The Price of Cool: Berlin's Struggling Artists Demand Share of the Pie

By Tobias Rapp

With almost a billion euros in annual arts subsidies, Berlin has transformed itself into one of the world's major meccas for the arts. But tight budgets and a shrinking number of alternative venues have pitted established institutions against the avant-garde and threaten the city's lucrative status as Europe's self-proclaimed "art capital."

Some decisions can hound a politician for the rest of his or her life. It was nearly 20 years ago that Ulrich Roloff-Momin, then cultural affairs senator for the city-state of Berlin, closed the Schiller Theater, the largest theater in the newly reunified city. But, even today, people still bring up that decision with him. It even happens on the golf course near the 73-year-old's vacation home in the far northeastern part of Germany. The former politician recently introduced himself to two fellow golfers, who were also Berliners and roughly the same age as him. The two men looked him over and said, "You're the Schiller killer."

It should be noted that the Schiller Theater was in poor condition when Roloff-Momin decided to close it. The theater wasn't putting on many shows, its repertoire lacked a clear guiding principle and the ensemble was both enormous and past its prime. Indeed, hardly anyone today would say that shutting it down was the wrong decision.

Not only that, but Roloff-Momin was quite successful in his position as cultural affairs senator. During his term between 1991 and 1995, he brought in a number of big names, including Frank Castorf as artistic director of the Volksbühne theater, Daniel Barenboim as general music director and artistic director at the Staatsoper opera house, and Thomas Langhoff for the Deutsches Theater. The senator laid the foundations for merging the two academies of the arts in the eastern and western parts of the city and made the Topography of Terror Documentation Center, a permanent exhibition at the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters, into an independent foundation. All of these decisions continue to shape Berlin's cultural life to this day.

But none of that matters; none of it is remembered. The only thing that sticks in people's minds is that he is the "Schiller killer."

Challenging the Arts-Funding Status Quo

A few weeks ago, four SPIEGEL authors presented the theses of their new book, "Der Kulturinfarkt: Von allem zu viel und überall das Gleiche" ("Cultural Infarction: Too Much of Everything and Everywhere the Same"). The book, a blistering polemic against the "just-keep-on-doing-the-same" attitude of the German arts scene, has sparked an uproar.

Arts funding needs to be organized in a fundamentally different way, the authors argue. They say that too much money goes to maintaining an infrastructure that is primarily preoccupied with itself. Since public funding for the arts is unlikely to increase much in the near future, they believe a change of course is needed, with more support going to independent groups and an end to the bureaucratic mentality. Arts funding needs to stop looking for things with timeless value, they say, and instead arrive in the current day and age. What's more, they add, Germany could do without fully half of the institutions that currently receive government subsidies.

However, the authors do refrain from explicitly saying that half of arts funding could likewise be cut. Rather, they offer a thought experiment: What would happen if we did away with half of Germany's operas, theaters and museums and, in turn, made their traditional subsidies available to other groups? If that were to happen, what type of arts funding would be desirable?

A debate on this topic has consumed the country. André Schmitz, Berlin's current state secretary for cultural affairs, spoke for many when he presented his indignant response to the polemic book in last week's issue of SPIEGEL magazine. Schmitz accused the authors of "cluelessness," calling them "bad patriots," "arrogant" and "neoliberal." The arts are not some "expendable luxury good," he wrote, and Germany needs each and every one of its theaters, its museums and its operas. "What we could actually cut are those who would take away half of our arts," he added, saying that it is precisely in times of empty public coffers that the arts budget should be increased.

Setting Artistic Priorities

It's hardly surprising, then, that it's so difficult in Germany to discuss possible closures in a disinterested way. Theaters are not simply businesses left up to the whims of the market. Instead, as the last bastion of the middle class's self-image, they can come to stand as symbols for a city's life, prosperity and history -- even to those who have never attended a performance.

That was the case in the years following German reunification, when former West Berliners saw it as an imposition to have to give up their Schiller Theater, just because the city was broke and the eastern half of the city had important theaters as well. Even then, people were asking who gets how much and whether it is ever even possible to distribute funding in an equitable way.

They also debated the issue of what the arts are really meant to do. Should they reflect societal shifts, or simply cushion their effects? Should they advance with the times or preserve what is already there? And where exactly can cultural value be found? Is it in opera houses putting on 25-year-old productions featuring expensive stars? Or is it in small "off-off" theaters, where everyone works for peanuts or even for free in a shared quest to develop avant-garde art?

The problem with Berlin's arts policies is that they want to have it both ways, while still devoting by far the largest portion of funding to high-culture venues. That worked in the past because the independent arts scene was able to seek out its own niches undisturbed. Compared to other cities across the world, Berlin was a dirt-cheap place for artists to live.

But if the city wants to maintain its attractiveness as a home for this scene, sooner or later it needs to protect its spaces for alternative culture. To do so, it will need money, but that is something that's also in very short supply.

Budgetary Restraints

When he took office in 2006, André Schmitz was able to finagle it so that the arts were spared from the Senate's budget cuts. In doing so, he gained respect from across party lines.

Last year, 10 million tourists visited Berlin. Arts and culture rank among the most important reasons people visit the city, and there's no end in sight to the tourist boom.

The German capital is currently in the midst of negotiations to produce the first budget of the Senate's newly elected ruling coalition, made up of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Not much will change for the arts, and Schmitz has even announced his intention to channel an addition €500,000 ($670,000) to independent arts groups and the same amount again for the visual arts. But, in the long term, not even these figures will suffice.

Berlin's arts budget amounts to about €360 million, which breaks down quite clearly into three very nearly equal parts. The first third goes to the city's three opera houses, the second to theaters (four public and 16 private theaters receive funding), and the last third is divided among museums as well as music, art, literature and other independent organizations.

Berlin's individual districts provide an additional €120 million in arts funding, and the federal government provides around €400 million to support so-called cultural "beacons," for example, for the renovation of the city's Museum Island or for the annual Berlinale film festival. All together, this adds up to almost €1 billion.

In comparison, London spends €530 million a year on the arts and has two publicly funded opera houses. New York spends $750 million on the arts, and its two opera houses have to raise most of their own funding.

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