Cultural Foundation Sought-after partners – how foundations promote culture

Among the institutions supporting the festival “Theatre across the Nation” are the Mercator and the Körber Foundation
Among the institutions supporting the festival “Theatre across the Nation” are the Mercator and the Körber Foundation | Photo (detail): © Franziska Albrecht/Stiftung Mercator

Foundations make an important contribution to the promotion of culture in Germany. But the competition to gain their support is hard and funding is usually of limited duration.

In addition to receiving public funding, creative people in Germany find many means of support from the private sector. Foundations play an important role here. The German cultural landscape has been characterized for years by a lively and diverse foundations sector. It ranges from small, regional foundations with specific objectives and themes to large, nationwide and sometimes even international organizations. If one wants to bring a cultural project to life, a few clicks on the internet suffice to reveal a whole range of foundations open to artistic endeavours.

Image enhancement for companies

Why this variety of contact points? The establishment of cultural foundations has both pragmatic and idealistic grounds. Of course companies such as Allianz Insurance, with its large cultural foundation, use the model for image enhancement. But the idealistic element also has tradition. Seen historically, German foundations constitute one of the great continuities in a country shaped by discontinuities. Since the Middle Ages, they have helped, at first mainly in the charitable sector, to secure social cohesion. In the nineteenth century the arts came increasingly into the view of businessmen who assumed the roles of patron or benefactor. Karl-Ernst Osthaus, for example, developed the Folkwang idea of the reconciliation of art and life, and founded the Folkwang Museum. The publisher Henri Nannen donated his art collection to his hometown of Emden and used his own personal fortune to build a museum to house it.

The land of the blessed, then? Up to a point. Many foundations not only set their own priorities themselves, but also realize them on their own. A grant for a cultural project is possible only when the applicant initiates and implements the project together with the foundation. This raises the question of artistic freedom. Application-oriented foundations are more open. If the proposed work conforms to the orientation and principles of the foundation, the foundation may grant funding for an “independent” project. But a host of competitors awaits the applicant. In order to prevail, he must interest the foundation in his project early on and find prominent supporters. Elaborate application forms must be filled in. Those who have already made a name for themselves in the scene and can cite successful projects have the advantage. But of course the applicant must first have reached this point.

Means are often project-linked

What sounds tempting is thus in reality a tough competition. Foundations may be compared to strong “personalities” who are much courted and not easy to win. Moreover, their funding is usually only subsidiary. That is, funds flow only once the foundation has received the assurance that other backers (for example, the public sector or private sponsors) have also put resources into the project. These contributions are usually project-linked and time-limited. It is difficult to build an artistic livelihood on this kind of support.

Nonetheless, foundations are an important pillar of the broad cultural funding in Germany. At the regional level, Sparkassen Cultural Foundations and small private foundations work closely together with the municipalities. If a town or city wants to realize a cultural project for which means are lacking, foundations often jump in to help. Meanwhile, the federal government and many state governments have also founded independent cultural foundations. They are in a position to provide cultural support more continuously and steadily because they are not dependant on tax revenues.

So it could be said that German foundations are themselves a cultural asset that is well worth preserving. They show in concentrated form the diverse cultural commitment of the citizenry. Anyone who seeks to realize a cultural project will feel reassured by the knowledge that there is always a way, as long as the ways are many.