produced the city’s trademark ‘Altbauwohnungen’, large airy generous apartments that are found everywhere throughout the city. These L-shaped living spaces all feature a large central room, the so-called Berliner Zimmer, and usually a very long corridor that constitutes the long part of the ‘L’.

When Julie August moved into such an apartment five years ago, she immediately thought of using these two key spaces to hold regular art exhibitions. “It was a spontaneous idea, although I have always liked exhibiting things,” says Julie August in her apartment/gallery in Berlin-Schöneberg, a part of town perhaps best remembered for President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1961.

“The corridor was 18 metres long and very narrow and therefore could not be used for shelving, but the walls were very high,” she explains.  “And I spontaneously thought I could hang things on a regular basis and invite friends.” No sooner said than done. The gallery “18m” was born where at 18.00 hours (6pm) on the 18th of each month she holds varying exhibitions of contemporary art.

She says her motivation was to share things she likes or is impressed with: “The initial idea was to do it privately, to invite 100 people and just see who would turn up.”

Her first exhibition in February 2005 was mainly organised with works from fellow student friends from the Academy of Visual Arts (Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst) in Leipzig and turned out to be a surprising success. The project soon took on a life of its own; visitors really liked the atmosphere and advised August to organise another event more professionally. “And I thought to myself: ‘Why not?’ Especially since the second exhibition was specifically designed to be hung in my apartment,” she continues.

Her second show was a tailor made project with two Berlin photographers showing images of entrances and corridors from Berlin, which in turn were then hung in the corridor of August’s apartment. “With the second exhibition came a lot of interest, some press coverage and also the notice from the landlord,” she concludes, a big blow to the budding art dealer just six months after moving in.

Given that Julie August had invested money into her new apartment, and given that the exhibitions meant an additional work load that added greatly to that of her day job as a book designer, it would have seemed obvious that she would have decided to stay and give up the idea.

“It was difficult, because I really liked what I was doing and I already had a great number of other ideas for future exhibitions,” she remembers.

In the end her passion won and she started hunting for a new living/art space. “I looked for a long time and most of the landlords refused. It was love at first sight with this flat – the rent eats up all my income and the gallery itself doesn’t pay enough,” says Julie August. How does she cope? “The money comes from other assignments I work on either in the evenings or at the weekend.” 

So this endeavour is purely fuelled by her passion for exhibiting things? “Yes,” she says simply. “All things are for sale in this gallery, but it’s not something you can count on. I would wish it for myself and the artists, but to me that’s not the most important thing.”

While other art dealers might want to make a hefty profit from their artists, August has other, loftier ideas that dominate her approach: “I want to primarily establish a public profile for the artists, their work and the gallery as a place of communication that people come to and where they can meet the artists directly. Here they can have an exchange on the subjects that are linked to the exhibitions that are shown.”

This is perhaps more in line with the intellectual salons of the 19th century, a tradition that has all but disappeared. Julie August’s success seems to prove her point: “This place is something special for visitors and the exhibitions are always well attended, since the concept of this gallery is a little different,” says August. “Even though the gallery is a small unit, I am very well known in Berlin. I am a bit exotic, but on the other hand colleagues are aware of it and try to encourage me.”

She admits that there are disadvantages to her particular brand of gallery. For example, she doesn’t have the money to take part in big art fairs or give the gallery her exclusive attention. And the artists accept this? “Yes, for those who are from outside Berlin, they are pleased that they have an opportunity to be exhibited here. Just to know that there is a public for their work,” she explains.

But for many, this isn’t the only draw. The artists are challenged by the unusual space. “Many artists are very interested in approaching an exhibition from a very different angle. To think of something specifically for these rooms,” adds August.  She in turn is very excited by this art in action: “I really like it when a concept is developed for the apartment in the course of the preparation.”

Not surprisingly, the contact between August and her artists is close. Case in point is Stephanie Senge, whose exhibition ‘Frühblüher’ will open this week. By the time the show opens, Senge will have lived with August for the previous two weeks and together they will have worked on setting up her exhibition.

While August has been accused of being a ‘hobby gallery owner’, her criteria for accepting artists is anything but. She says she refuses artists daily, adding she must like the art that is exhibited her apartment gallery: “I show the audience what is important to me and this gallery is not a free artist support group.”

So who makes the grade? August says that the art has to be interesting and that it has to work specifically in her gallery rooms. “I have to have to the feeling that the space is changed since I have to live with it.”

Julie August adds that she only chooses professional artists, but clarifies: “I wouldn’t say that having studied at an academy is a must. Artists can have other day jobs, for example Patrick Gabler, who is currently exhibiting, is also a graphic designer.”

                  

In her press profile August says: “This gallery is part of a flat and therefore the opposite of a White Cube.“ Why doesn’t she like White Cubes? 

“Most galleries try to keep their space neutral so nothing can distract from the art work. This works for many types of art,” she says. “It’s not that I am completely against it, but on the other hand I believe there is art that can develop differently in a new setting. It’s exciting to see how art changes in a different context, behaves differently. We begin to wonder whether we recognise it as art if it isn’t standing on a pillar in an empty room. The space here is empty, but on the other hand it is very clearly a living space at the same time. When you come in, there are coats hanging on the wall, it’s private.”

Due to the large of number of exhibits, her kitchen now also doubles up as an exhibition space. “People see the larger works hanging in the kitchen and wonder  ‘Can you do that?’ But my intent is almost educational: when you see art in this context, you understand that you can live with big art,” Julie August explains. “You can learn that it is possible to integrate it into your everyday life without being a big art collector.  It’s a question of just deciding if you want to live with a piece of art. That’s part of the idea – to remove this reserve and that if you really like a piece, you can buy it and put it into your apartment.”

And this is the real differentiator of her approach. She refers to what she calls ‘the idea of Home and Gardens’. “The people in these magazines are super rich, but the average person might not be able to afford 20 pictures, but perhaps one or two,” she goes on. “You don’t just have to get something from Ikea to fill your wall space. It is possible to do it differently.”

But isn’t there an element of snobbery? “I don’t know from which side,” she admits. “It is clear that the professional gallery owner prefers the serious collector who comes to buy something not once but twice a year.”

I observe that in Germany a gallery such as ‘18m’ could only work in Berlin. “Well, I was born in Munich,” August laughs, adding: “I agree. I can’t image it in another city. For one, Munich is much more expensive in terms of rent. And this attitude of opening your door and inviting everyone in.” She shakes at head at the thought. “I think I would try it in any city, but I don’t know if it would be accepted anywhere else.”

In recent years, Berlin has gained a reputation as a trendy place and been compared to London and New York. How realistic is this? Can Berlin really compete? “The question is if to compete always means profit,” says August. “Berlin can keep up because it is an interesting city. There are a lot of international artists that live and work here, and shape the climate here. It’s perhaps not completely untypical that there are many galleries that come and go and draw attention to new parts of the city and make them fashionable. Of course Berlin is not going to be one of those places where you can make big money quickly.”

Julie August remains at the heart of all aspects of the gallery, writing her own invitations, managing her large contact database, producing the accompanying materials, organising occassional lectures and concerts. She says she enjoys the freedom of her situation because she remains in charge.

When I ask what would be the perfect solution for turning this passion into a full time job, I am surprised that she pauses. “It’s not possible at the moment. If I had 6-8 collectors who really like my programme, and perhaps 2-3 institutions…,” she says hesitating, adding quickly: “I do really enjoy my day job at the publishers. Perhaps if the two could be combined….”

‘Frühblüher’ by Stephanie Senge opens this week March, 18th at 18.00 hrs, Akazienstraße 30 in Berlin


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