German cultural and educational policy
Ensuring freedom in the arts

Theatre play „Amerika“ at Deutsches Theater Berlin.
Theatre play „Amerika“ at Deutsches Theater Berlin. | Photo (detail): © picture alliance / Eventpress Hoensch

Durs Grünbein
The Unpoet

Durs Grünbein numbers among the most important German-language lyric poets and essayists, but he refers to himself as an “unpoet”.
Durs Grünbein numbers among the most important German-language lyric poets and essayists, but he refers to himself as an “unpoet”. | Foto: © picture alliance / Erwin Elsner

From subculture in the backyard to high culture in the opera house – with its diverse cultural scene, Germany caters to a wide variety of cultural preferences. But how exactly is Germany’s colourful cultural landscape funded?

Hamburg’s new, 800 million-euro Elbphilharmonie, the Museuminsel Berlin, and Semperoper Dresden are just a few examples of Germany’s cultural richness, were richness is meant quite literally. With its diversity and density, the German cultural landscape covers a wide variety of cultural preferences. But how exactly is Germany’s colourful cultural landscape funded? 

Monika Grütters, Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media from 2013 to 2017, explains the principle of German state support for culture: “It is not the remit of politics to plan culture, but rather to ensure its freedom.” Grütters is referring to the guarantee of artistic freedom set out in the German constitution. It provides state protection of artistic autonomy through government funding of art and culture to safeguard them from free-market constraints. It does not, however, prohibit private support from companies, creating an interplay between public and private support for the arts and culture in Germany. 

State support of the arts

Germany leads the world in state cultural funding. According to the Culture Finance Report, public sector financing amounted to 9.9 billion euros in 2016, only 17 percent of which came from the highest, federal level. The German funding landscape is unique for its decentralized organisation based on the concept of the “cultural sovereignty of the states”. Germany’s federal states and municipalities are responsible for setting cultural and educational policy and manage their own cultural budgets. The federal government is only responsible for promoting culture abroad and in affairs of state. In 2016, cities and municipalities accounted for the largest share of cultural expenditures with 45 percent compared to the states’ 40 percent contribution.

There are pros and cons to this decentralized structure. As a rule, the federal states allocate funding primarily for projects inside their territory, which impacts the range of art and culture on offer. According to Birgit Mandel, a professor of cultural mediation and cultural management at the University of Hildesheim, each federal state tends to promote and build on its own representative cultural sites. While this is not entirely unproblematic, it can also have positive effects. It creates competition that has resulted in great cultural diversity clearly visible in the sheer number of museums, theatres and orchestras that flourish throughout Germany. Worldwide, one forth of all professional orchestras are in Germany, Mandel said in an interview with
Government support for the arts in Germany goes beyond direct budget expenditures as well. Freelance artists, for example, only have to pay the employee’s share of usually around 50 percent into the Künstlersozialkasse – a social security scheme created especially for artists. The state and companies cover the other half.

Hamburg’s new, 800 million-euro Elbphilharmonie, is just one example of Germany’s cultural richness. Hamburg’s new, 800 million-euro Elbphilharmonie, is just one example of Germany’s cultural richness. | Photo: Elbphilharmonie © Maxim Schulz Additionally, the government offers tax breaks for private organisations such as companies or foundations that promote culture, a type of indirect state support for the arts. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Germany has given incentives to private companies interested in fostering culture, so as to make them more attractive to employees, for example. Today, companies support the arts through foundations, sponsoring, and donations. Private sector investment in culture is motivated in part by a sense of corporate social responsibility, but one primary driver has always been the boost it gives a company’s reputation. Large companies see themselves as ‘corporate citizens’ and thus as civil society stakeholders. Incidentally, companies also prefer to fund projects in the respective region around their local offices or plants.

Private investors versus state support

Not everyone approves of the leading role the German state plays in fostering culture. Some critics point out that excessive state interference could undermine freedom in the arts, while others emphasize that public support may make artists feel more indebted to society. 

But the alternative – an increase in corporate support for arts and culture – is also a double-edged sword. If cultural institutions were completely privatised and funding depended on a cost-benefit analysis, many might be forced to close their doors.

In terms of content, substantial state backing results in a focus on conventional, middle-class high culture. Institutions like opera houses and theatres with their high human resource costs claim the majority of the funds, up to 95 percent in some federal states. Subcultures and new currents and art forms, on the other hand, often report that they are overlooked and neglected. In an interview with, cultural and media expert Norbert Sievers explained that the German funding system “created a marked conservatism in the cultural infrastructure on the one hand. Conventional art forms take priority, and anything novel must fight the establishment to be given a turn.” On the other hand, the high level of funding major cultural institutions received at times exceeded state capacity. In the meanwhile classical high culture is losing relevance for an ever-growing segment of the population. Only about ten percent of people – primarily academics with a higher social status – visit cultural institutions such as concert halls, theatres and museums.

Another major difference between public and private funding of the arts is the time frame. Government budgets often have to be renegotiated on an annual basis, whereas private foundations can invest more long term. 

Durs Grünbein numbers among the most important German-language lyric poets and essayists. The Georg-Bücher prize winning author’s body of work refuses to submit to simple categorisation.

If Durs Grünbein’s genre as a writer were classified based on his body of work, he would have to be described as a multi-media artist. An essayist and translator who has worked on interdisciplinary projects with visual artists, Grünbein even records audiobooks of his own work. He refers to himself as an “unpoet”, perhaps because of the wide spectrum his creative output spans. And while he never limits himself to a single medium or genre, so far he has given the novel a wide berth. “For a long time, lyrical poetry was my way of rejecting the novel. Gaining time through brevity, coupled with a different sense of authority over reality.” Unpoet Grünbein is quite simply an artist who describes his world and enjoys employing poetic and other means.
Grünbein was born in Dresden in 1962, just one year after the construction of the Berlin Wall that sealed Germany’s fate as a divided country. After the wall fell on November 9, 1989, opening the border between the western Federal Republic of Germany and the eastern German Democratic Republic, Grünbein began travelling the world in what he describes as a phase of “almost hysterical travel in the interest of making up for lost time.” Later, he lived abroad for longer periods that took the award-winning lyrical poet and essayist to the USA as a guest of New York University’s German Department and as visiting scholar at the Villa Aurora artist residence in Los Angeles. During a ten-month fellowship, Grünbein also had the opportunity to work with artists from the fields of architecture, the visual arts, literature and music at the Deutsche Akademie’s cultural institution, the Villa Massimo in Rome. A Villa Massimo grant is one of Germany’s highest honours and recognises artists for exceptional work.

The spark turns over the motor

Zündkerzen (i.e. Sparkplugs) is a collection of 83 of Grünbein’s poems published in 2017. What is actually set in motion when the sparkplug emits the first spark that ignites combustion in a motor? What is the essence of the spark? Grünbein’s volume of poetry isn’t about theoretical ideas and doesn’t propose any concepts: sparkplugs are things, things to be described.
The poems in the collection are very flexible in meter and verse, appearing as sequences, prose poems, and sonnets. Overall Grünbein relies on traditional forms and rejects avant-garde games. The reader is not confounded by complex hermetic lines, and can relate to what moves the author: the past, transience, and ultimately reality. In “Dekolleté“, for example, he involves the past in a vivid warning: “Sometimes a collarbone,/ Falling into a pair of eyes – / Is enough to inflame pain/ Beyond all surrender and loss / In a human being’s life./ It reveals: the brevity,/ Peak season is almost over.”
This association of transience and remembering the past with the flare up of pain is a central theme in Grünbein’s Die Jahre im Zoo. Ein Kaleidoskop. (i.e. Years at the Zoo. A kaleidoscope.)

Authority over reality

While Grünbein has explained his preference for poetry over the novel as rooted in a feeling of authority over reality, his densely atmospheric work Die Jahre im Zoo, published in 2015, resembles an essayistic, autobiographic book infused with lyrical intervals. In it he describes his childhood and youth in the garden-city suburb of Hellerau just outside Dresden. At the start of the 20th century, the Garden City movement attracted people interested in reform who wanted to unify life and work, culture and education. But Grünbein’s 400-page memorial to Hellerau is ambivalent. He describes his childhood as a “Pandora’s box”, an “old tin full of earthworms:/Opened it releases the scent of childhood, of discontent.”
Yet regardless of how banal his childhood and uneventful his youth might have been, Grünbein’s memories oscillate between abhorrence for the past and a warm sense of security often associated with nostalgia: “Happiness is when memory grazes your temples/ like blades of grass.” Memories graze the author and perhaps the reader in the present, conserving happiness, at least for the moment.
Memoirs like Die Jahre im Zoo arouse a great deal of interest in uncertain times when the secure suddenly seems at risk. It sates a hunger for reality by bringing back the authentic as worth remembering. As a multi-media artist, Grünbein adds another level to his memories. In Die Jahre im Zoo, old photographs illustrate the text, as in the Koloss im Nebel (i.e. Colossus in the Fog) volume of poetry. This interdisciplinary trick helps him freeze his Hellerau in time, and he successfully creates a monumental description of the image of his hometown, almost as if he were describing a painting.
Grünbein uses the same method in exhibitions as well. Together with artist Via Lewandowsky, his mixed-media events bring the visual and literary arts together, where Lewandowsky provides the images and Grünbein the texts.

Durs Grünbein lives and writes in Rome. He was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize in 1995, and has been a professor of poetry at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf Art Academy) since 2005. In 2009, the Federal Republic of Germany honoured Grünbein with the Great Cross of Merit with Star.