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Berlin Art Exhibit Raises Issues from Nazi Era

Next year, 2,500 contemporary artworks owned by multimillionaire Friedrich Christian Flick will go on display in Berlin. The collection was rejected as "Nazi blood art" in Switzerland because some of Flick's fortune comes from his grandfather, who sold arms built by slave laborers to the Nazi regime.

Now, though, Flick's collection is coming to the German capital for a seven-year show — a development that NPR's Emily Harris says has Germans "once again reexamining history and responsibility."

Curators call the Frick collection remarkable, encyclopedic. Its 2,500 pieces include sculpture, paintings and photography; its works range from Marcel Duchamp and Bruce Nauman to Alberto Giacometti and Paul McCarthy.

In his announcement that the collection would be shown in Berlin, the city's mayor proclaimed it a great day for culture, not just in his city but in all Germany.

Berlin's museum director Peter Claus Schuster says the German capital is the ideal place to present the collection: "All the energetic, shocking, doubting, ironic parts of our time — that's the Flick collection," he says. "Berlin also reflects the disgusting and the beautiful parts of the 20th century. Berlin will interpret the Flick collection and the Flick collection will interpret Berlin."

It's quite a different reception than Flick got just two years ago in Zurich, where he wanted to build a grand new museum as a permanent home for his collection.

There, says Harris, "a theater director whose building would have been next door said his organization didn't want a neighbor like Flick. Three dozen writers and artists signed an open letter of protest, noting Flick's refusal to contribute to a fund for survivors of slave labor factories like ones his grandfather ran."

Lothar Efers, who leads a group that lobbies on behalf of Holocaust survivors, says exhibiting Flick's art in Berlin could provide a new chance to discuss the responsibilities borne by heirs to Nazi fortunes — if it's done right. Efers and others suggest including in the exhibition information about how the Flick family made its fortune.

However, Berlin officials have no plans to do that. The exhibition will bear Flick's name — that's all he wants. And, Flick tells Harris, he believes that's all the art needs.

"My family history led me to collect works from the kinds of artists who ask irritating questions and challenge people," he says. "But the family story has to be separated from the presentation of the collection. It would abuse the artwork to present it in the context of my family history. The art is not there for that. It stands on its own."

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