Fotografiska’s Museum Chain Is Turning Artists into “Value Makers” for Venture Capital

For-profit museum chain Fotografiska has opened a new Berlin location. It’s a miniature version of what Berlin has become — promoting a financialized, libertarian idea of creativity that prices out the artists who have given the city its character.

Visitors walk past Angélica Dass’s Humanæ during a press preview at the Fotografiska photography museum in Berlin on September 7, 2023. (John MacDougall / AFP via Getty Images)

The first and only time I cried in an art exhibition was on my twenty-third birthday. It was June and it was balmy and it was at Fotografiska Stockholm, a repurposed industrial building turned art museum sitting on the wharf over the sea. I was touring the Baltic as part of a research fellowship, and my dear Charles was with me. Before we entered the museum, a kind stranger took a fabulous photo of us with our big stupid birthday grins and thrift-store vintage outfits, and after we entered a kind staff member pointed us towards the exhibitions. We found Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara, a dioramic show recreating her childhood as the daughter of a mail-order bride, leaving post-Soviet Russia in 1996 aged seven to move into the California home of a man neither she nor her mother had ever met. Markosian displays her own real childhood photos alongside an autobiographical film recreation of her childhood through her mother’s perspective. The film and the pictures are accompanied by hand-edited scripts and headshots of the actors she auditioned to play her family. Maroksian’s photographs are precise, cutting, surreal, and evocative of an emotion somewhere between nostalgia and melancholy — the artifice and confession of Santa Barbara simultaneously on display. The next exhibition’s only memorable trait was its mediocrity, in the shadow of the art that came before it: marble sculptures of distorted and contorted bodies failing to do in stone what Egon Schiele could do in a twenty-minute, two-dimensional study.

After the exhibition and the necessary decompressive silence that followed, Charles and I headed to the top floor for a set-course menu of local, seasonal dishes at Fotografiska’s Michelin Green Star restaurant. It was a lavish and thoughtful meal in a powerful and thought-provoking space — an altogether perfect birthday. Fotografiska is surely an impressive museum. Yet Fotografiska is, simultaneously, a harbinger for the dismantlement and financialization of creativity as we know it.

Museum for Profit

Fotografiska is the name of a chain of photography-based museums, originating with the opening of a Stockholm location in 2010. Other branches exist in Tallinn, New York City, and — as of September 14, 2023 — Berlin. A Shanghai location is set to open later this year. It, like the European sites, will operate restaurants and bars; all Fotografiska locations maintain a relatively typical museum store selling artists’ books, posters from exhibitions, and apparel branded with the Fotografiska logo.

Its opening was a buzzing, social affair; by the day of its launch, tickets had been sold out for over a month. Advanced coverage from Artnet, the Financial Times, and the New York Times furthered the hype — the title of the Artnet piece describes Fotografiska as “a glitzy post-punk outpost.” But Fotografiska is an outlier, even apart from its global presence. Unlike most esteemed art institutions, which receive public funding (or, less commonly, private funding as nonprofits), Fotografiska operates under Fotografiska Holdings as a for-profit venture. In 2021, Fotografiska merged with New York–based coworking startup NeueHouse under parent company CultureWorks. Privately owned museums aren’t uncommon; they have many predecessors in museums dedicated to an individual’s personal collection, like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston or Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, each housed in their namesake’s former residence. Yet these are mostly relegated to the collections of barons and socialites. The private contemporary art museum is a newer phenomenon, perhaps taking root with the opening of the Guggenheim Bilbao in 1997 and institutions including Los Angeles’s Broad Museum and Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art. Unlike Fotografiska, all the aforementioned private museums legally operate under not-for-profit status.

On a pleasantly crisp Thursday night, I ducked my beehive through the doors of a southbound tram headed towards Berlin’s central Mitte district for the Fotografiska grand opening. Attendees were divided into two lines: ticket holders and those “on the list.” I queued with the latter group, though both were similar crowds: forty-something men with backpacks and broken-in mesh sneakers, young women in platform shoes with editorial makeup with a tasteful amount of lip filler, attractive young professionals sporting all-black outfits and mass quantities of hair gel. Despite a decade of vacancy and a very expensive renovation, the building carried a deeply embedded smell of stale cigarettes and vintage leather; I found this unshakable trace of grit rather charming.

What sets Fotografiska apart from the handful of existing for-profit “museums” (The Museum of Illusions, the Van Gogh Immersive Experience, and so on), allowing it to compete with prestigious nonprofit cultural institutions, is that the art in Fotografiska is good. Not always, but quite consistently so. The Berlin location opened with three exhibitions: Nude, a group show on the building’s third floor; -USSYPHILLIA, a high-energy mixed-media showcase by Juliana Huxtable on the fourth floor; and Whiteface, Candice Breitz’s meditation on discussions of whiteness from within white communities.

Huxtable’s installation was the best of the three, though my fondness for her work is at least in part a result of my personal biases: born and raised in Texas and educated at Bard College, Huxtable has a rare true artistic inertia that makes -USSYPHILLIA feel both eminently contemporary and colored with an eternal creative character. The space opens with Cookie Mueller–style wall text narrating a Southern Gothic desert acid trip, and follows the rabbit hole down into painting, photography, and video art. Her work has a refreshing strangeness and intangibility, and I wonder what the men in the backpacks and sneakers think. I watch as an instillation at the back of the exhibition serves as a photo backdrop for a lithe young man in a factory-new Diesel outfit.

The group show, Nude, is of varying quality, as group shows tend to be. It is the first exhibition that visitors will see on their upward journey through the building, a collection of over two hundred works by thirty “female-identifying” artists from across the world. In its curation and text descriptions, the formal qualities of the art seem like marginal considerations compared to the diversity of artists assembled — a decision that feels both tokenizing and condescending to artists whose work does more than represent whatever checkboxes the museum wants to tick on the list of “groups represented.” The works of Yushi Li, Jenevieve Aken, Momo Okabe, and Leah Schrager are the exhibition’s high points, culminating in a beautiful, sultry, velvety video piece by Denisse Ariana Pérez. Other works (by Elinor Carucci, Lotte van Raalte, Lina Scheynius) feel deeply boring and cliché, the same pictures of areolas and cellulite that fill Tumblr and intro-level photography courses in any university, though none as deserving of a thundering eye roll as Angélica Dass’s Humanæ. The exhibition’s physically largest piece, it is politically (and aesthetically) a recapitulation of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” Around 180 faces, deadpan as passport photos, are paired with the Pantone® shade matching their skin tone. The exhibition is an attempt “to document humanity’s true colors rather than untrue labels such as ‘white’, ‘red’, ‘black’ and ‘yellow’. It’s a project in constant evolution seeking to demonstrate that what defines the human being is its inescapably [sic] uniqueness and, therefore, its diversity. The background for each portrait is tinted with a color tone identical to a sample of 11 × 11 pixels taken from the nose of the subject and matched with the industrial palette Pantone®, which, in its neutrality, calls into question the contradictions and stereotypes related to the race issue.”

About the Community?

Still, the Fotografiska Berlin opening didn’t just seek to present its inaugural exhibitions, but a new social space for the creative class. This was also the launch of the downstairs cafe/bar, the concert space, and the two-story bar spanning the fourth and fifth floors, called Verōnika, (a third bar, Clara, sits on the roof and is set to open soon). In fact, the exhibition spaces were only open for three hours of the event’s nine-hour operating time, with the central event being a concert from musician (and collegiate party anthem auteur) Peaches. In forgoing the traditional structures of the museum or art gallery, Fotografiska has also given the axe to the great art-world tradition of free drinks at the opening. Chatting with visitors on the ground floor, staring at the list of €15 cocktails, we repeat back to each other, “Isn’t the wine supposed to be free at these sorts of things?”

“Who is Fotografiska Berlin for?” is the central question on the minds of politicians, curators, artists, and community members as the space finally opens its doors. The art is too well curated to be simply passive wall decor. It is too rambunctious and high energy for an older crowd, too overpriced to capture Berliner youth used to €2 beers from late-night Späti shops and Calvin Klein key bumps. The staff, from gallery monitors to curators, struck me as passionate, serious people who cared about the quality of the art and the well-being of the community (a Sisyphean task, to say the least). The suits, from the real-estate development team to the highest-ups at Fotografiska Holding, seemed largely undeterred by the concerns of any Berliners without a well-diversified stock portfolio. This central question might best be answered not with a who, but with a what: it is a space for capital to inhabit.

The “art market” should be a paradoxical term. It isn’t. Art exists in whichever environment — and therefore market — it is born into, situated on the spectrum of commercial and speculative value no matter its politics. In the essay collection Ways of Seeing, the late, great Marxist art historian John Berger argued that the development of the oil painting (in contrast to the egg-based tempera paintings previously standard in European fine art) serves as the definitive example for capitalist exchange. With oil painting came the rise of secular painting in Europe, including paintings of objects and, in particular, paintings of paintings. In this way,

oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. Oil painting conveyed a vision of total exteriority.

And thus, not only must art be valorized but so must the artist — if one can own the work of a “genius,” then a commodity is imbued with a higher value, both morally and economically justifiable. As Berger puts it, “oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money.”

Fotografiska isn’t in the business of showcasing paintings, but it is in the business (in the most literal sense) of valorizing the legitimacy and potential of the art market and, more broadly, the “creative economy.” In this way, it has less in common with the Metropolitan Museum of Art than it does with Soho House Berlin or even the Geneva Freeport, a 435,000-square-foot storage facility in Switzerland. If you tour the Geneva Freeport, you will see cigars, gold bars, luxury cars, and some of the building’s estimated three million bottles of luxury and vintage wines. What you won’t see are any of the 1.2 million works of art held in storage and valued at over $100 billion — by keeping Rothkos, Modiglianis, imperial Roman sarcophagi, and over one thousand works by Pablo Picasso at a freeport, they are legally classed as “in transit,” exempting owners from customs duties and tax liabilities as long as the art is stored. Much like Soho House Berlin (whose massive building on Mitte’s Torstrasse went, over the last century, from Jewish-owned department store to Hitler Youth headquarters to Socialist Unity Party hub to Marxist-Leninist archives to a dozen years of unoccupied vacancy, and now to a clubhouse for creatives), Fotografiska Berlin lives on a controversial piece of property.

Fotografiska Berlin sits at Oranienburgerstrasse 54, an address with a quintessential Berlin history: built in 1908 as a department store which filed for bankruptcy and was eventually bought by the electricity company Allgemeine Elektricität-Gesellschaft, the building became major office space for the Nazi party and particularly the SS Central Land Office. After suffering extensive damage during the war, the building was used by the Free German Trade Union Federation in East Berlin alongside assorted businesses and a cinema. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the heavily damaged building was slated for demolition but ultimately became home to Tacheles — an artists’ collective, exhibition space, and squat whose name derives from a Yiddish term meaning “to speak freely.” Twenty years of life, art making, and exhibitions followed before all the residents were evicted in 2012, despite an injunction from the District Court of Berlin. The building was sold for development (under the condition that at least some portion of the space be used for cultural activities) in 2014. Five years later, developers announced the eventual opening of Fotografiska Berlin alongside businesses, offices, and owner-occupied residences on-site. Real estate brokerage Engel & Völkers Berlin advertises apartments at the Am Tacheles location beginning at €658,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. Preserved in the hallways of Fotografiska are the wheat paste antieviction posters from Tachales.

If the Fotografiska Holdings marketing team sat together, Mad Men–style, at some round mahogany desk — or, more likely, microdosed on mushrooms at some coworking space — and drew up a composite of their target demographic, I’m sure it would look a lot like me. I moved to Berlin from Brooklyn, which I moved to from London, where I went to graduate school at Goldsmiths for critical and cultural theory. I have a bad haircut, a good sense of what’s about to trend, and a small disposable income that I spend irresponsibly on stupid and decadent things like hardcover books and orange wine and a small desert’s worth of cacti. Addendum: I suppose my demographic is secondary to the class of people in their thirties and forties and fifties, who have lines on their resumes about working at the development office at Yaddo or in design at Condé Nast, who wear Blundstones with The Row to their Montessori parent-teacher meetings — the people who can, you know, actually afford to buy those apartments and decorate them with Saul Steinberg and Kehinde Wiley posters. But I also know those people want to live near the places frequented by my demographic, and for fair enough reason: it usually means proximity to good espresso and live music, all the social chicness of gentrifying with all the socially violent “safety measures” of the gentrified.

In a Times piece covering the Berlin opening, Fotografiska chairman and majority shareholder Yoram Roth described the company’s operating ethos: “What’s happening in Berlin is, we had a great time drinking out of plastic cups, but we have an audience now that wants a nice glass of wine, a sensible meal, and to be part of the cultural landscape.” While it certainly seems true that that market exists, this conception of who is included in Roth’s “we” perhaps unintentionally contextualizes a statement he made in 2021 for an Artnet piece on the CultureWorks merger. “It’s about the community,” says Roth. “I think it’s about creating this programming and these events that give people cause to be there and to come back and spend time.”

Curating for the Future

To return to another private art museum: Sir John Soane’s Museum is a strange place. Unlike many of his aristocratic peers, Soane was the son of a bricklayer and made his fortune working as an architect. Soane designed the oldest public art gallery in England — the Dulwich Picture Gallery — which has operated out of Soane’s building since 1817. His museum is filled with all sorts of objects and artifacts, sculptures and kylixes and oil paintings practically up to the ceiling. The sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I (c. 1370 BCE) sits in the basement, its once-white stone now yellow, a fact that can be learned by one of the few pieces of “gallery text” in the museum (a piece of paper in a wooden frame). Most of these objects sit uncontextualized, with the exception of the architectural plans off which he made his fortunes. The focus of Sir John Soane’s Museum has less to do with the actual, physical art and artifacts inside the building, and more to do with the grandeur of the collection in toto. Individual objects are given little attention for their formal properties but instead serve as pieces of evidence of the collection’s worldliness and value.

The museum, particularly the art museum, will always be tied to the Clout Economy. And of course, the publicly funded, nonprofit institutions like MoMA and the Tate Modern are not exempted from similar criticisms that their prestige and cultural capital directly benefit networks of the wealthy on their boards (like former MoMA board chairman and Epstein affiliate Leon Black) or lists of donors (like the Sackler family whose ubiquity was the subject of 2022 documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed). It began, as Berger said, with oil painting: artists depicting commodities whose very depiction served to reinforce their value, and those depictions then holding value themselves, not only as belabored objects but as speculative assets. What is different about Fotografiska is the total abstraction of art as market indicator: art not as objects and ideas with formal qualities and politics but as a gauge, a stand-in for financial growth, largely tied to the real-estate market. It is important that the art at Fotografiska maintains a baseline standard of quality, not as an injunction into the creative world but because this legitimizes its own market position. It is fascinating and not coincidental that this growing museum chain is largely dedicated to photography — a medium that is indefinitely replicable, an art based on a selection of images legitimized by the process of photographing. Berger characterizes oil painting as the inception of a sign whose value is wholly stripped of its signifier; photography, then, is its logical conclusion. It is the most semiotic of all art mediums, an economy of importance guided by the photographer and the audience. As Roland Barthes describes photography in Camera Lucida,

Photography is unclassifiable because there is no reason to mark this or that of its occurrences; it aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign, which would afford it access to the dignity of a language: but for there to be a sign there must be a mark, deprived of a principle of marking, photographs are signs which don’t take, which turn, as milk does. Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.

Fotografiska chairman Roth studied photography and business at New York City’s Fordham University, but according to his website he is “currently on Sabbatical while focusing on his companies.” His artistic work is represented by the gallery Camera Work, which describes his work as a combination of “photography, plastic art and modern manufacturing technologies.” The five pieces featured on their website all feature a nude woman interacting with plastic structures (Roth refers to his photographic output as “unique productions”; I would refer to it as “trite”).

Creative Capitalists

In the creative economy, being an “artist” is no longer about being observant or thoughtful or sharp or witty or confrontational or confessional. Rather, the artist’s role is to generate profit: not only for themselves or their institution or their patrons, as was already true for some hundreds of years, but for real-estate speculators and venture capitalists. In my own experience as a fellow for a project on “creative economies,” I have attended conference after conference on the “value” of creativity to governments, NGOs, and venture-capital organizations. I feel out of place as a neurotic, a writer, an artist, amongst “creatives” who do not in fact create anything but more meetings and “networking events.”

The scene is familiar: cafés populated by MacBooks, piloted by bespeckled expats with “creative director” in their Instagram bio. The venture-creative class may bear no spiritual or philosophical resemblance to old definitions of “artists.” Their social purpose, too, may be entirely different. But from an economic perspective, they are as much artists as are the next generation of Krasners, Kirchners, and Kandinskys. Their role and the role of the artist are now one and the same: to indicate to developers which properties will make for good investments and what aesthetics will sell them. In a murky scramble to capitalize off the creative economies — its goal the total conflation of “artist” with “speculative value maker” — Roth’s photography begins to make sense. How much of this desire to compartmentalize and profit off “creative capital” is the work of creative capitalists, many of whom are failed artists? Is it Roth’s inability to make meaningful art that has driven him to redefine the role of the artist itself?

In an essay on Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire wrote of “the phosphorescence of decay.” In an evening at Fotografiska Berlin, I am now convinced of the acrid sterility of growth. At the opening, I spoke with a young woman around my age who thought the event was “cool” but that the art, while interesting, meant little to her as someone “not from this kind of community.” In at least three separate points, gallery text notes that the art displayed is “provocative” and “confrontational,” yet no one seemed particularly provoked or confronted as they held one hand to a glass of wine and another to their chins. Fotografiska’s opening is a unique symptom of a metastasizing disease: a libertarian, financialized desire to reduce creativity to a system of metric transactions.

Yet, for all the criticism of Fotografiska Berlin, it may just be the best embodiment of the spirit of today’s Berlin. What else can better incarnate a city whose name is synonymous with the radicals and freaks and provocateurs, today evicted and reduced to spectral wafts of stale cigarettes, their very presence creating “value” in real estate we can no longer afford?