Culture vultures know that Berlin is a bustling hub of artsy innovation. The German capital ups its already formidable cultural game as it hosts the Rolex Arts Weekend—the biannual festival showcasing the venerated Swiss watch company’s artist mentorship program.

Launched in 2002, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative matches illustrious mentors in seven disciplines with carefully nominated and selected protégés. The program then allows the pairs to work together for at least six full weeks (often much more) in an open, intimate way. The Rolex Arts Weekend presents the creative fruits of these relationships from February 3 to 4, with a closing gala on February 5.

The list of past mentors reads like a who’s who of contemporary culture: iconic painter David Hockney, opera singer Jessye Norman, novelist Margaret Atwood, and dancer William Forsythe are just a few. Current mentors are big stars, too: U.S. composer Philip Glass, British architect David Chipperfield, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, Mozambican writer Mia Couto, Canadian dramaturg Robert Lepage, U.S. artist Joan Jonas, and Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin have all spent the past two years working with protégés from around the world. 

What can viewers expect to see? “Seven very individual looks at today’s world,” explains curator Stefan Schmitdke, who met with each protégé to discuss presentation, scout locations within Berlin, and impart a sense of what this city is about.

“Rolex sent each artist to Berlin, and I led them around. Berlin is very porous and strange, and artists love the city because it’s not finished,” Schmidtke says. He also made sure that the festival doesn’t focus on one overriding theme but expresses the breadth of widely differing practices.

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“Berlin is very porous and strange, and artists love the city because it’s not finished.”

The schedule avoids overlap, allowing culture hounds to see everything, and the crowds could be as interesting as the performers. Schmidtke—who’s attended prior Rolex Arts Weekends in Venice and London—says that many events attract former mentors, in addition to the venues’ local audiences. The festival is also a great way to experience the range of Berlin’s top cultural institutions.

The February 3 lineup is dense: Vietnam-born visual artist Thao-Nguyen Phan presents an exhibition of delicate watercolors in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie; also on view there is Argentinean theater director Matías Umpierrez’s video and performance. Across the street in Berlin’s airy State Library, Swiss architect Simon Kretz discusses urban planning in a talk with mentor David Chipperfield. Later in the same space, Indian writer and filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane screens film excerpts.

Visual artist Thao-Nguyen Phan, a protégée of Joan Jonas, with her exhibition, “Poetic Amnesia.”

The next day, a morning symposium explores art education before performances continue: In the Berlin Kammerspiele theater, dance protégée Londiwe Khoza premieres a solo piece, the liberating result of working without a mirror, which her mentor encouraged. At the Deutsches Theater, writer Julián Fuks discusses reality and reads excerpts of his work in English, German, and Portuguese. Later in the same theater, Peruvian musician and composer Pauchi Sasaki premieres her pieces and presents composition excerpts.

Peruvian composer Pauchi Sasaki is Philip Glass’s protégée. She’s pictured here in “Speaker Dress,” a wearable sound sculpture.
 
 

The festival closes February 5 with a gala in Berlin’s newly renovated State Opera—at which the next generation of mentors and protégés will be announced. 

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The Rolex program is unique in that it focuses on craftsmanship—the actual making of art and, in the larger sense, the crafting of an artistic career. Schmidtke says that’s something art, theater, and literature schools tend to neglect these days. “Mentors actually transmit craftsmanship, one of the deficits in art education that Rolex, a watchmaker, is trying to fill,” says Schmidtke. “The program reflects this essence. Simply being inspired isn’t enough: You need craftsmanship transmitted, face to face, generation to generation. It’s traditional and smart,” he adds.

After all, art doesn’t fall from the sky—it needs nurturing and support.

Tickets to the Rolex Arts Weekend Berlin events are free but must be booked in advance.

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