The Transformation of Spinnerei: from Industrial Site to Art Centre

Street in the industrial complex of Spinnerei, Leipzig

by Julia Heras, Irene Montaño and Karin Li

Human beings have always gravitated towards being part of a  community —  we always want to be with our own kind. The Leipzig artistic community is no different and created a community at the Spinnerei, but life here has not always been the artistic safe haven that it is today.

The Spinnerei cotton mill was founded in 1884 and quickly became one of the largest and most modern mills in Europe. During the Industrial Revolution, large-scale production was allowed to thrive. Then in the mid-twentieth century,the mill faced challenges due to economic changes and technological advancements. It was forced to close in 1993. The abandoned mill was then occupied by squatters, which transformed the place into the cultural hub it is today. Eventually, all the rooms were transformed into studios, galleries, exhibition spaces, and creative workshops. It is an inspiring example of how we can adapt and reuse historic buildings to revitalise a city. In this article, we will look at the community that transformed this abandoned cotton mill into the art hub that it is today.

Library space of the Halle 14 / Photo: Irene Montaño 2023

Exploring the Spinnerei complex we can still find the railway tracks and towering chimney from a century ago. It was a chilly day when we visited and we could not help but imagine how this place used to be. An unpleasant pungent smell lingered in HALLE 14 and reminded us again of its industrial past. The iron beams, ceiling, and floors are preserved in the hall, which is now the Centre for Contemporary Art, a communal non-profit art centre. It has a large space that houses exhibitions from time to time as well as a space for people to read. Since its establishment in 2002, its library has accumulated historical information, documentation, and records related to its transformation and the artistic activities that have taken place within. 

The vast space of the cotton mill provides an ideal setting for both presenting and producing artwork. Artists find inspiration in their spacious studios. It is not only the history that now captivates visitors — the Spinnerei has become a magnet for artistic talent, attracting many artists and galleries to establish their presence here. 

One highlight of our visit was having the opportunity to meet and engage with the artists. One of them was porcelain artist Claudia Biehne. Ascending the stairs to one of the halls near the factory gate entrance, our eyes were immediately caught by some of Claudia’s beautiful sculptures. She was very eager to share her artistic vision with us and offered us a glimpse into her creative process.  

Porcelain studio
Porcelain artist Claudia Biehne at her studio / Photo: Julia Heras 2023

Having rented the space in Spinnerei almost two decades ago, Claudia has witnessed part of its transformation. She appreciated the creative expression and collaboration she found here. As Spinnerei becomes increasingly international, artists embrace the opportunity to showcase their work to a wider community. It is the presence of artists like Claudia and the diverse range of creative minds that have flocked to Spinnerei that imbue this place with an artistic atmosphere. Their presence shapes the identity of the people who live and work within these walls.

New Leipzig School was born

There’s a Modern Prometheus in Leipzig. One that was revived from the decadent ruins of what was a cotton mill in the 19th century. But unlike the original story, here the creator is not a daring and confused scientist named Victor, but a group of artists that decided that they wanted to create in their own way and on their own terms. And, unlike the story too, here the creature has a name, and is very well beloved by all those who live and help develop it. Its name is Spinnerei.

From the beginning, Spinnereo wanted to become an alternative from overwhelming cities like Berlin or Munich, to be a creative and approachable space for all kinds of artists, regardless of where they are from.

There were some ingredients perfect for this situation, such as the range of art studios, nowadays numbering about one hundred. Every kind of artist has their place here, from renowned artists like Neo Rauch or Matthias Weischer, to those who are just starting out. The Spinnerei is like a second home, where the blend of established and emerging artists only strengthens the sense of community.

Cinema within Spinnerei
Michael Ludwig and Christopher Ruckhäberle started the art-house cinema. The wallpaper designed by Ruckhäberle, one of the new Leipzig School artist gives a special touch to the art-house cinema / Photo: Luru KINO 2023

This desire to create eventually generated a desire to share, and in 2005, galleries became a permanent feature at Spinnerei, with Galerie b2 being one of the pioneers. The symbiotic nature of the two is undeniable — a curator and artist benefit from each other like a bee and a flower.

In fact, one of the main reasons why the community has grown, adopting a more international scope in the last ten to fifteen years, is because Leipzig is still relatively affordable.  Having your art exposed here can boost your reputation as an artist, since the city has gained traction and relevance internationally.

In the case of Galerie b2, it didn’t become what it is the usual way: instead of an entrepreneur, it was established by a group of artists who wanted to sell their work.

This idea of Spinnerei as a project in common between them all permeates the relationship between galleries and artists, who once per month meet informally to discuss new exhibitions and projects. 

Sculptures in a workshop of Spinnerei
Studio Space / Photo: Irene Montaño 2023

In this particular ecosystem, the Lu-ru Kino is a special limb, adding to the personality of the place. Originally an art studio, thirteen years ago it became a cinema.  The artistic movement at the Spinnerei was one of the main reasons they decided to move here.

Symbiosis is present here too, since the main public are artists and young students that want to expand and enjoy diverse narratives and visual languages, so it can be implemented or inspire their future works. The programme is a thoughtful one, mostly art house movies for film lovers and artists.

With this, can it be said the relationship between the cinema and the rest of Spinnerei is different? The cinema, while a place to learn different visual styles and stories, is mainly for entertainment. The galleries on the other hand have an inevitable commercial scope — to promote and sell the work of artists.

But there is a red line that connects all of them, independently of their intention, and that is creativity. The artistic atmosphere at the Spinnerei always catches the attention of collectors and visitors. After acquiring a painting by Neo Rauch, getting a glimpse of life at the Spinnerei is icing on the cake

City in City – Cinema and Art Supply Store as Contact Points

The secrecy of the cinema adds to its atmosphere and charm. Can this cinema be considered a poor decision from a commercial point of view? Probably, but what can’t be denied is that it gives personality and character to the place. (And one of the advantages of being in the basement is that it’s not very expensive). 

Another crucial part of this community is the material store. Located in the centre of the cotton mill, this business provides most of the art materials for the community, as well as a place for the artists to meet and interact.

Once you enter, you are greeted with the smell of paint and the bright colours of the different materials. When you approach the main entrance, you are required to fill out a registry with your personal details. This could reflect a list of everyone in the community. After doing that, you are allowed to enter and be part of halls of different materials and colours. This place is the start of all creations, here in the Spinnerei, where an idea takes material form. 

The usefulness of the useless”

Artists thrive in such a supportive community and art produced in the Spinnerei is ever-evolving, as can be seen by the graffiti and art posters all around the complex. However, creativity in such a thriving space feels at times against the odds. As Leipzig has developed rapidly, and with some of the buildings at the Spinnerei facing expensive structural upkeep, it is natural to wonder if the rent can remain affordable and what effect this will have on the community.

Like Nuccio Ordine explained in his book The Usefulness of the Useless, and how it is necessary to not only listen to the siren chants of productivity, so we can cultivate the spirit and the cultural development of humankind; in other words, what can help us become better, Spinnerei is a testament of this sentiment, created and developed by the passion and creativity of a group of artists.

Jacques Rancière, in Proletarian Nights, talked about how one of the main reasons why the proletarians wanted fewer working hours was so that they could learn to paint, write poetry, and draw, since it’s a very human desire to express ourselves through our own creations.

Who knows what kind of artworks the workers of the original cotton mill would have created? Probably we will never know, but the fact that these spaces are being revitalized with the intent of developing new ways of creativity is a poetic irony that should be applied to more places, with Leipzig being one of the pioneers.

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