Berlin Banking Billions Spent on Arts Yield Tourist Riches

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Berlin Royal Palace
An architect's impression of the Berlin Royal Palace. Source: Stiftung Berliner Schloss - Humboldtforum/ Franco Stella

Look out London and Paris, Berlin is gunning for your high-brow tourists.

Berlin is spending billions of euros to renovate old museums, build new ones and snatch celebrity talent in a bid to upgrade the city’s cultural lineup and satisfy visitors flooding the German capital.

“Berlin lives from tourism, and tourists come here largely for culture,” said Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages most of the city’s museums. “Today, London is more dynamic but Berlin has more potential.”

Projects under way include a complete renovation of one of the city’s three opera houses and a new museum of modern art. The former royal palace is being rebuilt and will house exhibits run by Neil MacGregor, the current British Museum director and media host lured away by the city this year.

There’s a lot at stake because in the absence of major industries -- Berlin lost Deutsche Bank AG and Siemens AG after World War II -- tourism is one of the city’s biggest businesses. The German capital attracted 12 million visitors in 2014 who spent 10 billion euros ($11.3 billion), contributing a full 8 percent of economic activity, according to Berlin government data. The city says those coming for the museums, performances of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle and other cultural activities spend more than any group.

“Cultural tourism is an important economic factor for our city,” said Tim Renner, Berlin’s cultural affairs secretary. “That’s why we’re exerting a big effort to make the cultural offerings even more attractive for international visitors.”

Royal Palace

MacGregor will run the Humboldtforum, which will have museums dedicated to ethnic art and German science. Part of his mission is to make Berlin more appealing to international visitors, who typically spend much of their time touring grim reminders of the Holocaust, World War II and the Cold War.

The center will be in the reconstructed royal palace that was dynamited by the East German government in 1950 and became one of Berlin’s most fought-over construction sites after reunification. On Friday, the city is celebrating the completion of the structure’s frame. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2019 at a cost of 600 million euros.

“This project will stand out in our city,” Mayor Michael Mueller said at the event attended by about 1,500 people.

Staatsoper Modernization

Humboldtforum is the latest addition to Museum Island -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site on an oblong islet in the Spree river -- that contains five museums, with collections including the bust of the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. Museum Island itself is being refurbished for 1.5 billion euros with a new promenade that will connect four of the five museums, and a visitors center designed by London-based architect David Chipperfield.

Nearby, the Staatsoper built for King Frederick the Great in 1742 is being gutted and modernized for almost 400 million euros. Across town, the government has earmarked 200 million euros for a new Museum of Modern Art. The Bauhaus Archiv, which celebrates the minimalist art and design movement founded by Walter Gropius, is also being expanded.

Berlin is even adding a new exhibit dedicated to itself, titled “Metropolis Berlin” a project pushed by Mueller, who took office in December.

To help pay for it all, Berlin last year introduced a 5 percent tax on hotel rooms. In total, the federal and state governments spent 940 million euros on culture in 2014, 8 percent more than in 2010.

Magic Flute

The funding helps the likes of Komische Oper, which hired Australian Barrie Kosky three years ago to breathe new life into the 120-year-old organization. He’s succeeded with sold-out productions of an avant-garde version of Mozart’s Magic Flute, where singers’ heads appear through film screens, surrounded by speech bubbles and animated pink elephants.

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Kosky says that while government subsidies allow artists like him to produce better shows, he hopes the city’s eagerness to attract tourists doesn’t interfere with the creativity that’s made Berlin a cultural magnet in the first place.

“We’re very happy that tourists come, but the reason they should come here is to see something we do for a Berlin audience,” he said. “Berlin can only function if it’s left to be, which means it’s messy, a mix that’s unfinished.”

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