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Arts

How Berlin's Academy of Arts went from 'snoring club' to relevant

Ai Weiwei and Bob Dylan are members of Germany's most important cultural organization, the Academy of Arts. Its director, an outspoken political satirist, is passing the buck this weekend. Will a woman take over?

"Nichts ist erledigt" - "Nothing is over" - reads the glass facade of the Academy of Arts, right in the heart of the German capital on Potsdamer Platz.

Director Klaus Staeck had the slogan posted to make a statement. In the middle of Berlin, between Hotel Adlon and Brandenburg Gate, is Germany's political center. The idea - and ideal - of the academy is that artists come into dialogue with politics, get involved in democracy and help shape society. Staeck stands for this idealized approach.

He led the Academy of Arts for nine years, and his third term is now coming to an end. According to the academy's charter, the 77-year-old cannot be appointed again. On Saturday, his successor will be elected by the 404 current members of the academy. For the first time, it could be a woman.

"I hope that after 300 years, a women will finally become president," Straeck told the dpa news agency. "We'll see whether this male-dominated institution is ready for the idea."

Straeck's deputy, Nele Hertling, will also be replaced, as will the directors of the institution's six sections, ranging from literature to music and film.

From autodidact to political artist

"German workers! The Social Democratic Party wants to take away your villas in Tessin!" It was with ironic posters like these that Klaus Staeck made a name for himself in the early 1970s. Political satire became his trademark as a graphic artist, caricaturist and lawyer.

Political poster by Klaus Staeck, Copyright: Klaus Staeck

"German workers! The Social Democratic Party wants to take away your villas in Tessin!"

"He came to art as an autodidact," according to his website. "Today, his oeuvre incorporates 300 posters and numerous photos, which have been shown in over 3,000 exhibitions."

And 41 futile attempts have been made to legally ban his posters and postcards, the website proudly declares.

Staeck was born in the eastern German village of Pulsnitz near Dresden, grew up in Bitterfeld and later studied law in Heidelberg. His artistic breakthrough came in 1972 when he participated in the Documenta 5 in Kassel, one of the world's most significant shows of contemporary art. He presented works at three later Documentas.

In the 1970s, his photo collages with ironic expressions could be found in many student apartments across Germany.

Piquing politics

Political boldness can sometimes have consequences. In March 1976, conservative CDU politician Philipp Jenninger, who would later become president of the German parliament, tore up one of Staeck's posters at a parliamentary assembly in the capital, Bonn.

The poster read: "Since Chile, we know what the CDU thinks of democracy." Staeck was referring to the German government's dealing with the Pinochet regime.

After German reunification in 1990, Staeck joined the Academy of Arts of Berlin, which had been East Germany's sister organization. It wasn't until 1993 that both academies were formally unified.

The Academy of the Arts is over 300 years old. It was the Prussian King Frederick I who founded an "Academy of Painters, Sculpture and Architectural Art" in 1696. Today, the institution is officially tasked with promoting the arts and representing artistic concerns in society. It serves as a kind of advising body for cultural affairs in Germany.

The academy is funded by the federal government with an annual budget of 18 million euros ($19.6 million). More than half of its 160 employees work in the archives. These include a 550,000-volume library and art collection encompassing 70,000 works and 1,200 artists' estates. Among them are the legacies of Bertolt Brecht, Günter Grass and Christa Wolf.

Ai Weiwei, Copyright: Ed Jones/AFP/GettyImages

Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei is one of the academy's 404 members

Among the 404 members of the Academy of Arts are prominent international artists like Ai Weiwei, Bob Dylan and Bruce Nauman, and German stars like filmmakers Dominik Graf, Tom Tykwer and Wim Wenders. Members are recommended by a committee of experts and appointed for life. Most of them are elderly, and only 22 percent are female.

President Staeck is the head of decision-making board, the 14-member Senate.

New wind in the 'snoring' club

Filling Staeck's shoes won't be easy to fill. Until a decade ago, the academy was considered antiquated: Actor Ulrich Matthes, a member, even referred to it as a "snoring club." But since Staeck took the reins in 2006, a new wind has swept through.

During his term, the academy has gotten involved in current cultural-political issues like the planned transatlantic trade agreement, TTIP. It has also made a concerted effort to aid persecuted artists around the world.

Staeck has "readied the academy for the future with his tact, his diplomatic sense and his political vein," praised Germany's Minister of Culture Monika Grütters.

It remains to be seen who will be named his successor this weekend. "When I took office, there were voices questioning the very existence of the academy," remembered Staeck. "Today we have regained respect. Our voice is heard!"

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