Berlin Museum Choked with Old and New

Berlin - This city's notorious wall may be long gone, but Berlin still cannot integrate a disparate art heritage.

Its revered Old Masters, a trove of more than 3,000 paintings that includes masterworks by Caravaggio, Bruegel, Titian and Vermeer, has collided with a planned gift of 20th-century art that the city may be in danger of losing.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social network realize that the Berlin art scene is one of the world's most vibrant, and look forward to viewing the old and new side by side.

Ever since June 12, when the German Parliament voted to allocate €10 million ($12.8 million) to retrofit the building now housing the Gemäldegalerie—Berlin's Painting Gallery—for the city's collection of 20th-century art, the proposal has sparked heated debate among art historians, conservators and museum directors world-wide.

In 2010, Heiner and Ulla Pietzsch, pictured above, promised to donate to Berlin their $190 million collection of about 150 Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist works on the condition that it be integrated into the city's collection of 20th-century art.

It has been widely reported that the Pietzsch donation was also made on the condition that the collection be put fully on display, a stipulation that Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin's State Museums, denies.

Mr. Pietzsch's intention was to help "the state museums finally get a gallery for the 20th century," Mr. Parzinger explained in an interview.

Even before any Pietzsch additions, Berlin's 20th-century art collection had already outgrown Mies van der Rohe's New National Gallery, built in 1968.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation thought it had a solution to that space crunch: relocating the Old Masters and the Gemäldegalerie to Museum Island, Berlin's famed consortium of museums and a Unesco World Heritage Site, thus freeing up for modern art their former quarters in the area known as the Kulturforum.

"It's not just for the Pietzsch collection. It's for our whole collection," Mr. Parzinger claimed.

But in the German press, the plan has been represented as a clash between the old and the new, pitting Rembrandt and Leonardo against Jackson Pollock and Joseph Beuys.

According to an Aug. 29 interview with the German wire service DPA, Mr. Pietzsch is dismayed with the resulting controversy and has threatened to withdraw his gift if a viable plan is not proposed by early next year.

When Berlin was divided, so were its art collections.

It was only in 1998 that a new museum opened to house the complete Picture Gallery in the Kulturforum, which had been laid out during the Cold War as a Western analogue to Museum Island, 2½ miles away in what was then East Germany.

Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation officials say that keeping the Pietzsches happy has nothing to do with the planned move, which they call a realization of a longstanding wish to bring the Gemäldegalerie back to Museum Island.

Uniting the collections on the island may also have to do with the low attendance rates at both institutions, which receive 250,000 visitors each annually.

Berlin now has more than a billion euros of backlogged cultural construction projects. On Museum Island alone, those continuing or slated for the next several years include the controversial rebuilding of the Hohenzollern Palace, a new visitor center and extensive renovations at the Pergamon Museum.

These projects are part of the reconstruction of the city since the fall of the Berlin Wall.