Cultural funding
“We’re stuck in a structural dilemma”

Dr. Norbert Sievers
Dr. Norbert Sievers | Photo (detail): © private

Probably nowhere else is there as high a density of museums or theaters as in Germany. Yet many regard the cultural funding system as in need of reform. An interview with Dr. Norbert Sievers, Executive Director of the Association for Cultural Policy.

Mr. Sievers, in its capacity as an independent organization, the Association for Cultural Policy (Kulturpolitische Gesellschaft e.V.) has been committed to appropriate funding for culture in our society for over 30 years. How is culture currently funded in Germany?

The special feature of the German situation is that the state strongly participates in cultural funding – especially when it concerns institutions such as state and municipal theaters, large museums and opera houses. Cities and states each covers 40 percent of the funding; the rest is provided by the federal government. In addition, there is of course a wide variety of so-called project funding, by which public or private foundations, ministries or associations provide monies on a small scale for temporary projects.

How is this organized in other countries?

There state participation is far less pronounced. In the Netherlands, for example, a good deal of public cultural funding is organized through endowment funds. And in England there is a separate institution, the Arts Council, which distributes monies. An organization that funds culture at arm’s length to the state to a certain degree and has a certain independent status.

Fear of falling into a downward spiral

The German funding system has been repeatedly criticized for years. Only recently, in a pamphlet entitled “The Cultural Infarct”, four authors launched a polemic against the role of the state as a cultural educator. What’s at stake in this debate?

In essence, it’s about a structural dilemma of the German funding system. At present, large institutions, above all the personnel-intensive theaters and operas absorb the greatest share of cultural funding – in some states up to 95 percent of state funds. On the one hand, this brings about a pronounced conservatism in the cultural infrastructure: the existing has priority; the new must struggle against it to have any chance at all. On the other hand, even the big players lack sufficient means because the funding volume no longer keeps pace with the needs of these institutions. This causes a decline in quality, the interest of the public decreases and the whole system is in danger – this is the fear of the “Infarct” authors – of falling into a downward spiral.

Drawing the right conclusions

What options are there to counteract this?

The traditional solution has been to pump more money into the cultural funding system. But this solution is currently blocked in many cities and states. In many places therefore cultural policy must now make do and look for alternatives. For decades it was shaped by the premise that the proportion of cultural participation in the population could be increased by an ever-growing range of offerings. In truth, however, this share has stagnated for the last 30 years. Many theaters and operas are now not so busy as we would perhaps wish they were. As hard as this sounds, we’ve been witnessing, not everywhere but on the whole, a clear shrinkage in use of the public offering, especially with respect to the classics. We have to accept this and draw the right conclusions.

And they would be?

Consolidation, cooperation, merger, but also closure of some institutions are the key words. In addition, we should make ourselves aware that our way of working and living is about to change fundamentally. And that will have serious consequences for cultural consumption. For the educated middle class in the big cities, the traditional target audience for cultural events, the evening visit to the theater or opera has become increasingly incompatible with their lifestyle. If they can bring themselves to go out after a long day at the office, they do so more and more in order to work out and not to watch a stage classic at the theater. In other areas we have to do with different shifts, whether the population decline in East German cities or the special needs of people with immigrant backgrounds – quite apart from the aging of society, which will also have its impact on cultural life.

Making higher qualitative demands

What does this mean for cultural policy?

I think it would be wrong here to proceed exclusively according to the quota principle, that is, to consider only strategies that would consign culture more to the principle of supply and demand and possibly entrust it to the cultural economy. In my opinion we would do well in future to continue to separate the public sphere and what happens in culture and the creative economy. But this of course doesn’t mean that we should lose sight of the audience and its interests. It will rather be about diversifying the offering, concentrating, making higher qualitative demands. Perhaps also about doing less. And above all not fooling ourselves. That would be a great gain.