Donatien Grau: You opened your gallery in Berlin in 1992. Why Berlin? All the galleries were in Cologne at that time.
Bruno Brunnet: When the wall came down in 1989, it was clear that something had come to an end. It didn’t make sense to stay in Cologne any longer. Things were progressing quickly though. “Judy” Lybke had opened EIGEN+ART, and there was Klaus Biesenbach’s Kunst-Werke. Neugerriemschneider came a bit later, and a few years later Max Hetzler closed his space in Cologne and came to Berlin too.
DG: Had you already been working in galleries in Cologne?
BB: In the early ’80s I became interested in art and galleries. Berlin was completely underdeveloped, so I moved to Cologne, which in the ’80s was the center for contemporary art in Europe. I lived there from 1986 until 1991. At the beginning I worked for Rudolf Kicken, who was a photography dealer, and after that for Michael Werner. In doing so I came to realize that I had to open my own gallery — and once the wall came down it was clear it would be in Berlin.
DG: Your gallery was very international at the beginning. Even the name: Contemporary Fine Arts.
BB: When I came to Berlin I didn’t have a fixed artist lineup. The artists I showed in the first few years either had a DAAD scholarship or they came from Cologne or America. The first exhibition was with Michael Krebber; I then showed Christopher Wool, Nan Goldin, John Miller, Raymond Pettibon and Albert Oehlen.
DG: You worked with a range of YBAs — an excellent selection, as a matter of fact. How did that interest emerge?
BB: My now wife and business partner Nicole Hackert joined the gallery and our first contacts came through Rachel Whiteread. She introduced us to Damien Hirst. We traveled to London a lot in the early ’90s — it was very cheap at the time — where we saw Hirst’s first exhibition with butterflies, live animals and monochromatic images. That was exciting. Through Damien we met Angus Fairhurst, and at some point Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, Mat Collishaw — basically the entire generation. Our interest in them was instinctual: they stood for something new and fresh. London’s young art world was fun and entertaining, with a completely different relationship to the media. If you make a statement in German you won’t reach more than 100 million — in English, a statement can reach a billion. London also has a long tradition of pragmatism and an instinct to crusade for a cause, as opposed to New York, which had become too normal and established. Basquiat was dead, Warhol was dead…
DG: And how were these new British artists received in Berlin?
BB: Mostly well. It all took some time, but when living space became so cheap in the ’90s and everything became a bit chaotic, the city took care of people relocating here. There is rarely an immediate market for new art, but there was enough in Berlin to continue.
DG: Let’s talk about the early 2000s. You participated in and worked with a new movement in Berlin — making numerous exhibitions with Jonathan Meese, for example. Over time you became a symbol for this new German energy.
BB: In 1997 and ’98 I was quite bored. What Damien, Jake and Dinos [Chapman] and Saatchi were doing amazed me, but I didn’t know any artists who would be apt for such a role. Then I met Jonathan Meese, and we both immediately realized that we could do serious things together.
DG: You have also had numerous exhibitions with Tal R, Daniel Richter and Raymond Pettibon. How do you maintain relationships with artists for such a long time?
BB: By paying the bills. That helps. And by always coming up with new challenges and staying future-oriented. I don’t work with Meese anymore — or maybe it’s the other way around. At some point things reach an end and you need a ten-year break. That’s a normal process.
DG: In 2008 you did a double exhibition with Baselitz and Meese. It’s fascinating how you’ve always managed to create a dialog between generations.
BB: I also work with many generations in order to keep the program interesting for myself. I have two maxims: one is to make money, and the other is that when making money isn’t possible I want to have a good time. Sometimes you just need to wait and enjoy yourself. That’s how you build an artist’s career over many years. Artists with careers over thirty, forty or fifty years will have to reinvent themselves many times.
DG: You have also invited very young artists to CFA, like Max Frisinger, Markus Bacher, Peter Böhnisch and Marcel Eichner — who are all 30 or 35.
BB: History repeats. Just like when I met Jonathan, I asked Markus twenty minutes after I met him if he wanted to do a show. I wasn’t even in his studio. When you meet a talent, it’s best to catch hold immediately. The market has changed over the years, and many artists have become autonomous with regards to the gallery administration. A strong egoism has found its way into the art world. Artists used to be proud to be represented by a gallery… that has changed. Solidarity is a sign of weakness!
DG: Why has that changed?
BB: How can an investment banker at Deutsche Bank get bonuses for over 80 million a year? What does one earn 80 million for? For having invented something to screw people over with? The economic context has gained immense importance since September 2001 — before that we rarely had such insane prices. There are people who realistically predict that artworks will be sold for a billion dollars. I think that’s a bit nuts. I sold the first paintings by Peter Doig for 16,000 Deutsche Marks, which is about roughly 8,000 Euros today.
DG: Has it also changed so much in Berlin? The city that is “poor but sexy”?
BB: No, the people who spend five million dollars on a painting don’t live in Berlin — or in Germany. There are plenty of rich people here, but only very few of them have to buy their social, political or economic status.
DG: Is Berlin the last European center where artists come for art as opposed to the art market?
BB: Maybe, but I think that’s an idealization. Art is always where the money is.