Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick

BERLIN — The German billionaire Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick will celebrate his 60th birthday on Tuesday. But when German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, leading politicians and hundreds of Berliners join him at the Hamburger...

BERLIN — The German billionaire Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick will celebrate his 60th birthday on Tuesday. But when German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, leading politicians and hundreds of Berliners join him at the Hamburger Bahnhof here, they’ll be celebrating another Flick milestone: The opening of the Friedrich Christian Flick collection of contemporary art.

This story first appeared in the September 20, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

After considerable controversy and political debate, Flick’s extensive art collection will finally have a home of its own here in the newly renovated Rieck Halls of the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art. At least for the next seven years, the collection — which one art world insider described as “one masterpiece after the other” — will be shown to the public in a rotating series of seven annual exhibitions.

The controversy, which has yet to end, doesn’t concern the contents of Flick’s collection of almost 2,500 pieces. They include the largest group of works by Bruce Nauman, as well as key paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and installations by 150 European and North American artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Marcel Duchamp, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Duane Hanson, Candida Höfer, Mike Kelly, Martin Kippenberger, Sigmar Polke, Jason Rhoades, Gerhard Richter, Pipilotti Rist, Thomas Ruff, Cindy Sherman, Luc Tuymans, Jeff Wall and Franz West.

Rather, the wrangle bears upon Flick’s family history and the original source of his art-acquiring fortune. His grandfather, Friedrich Flick, was one of the main arms suppliers of the Nazi regime, and one who employed 40,000 hard laborers. These facts exploded into emotional public censure when plans were being considered for a Flick museum in Zurich, his second city of residence. Critics maintained that Flick was trying to “whitewash” his family’s dark history though his art collection, and further noted he had declined to contribute to the remuneration fund being assembled for the forced laborers of World War II.

Flick, who instead established a Foundation Against Xenophobia, Racism and Intolerance in Potsdam with a grant of almost $7 million, argued that his contributions to the fund as a private person would not have served to increase it, but only reduce the amounts other companies would have been obliged to pay. Flick has never shied away from confronting his grandfather’s past. “My grandfather was rightly condemned for his deeds in the Nuremberg trials and spent his time in jail…but the guilt is his, not mine,” he said in a German press interview. “And the way in which I deal with my family history has nothing to do with my collection,” he added.

Nevertheless, one could argue this uneasy legacy is reflected in Flick’s penchant for art that addresses the social and political questions of our time. He has said in interviews that he is fascinated by the relation of contemporary art to our lives and its problems. An aspect, he has noted further, that makes rough-edged Berlin more suited to his collection than established Zurich.

Bruce Nauman, whose works form the “heart” of the Flick collection, clearly illustrates Flick’s orientation. Described by the collector as “the most important artist of the actual period,” Nauman’s work, he said, addresses the reasons for persecution, torture and war and mankind’s weakness in the face of technology.

Flick, who now devotes 80 percent of his time to art — and collecting — has said, “My experience with art is very personal and almost intimate. I can interpret artworks for myself, but I dare not use them to spread political messages. Art works are like breathing and eating to me. They’re an elixir of life. They throw out questions, they irritate, and I draw a great deal out of them for my life.”

The public will now have the opportunity to do the same in the Rieck Halls, five former shipping halls each measuring over 150 feet long and 65 feet wide. Encased in anthracite corrugated metal for an arresting and slightly Darth Vader-like look, the seemingly endless halls are connected by a sculptural bridge to the Hamburger Bahnhof, a terminus railway station built in 1847 and turned into a contemporary art museum in 1996. Flick shelled out the $9.1 million renovation costs for the Rieck Halls, but this represents only a fraction of the bounty he’s making possible for Berlin.

Hamburger Bahnhof and Flick Collection curator Eugen Blume told WWD the most surprising aspect of the Flick collection is “the quality of what he has.” Although Flick has pointed out that the collection “is deeply private” and does not follow art historical or didactic criteria, Blume said, “If I had had the money, I would have put together the collection in much the same way.” With other private collections, you sometimes have to sort out a good deal, a junior curator added. “But not here,” she said. “The quality is of the highest throughout.”

The first exhibition of 400 artworks, cited as “the biggest exhibition of contemporary art in Berlin ever,” will be housed in both the Hamburger Bahnhof and the Rieck Halls for a total of almost 140,000 square feet of exhibition space. It is organized by themes, such as “Creation Myth”; “Partial Truth” — the name of a Bruce Nauman work; “The Third Space,” which refers to visual art in architecture, and “Service Area.” A 500-page catalogue in German and English accompanies the exhibit, in a normal and special edition, the latter featuring differing types of paper and pull-out pages. A free exhibitions newspaper will also be distributed to visitors.

— Melissa Drier