Berlin's tatty temple of free art under threat

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Amid the fly posters advertising concerts and art exhibitions tacked over each other on the crumbling walls of Tacheles, east Berlin's renowned artists' commune, the enlarged copy of an official letter by the door could easily be missed. But it is the first shot in what promises to be a war over "free culture" in Berlin, a city with a reputation for the avant-garde and non-conformist.

Amid the fly posters advertising concerts and art exhibitions tacked over each other on the crumbling walls of Tacheles, east Berlin's renowned artists' commune, the enlarged copy of an official letter by the door could easily be missed. But it is the first shot in what promises to be a war over "free culture" in Berlin, a city with a reputation for the avant-garde and non-conformist.

Tacheles, with graffiti and works of art in progress usually decorating every spare inch of decaying concrete, is the centre of this scene. The letter on the wall is from the Berlin city government, the Senate, and says its funding of the "house of culture" will stop after this year. The people at Tacheles say that this is the last straw and if the money really fails to materialise, they will have to close down.

A purpose-built department store constructed in 1907 in the middle of the Jewish quarter in the east, the building was squatted in after the fall of the Berlin Wall by an international group of artists.

While the many other occupied buildings in the area were cleared by the authorities and renovated, Tacheles remained, got a licence and some funding, and became the semi-official custodian of Berlin's alternative culture. Its labyrinthine five storeys are usually host to numerous artists and sculptors whose ateliers are open to the wandering public; there is a cinema which shows alternative international films, and two bars. Local bands use a room there to practise, their punk music often audible to the tourists, backpackers and locals who sit at tables in the garden in summer, surrounded by bizarre sculptures half-hidden among overgrown bushes.

The atmosphere will disappear if Senate funding ends, says Gert-Andreas Oberfell who heads the Tacheles management committee. It would have to commercialise its art to continue functioning. "But it is not really about money," he said. "It is one senator, who unfortunately happens to be in charge of culture. He wants to prevent us from becoming financially independent which we will become if we have the money next year.

"Then there would be no strings for them to pull to make us do what they want. Most of the Senate support us, as do the administrators whom we have been working with successfully for years."

Christoph Stoelzl, senator for science, research and culture, says he can no longer provide the £100,000 the Senate gives Tacheles each year to help pay the bills. It is purely a budgetary decision, he says, and one he has had to make with regret.

Mr Oberfell, himself a former local government employee from Saxony, says the attempt by Mr Stoelzl to cut the funding could affect more than the artists at Tacheles.

"We are the big one, perhaps the most well-known centre in Berlin for free culture," he said. "But there are hundreds of other programmes and projects which are also threatened and they have no voice. We will be fighting this for them as well as for ourselves."

With an estimated 350,000 visitors each year, Mr Oberfell claims Tacheles attracts more tourists than the renowned Museum Island a few hundred yards away.

People come to Tacheles from around the world, attracted by guide books and word of mouth telling of the aura of rebellion which still hangs, if a little faintly, around the building.

The ground on which Tacheles stands has been bought by an investment company, Fundus, which also owns Berlin's top hotel, the Adlon.

Fundus has agreed to allow Tacheles to continue on the site - an agreement by which the firm secured a substantial reduction of the buying price for the land in the centre of the city.

But without the Senate funding the agreement would be worthless in any case and Tacheles would either have to commercialise to pay the bills or close altogether.

Meanwhile, Mr Oberfell writes to politicians and takes calls from journalists from his small office on the upper floor of the building at the same time as arranging art exhibitions and cinema premiÿres.

"At the end of the day we are perhaps as much of a tourist magnet as the Brandenburg Gate," Mr Oberfell said. "And you would never see that being closed due to lack of public funding." /span>

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