Daniel Berger: quietly redefining what it means to support the arts

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Kerstin Honeit, Becoming 10
  • Kerstin Honeit, "Becoming 10"
When her father died, German artist Kerstin Honeit learned that she had nine half-siblings strewn across East and West Berlin. Unprepared to make overtures to a family she'd never known, Honeit sought a connection by inhabiting their identities and space. In a series of photographs called "Becoming 10," Honeit transforms herself into these sibling strangers, wearing a wig and trucker cap to become her working-class brother, and a camel-hair coat and heels to play an elegant older sister. She then photographs herself in their respective neighborhoods, posing as she imagines them to be. In one example, Honeit stands outside a brother's home on a winter morning, dressed in tailored pajamas and a robe. She is looking over her shoulder down a snowy path, towards a door that may never open, and it's this image—of an artist both literally and metaphorically outside—that is so aptly representative of the rest of the collection.

Honeit's piece is just one in a constellation of works lining the walls of Daniel Berger's home on Sheridan Road. Berger is the founder and current medical director of Northstar Medical Center and an avid art collector. It's not uncommon for successful doctors to build collections, and in fact many of them treat it as an expensive hobby, kind of like big-game hunting. When I heard about Iceberg Projects, the exhibition space Berger founded in a renovated carriage house behind his home, I half expected to find a trophy room; four white walls where Berger could show off his collection like so many dead antelope. Frankly, that's how a lot of collectors approach art—as a conquest. But Berger is not your average collector. Northstar is the largest private treatment and research center for HIV in the city and Berger is one of the leading clinical researchers in the field. His work with a disease that has the power to be so isolating seems to have informed his collection, imbuing it with an astounding sense of empathy for those on the fringe.

It's a bit of an accident that I get to see Berger's collection at all. Rather than entering through the garden, which is how visitors access Iceberg Projects, I knock on Berger's front door. He greets me warmly; nearly every square inch of wall space is covered by art. Five steps in, you're hit with the big names: Nan Goldin, an iconic American photographer whose images of urban nightlife in the 1970s and '80s offer a window onto society's darker margins (Goldin is a friend of Berger and one piece bears a personal inscription); Rashid Johnson, a fast-rising conceptual artist whose prismatic work mines the meaning of the black American identity; and, notably, Robert Mapplethorpe, in a rare self-portrait emblematic of the artist's confrontational beauty.

But the majority of the work is not immediately recognizable, and touring Berger's collection is a little like being guided through a cocktail party by an experienced host. He knows all of the artists, if not personally then formally, providing detailed descriptions of their process and intimate accounts of their lives. His collection centers around contemporary queer, black, and outsider experiences, and Berger is adept at introducing an element of emotional understanding, helping you find a way to connect to an existence vastly different from your own. By the time you step away from one piece in order to be introduced to another, you've come to know the artist in an almost visceral way. I was struck by the fact that my time with Berger was unlike anything I'd ever experienced in a gallery or museum, and for days afterwards, tried to figure out why.

Among the pieces in Berger's collection are several from a well-known Chicago outsider artist. Berger met him years ago, in a clinic, and was his doctor before becoming a collector of his work. And that's what it is: Berger treats all of his artists with the same care, the same delicate expertise, with which a doctor would treat his patients. It's as if he's administering to his artists, and they to him, creating a symbiosis that isn't found within the walls of any institution.

By the time we finally make our way out back, I'm not at all surprised to learn that Iceberg Projects is nothing like I expected. Berger doesn't use the space to show work from his own collection. He says, in fact, that such a practice is a trend among collectors that he specifically wants to avoid. The focus of Iceberg Projects is the artists, both established and emerging, and often with a connection to Chicago. An advisory board culled from Berger's extensive network of artists, curators, and educators determines the exhibition schedule, meeting regularly to discuss movement in the art world and establish provocative and catalytic themes for Iceberg to explore. Artists are then invited to exhibit (applications aren't accepted), and while they're able to sell work independently, Iceberg Projects remains a noncommercial space—no cut is taken, no money changes hands. Berger's goal when he founded the space in 2010 was to create a platform for artists and a space for dialogue that would remain ungoverned by economic forces.

Berger admits that he's often asked why. Why does he devote the time and resources that he has to the arts? Why does he open his own home to the community on such a grand scale? (200 people attended Iceberg Projects' most recent opening). And why does a person doing such important work in his own field want to direct your attention to the work that artists are doing in theirs? To these questions, Berger only spreads his hands and smiles. "Why not?"

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