Cultural Promotion in Germany
“Traditional high culture is losing its relevance”

Stuttgart Municipal Library
Stuttgart Municipal Library | Photo (detail): © Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart (yi architects)/Martin Lorenz

The data show that cultural sponsorship is very important in Germany. In this interview, Birgit Mandel, Professor of Cultural Education and Cultural Management at the University of Hildesheim, explains why this system of funding should, in fact, change.

Mrs Mandel, in January 2017 the Elbe Philharmonic opened in Hamburg. The building alone cost about 800 million euros; its operation will devour billions more. In Germany, such large cultural institutions are strongly supported by the state. Does this really make sense?

At the very least, it’s an expression of the way we promote culture in Germany: with high financial commitment and a predilection for traditional middle-class institutions of high culture.

The graph shows the amount of funding sums for individual cultural areas in 2013. It does not distinguish between federal government, state or municipality. By far the largest share of public funds (35 per cent) went into the area of “Theatre and Music” – as much as the two next-largest categories, “Libraries” and “Museums and Exhibitions”, combined. In total, these three categories received more than two-thirds of public cultural funding.
This can also be seen in the distribution of subsidies. Theatre, music and museums receive more than half the funds.

Yes, that’s right. And even in absolute numbers, the sums are impressive. With a total of 9.9 billion euros in state cultural funding, we’re the absolute frontrunners worldwide, even if this represents only 1.7 per cent of the total public budget. Apart from this, there’s also another special feature of the German funding system that explains the great importance accorded high culture in awarding subsidies.

And that is?

That it has a decentralized organization. Each of the sixteen federal states is primarily responsible for its own promotion of culture. In addition, we have the subsidiarity principle, which states that the smallest administrative unit should always assume the corresponding task before the respective higher-ranking institution does so. In the case of cultural funding, the smallest units are the cities and municipalities; they account for 45 per cent of cultural funding. The federal states assume about 40 per cent and the federal government about 15 per cent. And this constellation in turn leads to a very high density of cultural offerings, one which is probably unique worldwide.

Could you please explain that?

When each federal state is responsible for its own cultural offerings, each aspires to provide its own prestigious cultural venues. In this the federal states are in competition with one another. In total, Germany has over 150 public theatres, often having three divisions with repertories, 130 public symphony and chamber orchestras, about 6,000 museums, of which half are publicly funded, 40 festival halls and about 7,000 festivals. A quarter of all professional music orchestras and 14 per cent of all permanent opera houses worldwide are in Germany; and about 8,000 libraries.
The states and municipalities defrayed the bulk of cultural funding in 2013. In the areas of “Theatre and Music”, “Museums and Exhibitions” and “Libraries”, the municipalities provided at least half the funding. The federal government, on the other hand, is particularly active in cultural institutions in the capital city of Berlin and in cultural activities abroad. 
Let’s take a closer look at the role of the federal government in this system. It’s striking that it contributes only a little to the funding of, for example, theatre and music, but that it assumes the responsibility for almost the entirety of cultural funding abroad. Why is that?

Fundamentally, the federal government in the German federal funding system has very limited powers; in principle it is responsible for the funding of only trans-regional matters such as the protection of specific cultural assets, the Prussian cultural heritage and its museums and castles, specialist libraries, supra-regional film promotion and international cultural relations. What we’ve observed in recent years, however, is a steady increase in federal funds, especially for nationwide model subsidy programmes, including in the area of cultural education.

Let’s return to the Elbe Philharmonic. Was the building a good investment in terms of promoting culture?

That depends on how you define what cultural promotion should do. On the one hand, we know that prestigious projects such as the Elbe Philharmonic play an important role in the cultural identity of a city or region. Even if people never use these buildings, they still tend to identify positively with them. On the other hand, since at least the 1970s, the promotion of culture in Germany has laid claim to contributing to the cultural education of all population groups in our society. The big question is whether it can do justice to this claim. We now know that only about ten per cent of the population, largely academics with high social status, make use of cultural institutions such as concert halls, theatres and museums at all.


But hasn’t high culture always been directed to a niche public?

Yes, to an extent, though the interesting thing about the German cultural promotion system is that this fact doesn’t really play a role. In Germany, the idea that art and culture are important cultural goods for the whole society is firmly anchored in public opinion. This is also underpinned by the Basic Law: cultural policy is founded on the guarantee if artistic freedom [Article 5, paragraph 3, sentence 1, Basic Law; editor’s note.]. From this and supplementary legal commentaries it has been inferred that the state must secure this autonomy by promoting art and culture so as to protect them from the constraints of the free market and demands of specific utility.

But that’s actually a good idea.

In principle, yes, but it has led to the situation in Germany that for a long time now there’s been no need whatever to concern ourselves with the actual use of publicly subsidized offerings. Traditional middle-class culture is still considered the core of a German identity that remains unquestioned even by those who suffer because the big institutions are so drastically favoured in the distribution of funds: the independent cultural scene and the socio-culture. But precisely this so-called identity is now subject to change.

What changes do you mean?

For a growing part of the German population traditional high culture is losing its relevance. One reason for this is a general change in habits of reception, not least because of digitalization. Another reason is the new impulses emanating from migratory movements. People of different ethnic backgrounds are bringing different habits of reception and cultural preferences into our society. The major challenge for the art scene and cultural policy in Germany is to change existing institutions together with new audiences, new users, new actors. Moreover, the institutionalized cultural scene must be countered with new, more flexible forms of organization that also take the cultural interests of future generations and people engaged in the cultural sector into consideration.

Prof. Dr. Birgit Mandel is Head of the Department of Cultural Mediation and Cultural Management at the Institute for Cultural Policy at the University of Hildesheim. She is also Vice President of the Association for Cultural Policy and a member of the Supervisory Board of Kulturprojekte Berlin GmbH.

About the visualizations
The data are derived from the 2016 Report on Cultural Funding. These reports are published every two years by the Federal and State Statistical Offices, and compile and evaluate all public expenditures on culture. Because of the time required for this (all data down to the municipal level must be presented), the 2016 Report on Cultural Funding refers to 2013.

The Report on Cultural Funding mainly contains information on the cultural expenditures of the public sector. Private funding – for example, from foundations – is presented only in the form of an estimate. Thus 1.17 billion euros of private funding flowed into publicly supported institutions. Cultural institutions that operate without public subsidies, such as musical theatre, are not listed in the Report on Cultural Funding.

In 2013, public spending on culture amounted to 9,892 billion euros, 0.35 per cent of the gross domestic product. This corresponds to 1.68 per cent of the total public budget. Thus the federal government, the states and the municipalities provide 122 euros per inhabitant for culture. The federal government allocated 0.8 per cent of its total expenditure to culture, the states 1.8 per cent, and the municipalities 2.4 per cent.

Not included in the two visualizations are the so-called culturally-oriented areas. In 2013 the federal government, the states and the municipalities spent 1.9 billion euros on broadcasting corporations, television, church affairs, adult education centres and other forms of further education. Together with the 9,892 billion euros, public cultural spending amounted to around 11.8 billion euros.

Many of the presented categories are understandable without any further explanation. In some cases, brief explanations are helpful: in the Report on Cultural Funding, “Libraries” includes “public, academic and specialized libraries”. “Protection of historic buildings and monuments” includes, along with outstanding individual monuments, historical city centres, parks and industrial buildings. Finally, the category “Other cultural conservation” comprises “Funding for film, for the culture of displaced Germans, for folklore and local history, and communal expenditure for the preservation of local traditions”.