One man’s mission to redefine the industrial cultural complex.
A city is a living ecosystem that will inevitably cycle through periods of growth, decay, renewal, stability, entropy, and so on. Cultural identity ebbs and flows. Demographics shift and recalibrate. This is the story of New York, but also the story of London, Paris, and, especially, the story of Berlin.
Urban centers with an artistic pulse, the bleeding hearts known as the creative class, tend to undergo the most extreme evolutions. Artists see opportunity in the ruins - a blank canvas begging for transformation. They are not deterred by poverty, or danger, or neglect. These are their raw materials.
One thing is certain - when culture disappears, humanity suffers, because culture and humanity are inexorably intertwined. Insofar as the pandemic has been an existential threat on a biological level, destroying families and communities, it’s also threatening to kill off cultural institutions on an epic scale, especially those unable (or unwilling) to adapt, evolve, and change.
Enter Yoram Roth.
Roth understands urban transformation better than most. He was living in Berlin in 1989 when the Wall “fell” and the city began its socio-political reconciliation. He also lived in New York in the 80’s, when it was dirty and crime-ridden, but also creatively stimulating, teeming with potential and the adrenaline rush that accompanies the unexpected.
Now, Roth splits his time between both cities, presiding over a number of cultural enterprises as Chairman, owner and unofficial visionary-in-residence. His portfolio includes magazines, a radio station, iconic Berlin haunts and dancehalls, hotels, the private work and social space NeueHouse, and the largest photography museum in the world - Fotografiska. In fact, Fotografiska and NeueHouse recently announced their official merger, and are now operating as part of the platform known as CultureWorks, a parent company that develops culture, experience, and hospitality brands.
The unexpected is also a concept that Roth is intimately acquainted with, to put it lightly. His family had built a real estate empire in Berlin before the wars - but it was seized by the Nazis, and then again by the Communists. As Jews, they were forced to flee Germany during the Third Reich. Their family suffered unspeakable losses during WWII, but the survivors returned to Berlin and began again. Their story is one for the ages, replete with wealth, despair, grief, resilience and redemption.
Roth is a true polymath. An artist in his own right, he has shown at the prestigious gallery Camera Work in Berlin (which specializes in photography) and sold out shows in Milan, Paris and elsewhere. His photography has been the subject of three books. He’s currently “on sabbatical” from his art practice in order to focus on his businesses. However, those two undertakings are not mutually exclusive; as Andy Warhol famously wrote, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art...making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
Roth’s enterprises have included an eclectic mix of creative ventures, but they all have one thing in common: a central focus on building (and celebrating) community. “Community matters and culture works,” he states. “You will hear me say that sentence a lot.”
Fotografiska is arguably his most ambitious project to date. The museum’s core mission is, simply stated, to change what a museum can be. “I think that a certain tenured curatorial approach has developed, in which curators may not necessarily tap into what resonates with the audience that they're supposedly serving,” says Roth “My belief is, if you’re talking about a major museum, it’s usually defined by the city in which it’s located. So it should fulfill, amongst other things, its educational responsibility to the community in which it resides.”
Roth points out that many museums are usually only open from 9 to 5, ultimately leading to a limited audience. He says Fotografiska has been designed to function differently, more like a nexus for community gatherings and less like some hallowed vestige ensconced by impenetrable discourse.
“We are a team of people who really understand exhibitions and the photographic art world,” Roth says. “But the fact that I've had the opportunity to work in both business and the arts, I think, has given us a clear path towards trying to reinvent the museum.”
Roth sees two types of museums dominating the current landscape, the storied historical museum that has to take a “100-200 year view,” and the private museum, governed by one collector’s creative vision and therefore not necessarily a space for multiple perspectives that appeal to a broad audience. Fotografiska falls somewhere in the middle.
This past year, Fotografiska NY worked with iconic photographer Andres Serrano to mount Infamous, “a visual exploration of the long history of deeply rooted racism in the United States.” The museum is also working with the Black Artist Fund and is currently showing Naima Green’s portraits and video art, which celebrate “Black and POC centered queer histories” (through April 18th, 2021 in New York).
“You know, when we opened here (in New York), we had Run DMC, we had Sting, we had Lucinda Williams. It's not just about photography,” says Roth. “We want people to come and hang out and have a meal, and then listen to a DJ set on a Friday night upstairs. And you can see the art and you can meet the artist. We are an independent museum. We are a platform that enables artists to mount exhibitions that they would otherwise not be able to show. And that keeps people coming back.”
Back in Berlin, Fotografiska is preparing to open in a historical building on Oranienburger Strasse, an important street in the city’s former Jewish quarter (the New Synagogue, one of the few synagogues to survive Kristallnacht and a major architectural monument, is down the street). Fotografsika’s future home, a 60,000 sq. foot space once known as Kunsthaus Tacheles, was formerly an artist squat and studio complex that channeled Berlin’s counter-culture for years.
That history can be felt pulsating through layers and layers of graffiti, tags, stickers and paste-ups and that still adorn the building’s interior, resurrecting the spirits and ghosts of Berlin’s avant-garde past. “One wonderful thing about the building itself is this incredible proliferation of graffiti and street art. And we are keeping those spaces just the way that they are. We’re leaving the stairwells untouched,” says Roth.
“I promised to keep that part of it alive because we love it and that's what we like about Berlin,” he continues. “That alternative culture is part of what defined us. And so we need to keep that but there is a way to create something that is more inclusive, and that is that is more broadly set-up.” This hybrid development approach, which seeks to unite innovation with unique historical cadence, ultimately defines much of Roth’s approach to business.
When it was announced in 2019 that Clärchens Ballhaus, Berlin’s oldest dancehall, would likely close after failing to renew its lease, a gasp of disbelief could be heard reverberating throughout the city. As noted in The Guardian, Clärchens “Spiegelsaal, its grand mirrored ballroom, survived the Third Reich, the GDR and illegal sword duels. During the second world war, the Nazis closed the Ballhaus, Russian troops used it as a horse stable, and an allied bombing raid obliterated part of the building.” And yet, throughout all of this upheaval and conflict, Clärchens persisted - a beacon of inclusivity, a community like no other, and yet, very, very Berlin.
“We’re keeping everything the same except the food,” says Roth, when asked about his plans for the Ballhaus. “I believe deeply, deeply, deeply, that you have to keep that place effectively as it is. That's the mission and I really believe that. Not even necessarily because I'm trying to save Berlin or anything like that. It's because I like that version of Berlin and I actually think it's an attractive thing and what people come to Berlin to find. And,” he adds, eyes shining, “I also thought that it's actually an interesting business opportunity.”
Just as empires rise as fall, and as cities evolve and change, our collective understanding of culture cycles through iterations that may, at varying times, seem uncomfortably rapid, or too staid, or overly-aggressive, or too benign. As we brace ourselves for life-after-coronavirus, in which the wreckage will be surveilled and the winners and losers announced, it’s likely multi-disciplinary entrepreneurs, such as Roth, who will reveal the path forward, shepherding the industrial cultural complex out of history’s shadows and into futures unknown.