A Palace for Poets and Thinkers: Germany Considers New Cultural Institute in US

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A proposal by the Foreign Ministry in Berlin for a German American Forum on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is proving controversial. The project's detractors say it would create unnecessary competition for existing institutions that are already struggling to make ends meet. They also warn of staggering costs for the building on one of New York's most famous streets.

1014 Fifth Avenue used to house the Goethe Institute. Will its new occupant be another cultural institute? Zoom
Carl G. Friedrich / DER SPIEGEL

1014 Fifth Avenue used to house the Goethe Institute. Will its new occupant be another cultural institute?

It is one of the most sought-after addresses in New York: 1014 Fifth Avenue. Nonetheless, this six-story, turn-of-the-century townhouse facing the Metropolitan Museum of Art has long stood empty. A notice hangs on its wrought-iron door announcing that its former tenant, the Goethe Institute, has relocated to SoHo, and that any questions should be addressed to the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations.

But if German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has his way, the imposing mansion on the Upper East Side will soon have a new occupant. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the Foreign Ministry is keen to see it house what it calls a German American Forum, an institution aimed at revitalizing trans-Atlantic ties.

A Bridgehead

The ministry has submitted a concept paper to the German parliament's budget committee proposing a refurbishment of the premises, to the tune of double-digit millions. Much like the American Academy in Berlin, the Forum would serve to boost trans-Atlantic exchange by awarding grants to visiting German academics, artists and intellectuals and hosting talks by German politicians during US visits.

The idea among German diplomats is to counter what the Foreign Ministry sees as US President Obama's shift in diplomatic focus to the Pacific region and to position the building as a bridgehead in the trans-Atlantic relationship. The diplomats are also loathe to give up a building in such an exclusive location. They worry the Finance Ministry may try to sell the mansion, which has been assessed at a tidy $50 million, to shore up the federal budget.

An Unwanted Rival

But news of this ambitious undertaking has already raised eyebrows at other trans-Atlantic institutes in Manhattan.

"The financial crisis has left these institutes without funds for exchange programs and language courses even though they are very popular with Americans," explained Guido Goldmann of the American Council on Germany, a non-profit group that hosts events with German political and business leaders and sponsors trans-Atlantic fellowships. "Creating competition and spending so much money on a building strikes me as pointless."

He also notes out that however prestigious the Fifth Avenue property might be, it is hardly suitable for events, far away as it is from any universities and think tanks. Moreover, maintenance and taxes add up to six-figure sums every year.

The Foreign Ministry is planning to meet the Forum's running costs primarily with private donations, a risky business plan given the current economic crisis. And that might be not be the only hurdle it faces.

"In the US, it's unusual to donate to an institute that is perceived to be affiliated to the government," says Klaus Brandner, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party who is also a member of the German parliament's budget committee. As such, he will be among the members of parliament who decide whether to give the project a green light.

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