Behind the museums

backstory: on peter raue, the man behind the museums

Peter Raue is a museum Midas. His role as Berlin’s most active and notorious cultural supporter and patron has spanned decades. With his shock of white hair and impressive wardrobe of bow ties, the congenial 70-year-old is an expert networker, an indefatigable idea generator. The co-founder of the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie (Association of Friends of the National Gallery) was, and still is, the instigator behind things that most Berlin culture vultures now take for granted. For example, the fact that National Gallery museums can mount world-class exhibitions and have impressive permanent collections, or that there’s a budget with which a museum director can acquire new artworks, independent of bureaucratic advisory boards. Berlin’s state museums now award an annual prize for young artists, we’ve been able to have blockbuster exhibitions, like the MoMA in Berlin show, in 2004, but also had the freedom to show exhibitions that don’t have to be crowd-pleasers, which is also a luxury.

It wasn’t always like this. In the mid-1970s, Berlin was an occupied island in the middle of a communist country, and still struggling to recover from the aftereffects of war. Raue had come from Munich to study at the Free University in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up, and began practicing law in 1971. In 1977, with the encouragement of the director of the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery), Dieter Honisch, the Verein was launched to provide financial and, to a certain extent, curatorial support to the museum. “Honisch wanted to buy a picture by Barnett Newman,” says Raue, “but he couldn’t convince the advisory board to allow him the purchase. So he said, ‘I need a friends’ association so I can decide something like this independently.’”

The two founded a new version of the Verein that had existed before World War II (the fact that 90 percent of the former members were Jewish might give a clue as to why it didn’t immediately rematerialize). The new group’s first meeting took place in Raue’s old office with him as chairman. “We set the membership dues at 1,000 DM (about 500 euros),” which hadn’t been done in western Germany,” says Raue. “My credo at the time was ‘Better 100 people who give 1,000 Marks than 1,000 who give 100.’ The idea turned out to be a good one; the Verein grew fast.” That first meeting included seven people; by 1980, membership had reached nearly 200.

The initial goal was to support the Neue Nationalgalerie—the Verein has since grown to the support all six Nationalgalerie branches —and this support came at first through acquisitions. Mies van der Rohe’s glass-box museum, at the time only nine years old, needed to build its collection. “And that meant the entire twentieth century, from an early Liebermann to Nolde […] And the famous purchase of Barnett Newman’s Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow or Blue IV?” recalls Raue, as he sits in his sunny office over Potsdamer Platz in a room filled with works by Berlin-based artist Rebecca Horn, a family friend and namesake to his daughter, the painter Rebecca Raue.

Famous purchase? In 1982, everyone thought Raue was insane to try to acquire the “radical” $1.2 million—a three-meter high color-field work with the typical Newman “zip”—but he did it anyway, and without the funds (he ultimately drummed up the dosh). In another twist, a visitor damaged the piece, but Raue assembled a fundraising auction to cover restoration costs (having attended a 2007 auction to raise a cool million to keep Newman’s Broken Obelisk, which had originally been only temporarily installed in front of the Neue Nationalgalerie, I can say that watching Raue run an auction is mesmerizing.) It’s not the only innovative fundraiser Raue came up with; he organized a skat tournament to fund the $4.4 million acquisition price of Otto Dix’s 1920 painting Die Skatspieler (The Skat Players) in the mid-1990s.

With its traditionally high state-supported cultural budgets, private arts patronage had never been the tradition in Germany that it is in the United States, where museums like MoMA and the Guggenheim were born and raised largely from private initiative. But Raue’s connections and charisma—and fun ideas like the skat games—convinced plenty of Berlin art lovers to become patrons all the same. Now, with 1,500 members, along with sales in the museum shops and other fundraising schemes, the Verein brings in about 12 million euros a year. A little less than a million of this comes from dues. Looking at longer-term numbers, the Verein has expanded its institutions’ permanent collections with nearly 60 million euros, and five million people have visited exhibitions it has financed. “[The Verein] is really a mid-size firm,” laughs Raue.

Has the “firm” ever been more powerful than the museums it was there to support? Was the power behind the throne ever more influential than the throne itself? “From the beginning there was a fundamental rule: We don’t do everything that the museum director wants, but we also do nothing against him,” explains Raue. There’s generally been a harmonious rapport between the museums and its supporting organization, which is as it should be. In 1984, Raue convinced the museum system that the Verein was to finance not just acquisitions but also entire exhibitions. The first was a Degas show, and most of what we now see is entirely Verein-funded.

In 2000, the Preis für Junge Kunst (Prize for Young Art) at the Hamburger Bahnhof was started by the Verein—Berlin’s answer to the Turner Prize, and worth 50,000 euros to its winner. After the record-breaking MoMA show with 1.2 million visitors (for months in 2004, a long line wrapped itself around Mies’ glass cube) the Verein had a six-million euro surplus with which it established a foundation whose mission is to acquire exclusively young art. “With this we bought things that are now worth 10 to 100 times more than their original prices because we could buy them so early,” says Raue, who’s an avid art collector himself; in his office alone are around 800 works. The Verein also supports the museums with ancillary events and marketing campaigns and has spawned a slew of similar organizations in other German cities.

Raue stepped down as Verein chairman in 2008. He’s still its honorary president, but stays out of the decision making process. He has nothing but praise for his successor Christina Weiss, Germany’s former minister for culture and media. He calls Kittelmann a genius. And in the past 50 years, he has watched the visual arts blossom here. “I think the quality of the exhibitions in Berlin has increased enormously,” referring to recent shows at the Martin-Gropius-Bau and the New National Gallery. “If you came to Berlin 30 years ago, you asked, ‘What’s on in the theater?’ Now, people coming to Berlin say, ‘What exhibitions do I have to see?’”

As a man who avidly does both, Raue hopes things don’t change too much. “The politically responsible people in Berlin have to be very careful that they don’t say, ‘This is great and it’ll stay this way.’ The artists go where it’s cheap to live and work, and they don’t care whether they’re in Berlin or Istanbul,” he says. “Berlin needs to watch out that we don’t overdo it.”

Nearly 71, but still working long hours in his legal office, Raue LLP, on copyright law, restitution cases, and anything else having to do with art, publishing and culture, Raue’s artistic activities continue, beyond the Verein. He helps the late Christoph Schlingensief’s opera village in Burkina Faso, both legally and financially (he’s running an all-star auction to benefit the village in early March; auktion300.com), manages the Salzburger Osterfestspiele, and gives lectures. “The most beautiful thing in my life is that what interests me is the same as what I do for a living,” he says.

Speaking of wonderful lives, in Frank Capra’s 1946 American Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s character gets to see what the world would be like had he never existed. Considering today’s dwindling public museum budgets, we don’t want to imagine what Berlin’s art world would look like now if Peter Raue hadn’t been here to infuse so many institutions with not only his passionate spirit but also the means with which to keep that spirit going. Thank you, Mr. Raue, for making Berlin an art-world Bedford Falls, not a Pottersville. Thanks for the wings.

by Kimberly Bradley