Artists Pull Out of “Diversity United” as Controversy Swirls Around Kunsthalle Berlin

February 10th, 2022

Citing its organizer’s ties to right-wing politicians, including Russian president Vladimir Putin, as well as his failure to pay participants, a number of well-known artists have withdrawn from the traveling exhibition “Diversity United,” Artnews reports. Meant to show “the face of Europe” and currently on view at Moscow’s New Tretyakov Gallery, the exhibition is being presented by the Bonn, Germany–based Foundation for Art and Culture established by Walter Smerling. The private art-production group launched the exhibition last year at the disused Nazi-built Tempelhof airport outside Berlin, where it just weeks ago inaugurated the Kunsthalle Berlin, a new temporary museum.

Critics have accused Smerling of using his ties to the art world to financially enrich himself and to burnish his credentials among right-wing politicians, and of passing off the institution as a publicly sanctioned effort, when in fact it was partially and silently funded by the German government. Berlin-based South African artist Candice Breitz, who is leading a movement to boycott the Kunsthalle, issued a statement ahead of its January 28 opening casting the Kunsthalle as not “a considered initiative that is in the interests of the arts and cultural community of Berlin at large (as you might expect from an institution wielding the name ‘Kunsthalle Berlin’),” but a “cynical, neoliberal vehicle that will primarily serve to increase the stature and private wealth of all those associated with it.”

Additionally spurring departures are the makeup of the curatorial team and financial backers associated with “Diversity Now,” all ten of whom are white males, in stark contrast with the show’s title. According to Breitz the growing ill will against the Kunsthalle and its founder has to date prompted nine of the ninety artists appearing in “Diversity United” to pull out of the show. Yael Bartana, Constant Dullaart, Aleksandra Domanović, Mona Hatoum, Katja Novitskova, Ahmet Öğüt, Dan Perjovschi, Agnieszka Polska, and Martina Vacheva are said to have withdrawn;  additionally, performance artist caner taker is alleged to have turned down a prize for emerging artists awarded by the Foundation for Art and Culture. Smerling has labeled the boycott “highly disrespectful and undignified.”