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Photography by Dörthe Boxberg

The likeable runner-up

created by Melanie Weidemüller | |   art

The old alongside the new, the high next to the low: Cologne’s art scene is proud of its tradition and constantly reinventing itself

Cologne’s art scene is the more likeable runner-up: less arrogant, more relaxed and imbued with a sense of solidarity

On a Sunday in 1992, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Deborah Solomon (“The Cologne Challenge: Is New York’s Art Monopoly Kaput?”) that the cool New York art scene was not amused about. As if it were a matter of world domination, the question: “What is the Centre of the Art World: Cologne or New York?” was emblazoned on the cover. New York’s status as the number one art metropolis was threatened and to blame for this was an unremarkable city in the west of Germany whose artistic scene was bursting with self-confidence: Cologne.

The comparison wasn’t exaggerated: since the 1960s, when the avant-garde music and film scene in Cologne began celebrating a newfound spirit of optimism, a passion for contemporary art had developed in the Rhineland. The world’s first art fair (today’s Art Cologne) was established in Cologne in 1967. Newly opened galleries exhibited subversive American pop art, and Joseph Beuys demonstrated with artist colleagues in front of the city’s legendary Kunsthalle. This trend continued well into the 1990s when its zenith was marked by Martin Kippenberger and “context art”. Legendary times, legendary parties.

So what is left of it all today? Germany’s art capital is now Berlin. But Cologne is a akin to the more likeable runner-up: less arrogant, more relaxed and imbued with a greater sense of solidarity. The scene is proud of its history, something that Berlin can’t claim to be. “Berlin is huge, Cologne is the alternative location. I like to go where it’s interesting, and alternatives are often interesting,” says the American Daniel Hug, director of Art Cologne, who moved from Los Angeles to the Rhineland in 2008. In 2016, Germany’s largest art exhibition celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with 60,000 visitors. But one might also bump into the cool “Mr Art Cologne” in the city’s new independent spaces or at parties in trendy clubs; and this is typical of Cologne’s art scene. The distances here are short, everyone knows everyone. The scene’s tradition is part of its identity but it’s about living in the present and constantly reinventing yourself. There has long been a new generation of artists, independent space operators, programme planners and festival organisers who are doing their own thing and part of an international network.

Characterised by its unrefined charm, a current hotspot of the young scene is Ebertplatz, a large square in the north of the city. Here, where the underground tram lines intersect, the cultural underground is thriving in a former shopping arcade amidst post-war concrete Brutalist architecture. For years, councillors in Cologne have been discussing a new design for the square, which many in Cologne regard as ugly. “For me, this is modern architecture,” says Meryem Erkus, who has been running the Gold + Beton art space since 2013 in one of the former retail premises. “It has character,” she says, “like someone with a distinctive face.” Gold + Beton organises exhibitions, performances and concerts; its excellent line-up reveals outstanding knowledge of the art scene and perfectly fits into the neighbourhood. Next door, there are two African bars and another three independent spaces: the ambitious, classic-oriented art gallery Bruch & Dallas; LABOR, the pioneer in an abandoned underground space; and Tiefgarage, with a carefully curated programme for installation and sound art. Beer bottle or wine glass in hand, the mingling visitors wander from one space to the next. For Meryem, this is a unique open space in the middle of urban life: “We can work freely here. There’s no need for consumption. Even if we have 800 people at an opening, which sometimes happens, no one is bothered by it. It’s really cool.”

The scene’s tradition is part ot its identity, but it is constantly reinventing itself

Anyone who wants to check out the periphery should ask Meryem about Baustelle Kalk. Kalk is a neighbourhood on the right side of the Rhine that doesn’t have the best reputation, but attracts creatives and students thanks to its cheap rents. More than 50 percent migrants, Turkish tearooms, Moroccan greengrocers, Italian pizza makers, high unemployment and crime. But art? More like diaspora. Here, Meryem runs a second venue with her sister Fatma and other young women: in 2016, Baustelle won the Cologne Cultural Prize for Young Initiatives: 60 square metres, exposed brick walls, improvised furnishings and plenty of DIY spirit. Not to mention space for 120 people, concerts, readings, exhibitions, films and lots of experimental noise. From here, take a stroll along Trimbornstrasse to the Büro für Brauchbarkeit: an innovative graphic design office with a co-working space that produces the stylish Kalk shirts and runs a professional exhibition space in a shop selling selected contemporary art by young regional and international artists.

Cologne is the art metropolis that just keeps on going

The contrasting programme to Kalk and Ebertplatz can be found on the left side of the Rhine in the Belgian Quarter. There are numerous galleries and cafés on Aachener Strasse, where arty types like to enjoy a cappuccino or white wine while discussing the current exhibition on show at the Museum Ludwig (the city’s first institution for contemporary art), the upcoming Documenta (why Athens?) or more mundane topics like poor quality television shows, good food and mobile phone rates. A favourite place of the trendy crowd is Salon Schmitz, a model of success: they started out with serving excellent cakes in a tiny, stylishly renovated former butcher’s shop with high stucco ceilings (Metzgerei Schmitz), before opening the spacious Salon Schmitz with club Coco Schmitz in the basement and, finally, next door, Bar Schmitz, a brasserie and ice cream parlour (try the caramel with Fleur du Sel!). Salon Schmitz is home to works by the renowned artist twins Gert and Uwe Tobias, who have their atelier in Cologne and Kunstgruppe Schmitz hosts exhibitions with its artist friends. No White Cube vibes here though; the pictures simply hang on the wall above the cosy retro sofas. The Belgian Quarter is a tip for all art lovers and the perfect base for discovering the rest the city has to offer.

If you want to discover young art, take a street art tour

If you want to discover young art in public spaces, take a street art tour. In Cologne, there are more than 60 monumental murals on houses, walls and factory buildings. Most are in Ehrenfeld (others can be found in the Belgian Quarter, Mülheim and Nippes) and were created for the urban art festival Cityleaks, which has been hosted by the artist’s association, artrmx, since 2011 and has developed into one of the largest urban art festivals. Newcomers and stars of the international scene have left their mark on Cologne. In the summer months, artrmx organises guided tours on Saturdays — the perfect way to experience Cologne beyond its Cathedral and hipster cafés.

A walk through the city centre, from the Belgian Quarter to Neumarkt, the Old Town and the Cathedral, will take you to many unique Cologne art addresses. The Kölnischer Kunstverein, one of the oldest and most important art associations in Germany, presents outstanding contemporary art in the meticulously renovated 1950s building, “Die Brücke” (The Bridge). One of the reasons Cologne is so attractive to young artists is its local media arts school: the KHM, the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, founded in the 1990s, is an elite school for young artists, filmmakers and TV producers, and its graduates regularly win prizes. Renowned artists such as Julia Scher, Phil Collins, Mischa Kuball and Marcel Odenbach teach here. In the summer, students and graduates present their works to the public during the school’s annual tour. Lectures, film screenings and exhibitions in its art space, Glasmoog, take place throughout the year.

There is always a competition between the art scenes of Cologne and Berlin

An insider tip is hidden in a well-established institution and is just as exciting as contemporary art: the magnificent Medieval Collection in the Wallraf Richartz Museum. This is a favourite venue of Tim Berresheim, a visual artist, who grew up with punk music, has a DIY spirit and is a child of the computer revolution. On the museum’s first floor are paintings and spectacular altars that inspire him, even if his own works are created on the computer. There are crucifixion scenes, angels, demons, and the Job Altar, which represents the wager between God and the Devil, and is the great triptych by the Master of Delft from the year 1500. “They really knew everything about colour and composition and made credible representations using this knowledge!” he says. Five hundred years ago, there were works characterised by this extreme wealth of information, which is precisely why Berresheim believes the medieval age is once again so interesting in the digital 21st century.

From here, it’s a 10-minute walk to a completely different Cologne gem: Kolumba, the Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne, designed by exceptional Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Since its inauguration in 2005, architecture and art fans from all around the world have made the pilgrimage here. Afterwards, they might stop by Walther König: the world-famous art bookstore is a bit like the brain and memory of art history, a meeting place for the art intelligentsia. Basically, if you can’t find an exhibition catalogue here, it doesn’t exist. Around the corner are some of Cologne’s leading galleries: Buchholz, which now has branches in Berlin and New York; Gisela Capitain, who also manages the Kippenberger estate; Karsten Greve and Boissere both represent great classic artists, and one of the most recent returnees from Berlin: Markus Lüttgen, who currently prefers Cologne to the German capital.

So, what is the centre of the German art world: Cologne or Berlin? There’s always this eternal competition. It’s true that the times when Cologne’s art scene was on a par with the Big Apple’s are over. But Berlin is Berlin, Cologne is Cologne. In 2016, Cologne-based artists and off-space operators founded the young independent art fair Far Off, offering a forum for project spaces and newer galleries that runs parallel to the established Art Cologne. Tradition and new beginnings, the high next to the low, a stone’s throw from Benelux and Paris — Cologne is the art metropolis in the West that just keeps on going. We can’t wait to see what happens here next.

Find out more:,  Exhibition programmes of all municipal museums., Exhibition programmes of Cologne’s galleries., The independent scene’s preferred medium: website of the network Art Initiatives Cologne e.V., including a map, list and programme of free art spaces, art initiatives and festivals., One of the oldest and most prestigious art associations in Germany housed in the meticulously renovated “Die Brücke” building by architect Riphahn. The hip Filmclub 813 is located in the same building., Academy of Media Arts Cologne: the elite school for upcoming artists, filmmakers and television producers., Kolumba is the Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne in a building designed by Peter Zumthor and a must for Cologne visitors.

(by Melanie Weidemüller)