Post-Brexit influx of bankers offers boost for Frankfurt’s art scene
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Money and art have been closely associated for centuries in Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital. Together, they have created an environment that mixes prestigious exhibitions with dozens of independent galleries and vibrant street art. Now, local artists and gallery owners predict a rejuvenation of the art scene in one of the city’s least attractive neighbourhoods, buoyed by an influx of bankers as Frankfurt grabs business from a beleaguered London in the wake of Brexit.
When the Rundgaenger gallery opened in 2015 on Niddastrasse, a gloomy strip in the Bahnhofsviertel (the area around Frankfurt’s central railway station), few predicted one of EU’s largest economies was about to quit the bloc and that Germany’s financial centre was about to expand with the arrival of thousands of bankers from London.
As Brexit draws closer and banks unveil their plans in greater detail, the gallery’s co-owner Daniel Schierke (pictured above with fellow owner Ralf Seinecke) is confident there is an opportunity for Frankfurt’s art scene. “Each time I hear that someone like Goldman Sachs is moving hundreds of workers to Frankfurt, I cheer. Of course, Brexit is a terrible thing, but for artists in Frankfurt it will really be a real boost,” he says. His gallery is a bright space that sells works by young up-and-coming artists for prices ranging between €1,000 and €10,000.
The Bahnhofsviertel is in many ways the prime location to capitalise on the coming-together of art and finance. Not only do its boulevards segue into the district of skyscrapers that serve as the most obvious emblems of Frankfurt’s money-making status, but the neighbourhood borders the fashionable Westend area and the Europaviertel, a newer though somewhat soulless development to the north of the station.
Yet the Bahnhofsviertel has had a chequered history. The Städel’s collection contains a painting by German expressionist Max Beckmann, who lived in Frankfurt for much of the interwar period. His picture bathes the station and street in pleasant colours of early evening; a black cat peers out at the clean, empty vista from the balcony of a smart Altbau (old building).
You could imagine such a milieu appealing to a well-heeled banker working at one of the city’s many financial institutions. When Beckmann completed the work in 1943, the Bahnhofsviertel was such a place. But in the decades after the war, the area fell on harder times. Criminal gangs and drug addicts moved in, and sex shops and seedy bars lined the streets, while the smart set moved to the Westend or to the towns in the Taunus hills to the north-west of the city.
At first glance, the Bahnhofsviertel today still does not seem the sort of place to provide a gateway to the city’s art scene. But young artists, many of whom study at the Städel art school, a 10-minute walk across the Main river, have long been attracted by the area’s high-ceilinged apartments. Rents, however, have gone from being very cheap to among the highest in Frankfurt. With the expected influx of bankers, that is unlikely to change.
For banks with operations in London, Frankfurt has become one of the top relocation destinations amid fears over Brexit, which is almost certain to mean their UK banking licence will no longer give them seamless access to EU markets. Frankfurt, home to the European Central Bank (ECB), the eurozone banking watchdog, has attracted big US institutions looking to transfer staff from London, such as Goldman Sachs, Citi and JPMorgan. Meanwhile, several Asian lenders, including China International Capital, Daiwa Securities, Nomura and Mizuho Financial Group, also plan to beef up their presence in the German city.
Up to 2,000 financiers are expected to relocate from London to Frankfurt by 2020, followed by another 6,000 in the longer term, according to a study by Helaba, the German bank. However, many workers have expressed a reluctance to make the switch to a city they see as a provincial backwater.
For a city of fewer than a million people, however, Frankfurt has a vibrant art scene, the presence of financiers historically being an important reason for that. It was in Frankfurt in the 1760s that Mayer Amschel Rothschild established one of the world’s most famous banking dynasties. Many of the financiers who helped build the city into one of the most important financial capitals in Europe have shared a love of compound interest with a passion for art.
The Städel, the city’s most famous art institution, was founded on donations from Johann Friedrich Städel, a local financier and spice merchant, who in 1815 bequeathed his house, its art collection and his fortune to the foundation that would establish a museum and an art school. “The Städel has had directors such as Max Hollein, and the Museum für Moderne Kunst [Museum of Modern Art] had Udo Kittelmann, who have gone on to head internationally renowned institutions in New York and Berlin,” says Schierke.
“They put on big exhibitions that have the cachet of those in a much bigger city. The rising prominence of the museums here has helped galleries in areas like the Fahrgasse [in the east of the old town] and the Bahnhofsviertel really develop.”
Today, the Städel and its sister institution the Schirn regularly host first-rate exhibitions covering the major works of artists as varied as Raphael and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Städel’s contemporary art wing, a cavernous underground space that opened in 2012, features significant additions from the collections of Frankfurt-based institutions Deutsche Bank and DZ Bank.
Christina Leber, curator of DZ Bank’s collection — housed in a gallery at the bank’s headquarters just north of the Bahnhofsviertel — says an ethos of civic-mindedness has always been at the core of the city’s cultural scene. “Art is as important a tool for communication as letters. It’s a very important aspect of culture and it is our duty to explain exactly what it means to our visitors,” she says.
Frankfurt is home not only to private lenders but central banks too, which have spent millions on artworks. The Bundesbank, Germany’s federal bank, has invested in modern art since shortly after it was founded in 1957. It owns works by important postwar artists such as German painter and photographer Gerhard Richter and Victor Vasarely, the Hungarian-born Op Art (optical art) pioneer who designed the bank’s executive dining room. It also hosts exhibitions featuring young German artists. In 2017, in a show to mark the opening of its Money Museum, it let Michael Riedel, one of Frankfurt’s best-known artists, design his own banknotes using the same paper on which euro notes themselves are printed.
Meanwhile, the ECB spent €1.25m on commissioning key works to mark the inauguration in 2015 of its new €1.3bn premises in the city’s Ostend neighbourhood. They included a 17.5m-high sculpture with a ball of gold-plated leaves that has been called the “magic money tree” by its creator, Italian artist Giuseppe Penone. And on the walls of the bank’s twin towers are a set of doodles by Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov — some of which have been scrubbed off by overzealous cleaning staff.
The Frankfurter Hauptschule is a collective of 15 mostly art students associated with the Städel art school. Representatives of the group say: “Very many people in Frankfurt’s art world and nightlife are living and/or hanging out here. Most of us, too. It’s got a certain thrill. And it’s still much nicer and, well, more real than hip districts in Berlin.”
The gallery scene began in the mid-noughties when a non-profit collective opened Basis, a studio and exhibition space on Gutleutstrasse. “It’s kind of sexy being here. There’s still a dark side to the area, but it thrives because it is the city’s most extreme neighbourhood,” says Ralf Seinecke, co-owner of the Rundgaenger gallery. “You have so many facets of city life — the artists, the addicts, the bankers — all coming together in one place.”
Yet there are tensions between the two worlds. While the new ECB building was under construction, a nearby graffiti project, styled “underARTconstruction”, was set up by a local youth worker, Stefan Mohr. The murals captured a sense of the public anger at the eurozone’s monetary and political guardians, criticising the damage done to the lives of ordinary people by the region’s financial crisis — especially in countries such as Greece. One of the best-known works showed Mario Draghi, the ECB president, dressed in a James Bond-style tuxedo, gambling at the Casino Royale under the watchful eye of Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. It was later sold to a fund manager.
In February 2018, the Frankfurter Hauptschule installed a sculpture in the Bahnhofsviertel in the form of a torched police car as a protest against the displacement of drug addicts. While the city’s police chief attacked recordings of the car ablaze, the Städel defended the work. Il-Jin Choi, an artistic co-ordinator at the art school, said: “There is an inherent contradiction between art and money. Most art cannot exist without money, but at the same time art is supposed to criticise money.”
Meanwhile, the Frankfurter Hauptschule said: “It’s pretty obvious that there is some kind of almost military strategic action going on to cast out the junkies. There are definitely some people in powerful positions who want the Bahnhofsviertel to become some kind of neat white business card for Frankfurt.”
Seinecke’s view is that “just because there is money here, it doesn’t mean that you automatically have the levels of appreciation — what we call in German the Wertschätzung — that you need to have a truly thriving scene. We know that the scene still has some way to go. People are more willing to spend more money on good furniture and good cars than they are on art.”
There are big benefits for artists in this city of banks. “There are a lot more possibilities to turn your ideas into projects because there is a lot of funding,” says Mohr, whose ECB project received cash from the bank to cover materials.
Many artists hope the influx of bankers will boost the local art scene. “We’re not the classical haters who think bankers and their greed are the problem with our current world or society. Everyone knows the problem is capitalism itself innately producing crisis and poverty,” says the Frankfurter Hauptschule. “Let all the bankers come to Frankfurt and build more of these glass-façade skyscrapers. We need more canvases to splash our dirty art upon.”
Meanwhile, bankers are returning to the Bahnhofsviertel. “Banks, Brothels and Bohemia”, an exhibition about the area at the Institut für Stadtgeschichte, the city’s institute of local history, highlighted their impact on property prices. According to data from property consultancy Bulwiengesa, average apartment prices in the Bahnhofsviertel have more than doubled from €2,700 per square metre a decade ago.
Klaus Winker, who works in communications for a German bank, has lived in the Bahnhofsviertel since 2012. “I can walk downtown in 10 minutes, work is seven minutes away and I can be at the airport in less than 20 minutes. I don’t need a car; I can go everywhere on foot or by bike,” he says. “In the Bahnhofsviertel there is always life. Even on Sundays when it’s quiet everywhere else, you can always find a good place for a drink. It’s so vibrant and so cosmopolitan — you get your typical German artist hipsters mixing with Turkish barbers and increasingly international tourists. I love the contrasts.”