The German Arts Funding Model

January 4, 2002

In case anyone might be interested, I thought I would provide a brief overview of how arts funding is organized in Germany. It is a model similar to what many other European countries use.

Almost all arts funding is administered on the state and municipal levels. They reason that local arts administrators will best know the interests of the community, as well as the quality and needs of the artists who live there. Each city invariably takes great pride in its cultural offerings. They feel that a rich and locally autonomous cultural life not only contributes to the quality of their lives, but also adds prestige to their community. 

Even if a small city is near a larger one, it invariably has its own, separate cultural institutions. A case in point, is Augsburg which has about 250 thousand citizens and which is about 30 minutes by train from Munich. The State Opera in Munich is one of the most famous in the world (it was the resident house for and Wagner and Richard Strauss), but Augsburg also has its own 52 week season opera house which performs Wagner's entire Ring every year. In the Ruhrgebiet (Germany's largest industrial and population center) most of the major communities have contiguous city limits, such as Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Essen, Bochum, Gelsenkirchen, and Duisburg, but each one has its own State Theater with an opera, symphony orchestra, and spoken theater, all with 52 week seasons, as well as a variety of city museums. All are less than a hour from Cologne. Some of the institutions in these smaller cities are world famous, such as the dance company of Pina Bausch in Wuppertal.

There is a strong belief in many smaller European cities, if not most, that meaningful culture has to be communal, and that going to a larger city to see something is just borrowing culture that is not your own.

The vast majority of the funding goes to the cultural institutions the cities own and operate -- their museums, galleries, operas, symphonies, theaters, ballet companies, etc. -- but a smaller fund is also reserved for independent artists. Munich, for example, has about 30 small, private theaters which offer cabaret and serious plays. About half of them have resident companies that perform local playwrights, though the artists can seldom live from their work. Most larger cities own a number of ateliers which they make available to visual artists on a permanent basis, and most cities own black box and studio theaters for smaller experimental and guest productions. 

Each city government has an arts ministry that distributes the funding for the local institutions and artists. The cultural minister is often an elected official and usually has professional training in arts administration. They usually have a staff of specialists for each genre, such as music, theater, dance, film and photography. The independent artists make applications for funding and the decisions are made by the specialists, often with the advice of a jury of the artist's peers.

The funding on the state level is similar, though they usually do not spend as much on independent artists as the municipalities. They focus on large institutions such as State Theaters and their state owned radio and television stations which always have one or two 52 week season resident orchestras and a full time, professional choir. A specific function of the radio orchestras is to perform and record new music. Two State Radios in Germany also have full time, permanent big bands. The state also often helps fund municipal institutions.

Germany did not even have a federal arts minister until two years ago, and when he was appointed there was an uproar. The states and cities felt the federal government might try to compete with their own arts ministries. This contrasts with the USA where state and local funding is often even more paltry than federal funding. Europeans would find it strange for a federal government to fund the arts in any specific way because it is so difficult at that level to have direct contact with the lives and work of artists and the communities they will serve.

As I have pointed out before, Germany has 23 times more 52 weeks season orchestras than the USA. All of the musicians have full time, permanent contracts with full benefits and pensions as do the choirs and ballet dancers. Actors and the museum workers also have the same types of contracts.

Private sponsorship of the arts is rarely encouraged and is viewed with extreme mistrust. They feel this will lead to less funding based on the sporadic whims of patrons who often have superficial tastes. Embarrassingly, it is often referred to as the American model. Germany, for example, has one orchestra for about every 550 thousand people so the larger cities usually have several. Munich has seven full time orchestras and two full time opera houses (one with a resident ballet troupe) and two full time larger spoken theaters for a population of 1.2 million. Berlin has three full time opera houses though they may have to close one due to the costs of rebuilding the city after reunification. If New York City averaged the same number of 45 week season orchestras per capita as Germany, it would have 16. If New York City had the same number or orchestras per capita as Munich it would have about 45. If it had the same number of full times operas as Berlin it would have six. Areas such as Queens and the Bronx would not be wastelands, but nationally and internationally important cultural centers.

In the USA, many world class musicians never find a full time job, but in Germany there is almost a shortage of qualified musicians. The Munich Philharmonic had a first trumpet opening for 11 consecutive years. There was simply too much competition for obtaining good players and they didn't want to hire a foreigner. By contrast, universities and conservatories such as Juilliard, Indiana University, University of North Texas, and the University of Michigan produce hundreds of excellent musicians every year, but only a tiny fraction of them will ever have genuine careers. There is a newspaper styled publication in the USA titled _Overseas Musician_ devoted specifically to helping musicians leave the country in order to find work. It advertises in the Juilliard newsletter on a regular basis.

Political interference in the arts is a firmly established taboo in German government, similar to the way the American government takes a hands off approach to regulatory work of the Federal Reserve. It is almost never done, and when it is a scandal invariably ensues and the perpetrators generally have to back down. They know that over the long term, entering that labyrinth can only have catastrophic results.

There are problems with the German system, such as sexism and the kind of rigidity and lack of verve "civil servant" culture can have, but these are minuscule compared to the problems with arts funding in the USA. 

William Osborne