Artists flock to cheap Berlin from around the world

BERLIN (Reuters) - If you’re an artist and you dream of honing your skills alone in a tiny garret, hungry and cold but filled with inspiration, then Berlin may not be for you.

Painter Finbarr Kelleher is pictured in his studio in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district, July 30, 2008. REUTERS/Johannes Eisele

Because there is no such thing as a starving artist here.

Thousands of creative artists have flocked to this German city, drawn by low rents, cheap food, state support and the chance to be part of a community bubbling with ideas -- and live in a city that in many ways is an unfinished canvas itself.

They have turned Berlin into a 21st century hotspot for painters, actors, writers, filmmakers, musicians and designers.

“It’s got a wonderfully creative environment,” said Bonaventure S.B. Ndikung, 31, an artist and curator from Cameroon who settled here more than a decade ago.

“The city’s inspiring, it’s multicultural, it’s diverse and best of all costs are low. You only have to sell things every once in a while to get by.”

In the past, artists have flourished in other cheap cities during tough economic times -- such as New York in the early 1970s and London late in that decade.

Now, it’s happening in Berlin where, for instance, it costs a painter like Finbarr Kelleher from Ireland only 550 euros ($856) a month for his roomy flat and large studio in the trendy Prenzlauer Berg quarter.

Berlin is home to some 25,000 artists, a study by the DIW economic think-tank found. They’re from Germany and Europe but also from Asia, especially China and Japan, and North America.

DIW said many get by on less than 10,000 euros ($15,570) a year and the median annual income is about 18,000 euros


Berlin’s economy is weak and its cost of living is low because unemployment is relatively high at about 15 percent, rental property is readily available and population growth is stagnant.

“You’re poor but you’re so free because you’ve got no responsibilities, you’re free from the pressures of life,” said Kelleher, who came via Barcelona from Ireland and stayed after discovering a pulsating art scene in Berlin in 1999.

“You have no money but you have so much freedom and time, and if doing something creative is what you want to do, time is what you need,” added Kelleher, 39, who now earns about 20,000 euros a year after initially getting by on less than half that.

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Yet those in the creative crowd say it is more than the cheap rents and low costs that makes Berlin special.

“You can’t put a price on the value of exchanging ideas,” said Ndikung. “You can meet writers, musicians or designers at a cafe and it makes your day. You’ll discover something new or just listen. No one cares about money. It’s all secondary.”

Swiss-born director Dani Levy agreed. He moved to the city in 1980 and later helped start what is now one of Europe’s top independent film producers, X-Filme Creative Pool.

Coming from Switzerland, at first he was shocked by West Berlin’s flourishing art scene and vibrant counter-culture.

“But, I fell in love with the theatre scene and whole way of life. It’s a real buzz.”

The city of 3.4 million was devastated during World War Two and split by the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. The big banks and industry that had made Berlin a prosperous European capital between the wars abandoned the divided city.

Yet those ravages, ironically, helped create a fertile environment for the arts. Even though the population has been stagnant since 1990, that figure masks tremendous upheaval: more than 1.7 million moved away and 1.7 moved to Berlin since 1990.

“It may seem rather surprising at first that about half the city’s population has come and gone in the last 15 years,” Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit said in an interview with Reuters.

“But it’s due to large numbers who moved to new suburbs just outside Berlin after the Wall fell and a high number of people, especially students and young people, who moved in since 1990.”

Artists are welcomed by Wowereit, Germany’s first openly gay political leader who gave the city its hip slogan “Berlin is poor but sexy,” and helped lure film and music companies to the German capital since taking office in 2001.

It’s hardly surprising Berlin features as an unpaid extra in a growing number of films. Wowereit, who has made cameo appearances in some film productions, said the post-industrial future for Berlin would be driven by artists and universities.

“The mass production and assembly lines are gone forever.”


Berlin, battling to stave off bankruptcy and weighed down by 60 billion euros of debt, is indeed poor. But artists are also attracted by the fact that it is a “blank canvas,” or work-in-progress.

“Berlin is definitely not a wealthy city,” Wowereit said. “But it’s got a wealth of potential.”

The city has three free universities with 120,000 students plus many smaller film and theatre schools, a major film festival, theatres, eight orchestras, three opera houses and hundreds of galleries.

The federal authorities subsidize operas, theatres, orchestras and also offer to pay half of artists’ social security contributions.

The population includes 500,000 foreigners from 180 countries; there are dozens of foreign language theatre groups.

Many foreigners never learn German yet they get along fine in a city that could be described as “extra-territorial.” One artist said he lived in Berlin for months without realizing

he was living in Germany.

“You feel like you’re on a different planet,” said Ndikung

Alister Noon is a British poet who moved here in 1993.

“It’s hard to keep up with everything going on for artists in Berlin,” said Noon, 38. “There are loads of gigs, loads of readings, the English literature scene is thriving.”

He said Berlin eclipsed Prague and other eastern European centers that expat artists first descended upon in the 1990s.

“It’s significantly less stress-filled than, for example, London. Rents, food and beer are cheap. If you’re engaged in creating art, living costs are extremely important.

“If I lived in London, I wouldn’t be able to spend as much time on my artistic activities. In Berlin, it’s easier to find the time to write because you don’t have to worry about money.”

Kelleher has artist friends who take frugality to new levels. A Bulgarian friend survives on almost zero income. In the winter, he heats his flat with a coal-burning stove but fills it with wood scraps he finds around town.

“You can manage with even less than 200 euros a month,” Kelleher said. “A friend has done it for years. He finds wood on the streets from construction sites and in trash containers. It’s incredible. He’s ‘living off the land’ even in a big city.”

(Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)

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