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Culture

Rent-a-Painting

Germans looking to redecorate their apartments rarely think of a service many cities offer: For next to no money, people can borrow art work from the municipal collections.

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Take your pick!

Should I take the watercolor? Or the black-and-white portrait? Or the bronze sculpture? At a rental fee of a few euros per month to cover insurance, someone sifting through their local artotheque might decide to take all three of them.

While German cities are struggling to fund cultural institutions as the economic downturn has emptied their coffers, renting out art is a cheap way for them to offer culture to their residents. About 120 artotheques currently exist in Germany and more are likely to follow.

The cities of Ludwigsburg and Osnabrück are thinking of setting up art-rental programs. "In Hanover, officials are already going through the municipal collection to select works they can lend," said Johannes Stahl, who heads the German Artotheque Association and runs such a lending place for the former German capital, Bonn.

Sonderpräsentation der Artothek im Bonner Kunstverein

A room in Bonn's artotheque

Residents of Bremen, for example, can choose between works by German artists Max Ernst, Joseph Beus and Gerhard Richter or even take home a Günter Grass drawing to go along with one of the Nobel laureate's novels. Photography buffs can find pieces by Man Ray or Helmut Newton and there are even works by Rene Magritte and Roy Lichtenstein on offer.

Will it fit the wallpaper?

The reasons why people pick paintings are often pragmatic: Is the artist famous? Will it go with my wallpaper? Will it fit into my car? "Anything that doesn't fit into a Golf gets discarded," Stahl said, adding that he and his colleagues also have pretty straight-forward criteria when selecting works for the program.

"It's good when they're framed under glass," he said. "That way they don't wear down so quickly. After all, it's mostly laymen who take home works of art from here."

To be on the safe side, artotheques do insure their pieces and a fee for that is included in the rental price: Bonn charges €7 ($8.50) per painting for two months. While the art works usually return home safely, one customer recently forgot his painting on the train and another got caught in the rain, Stahl said.

Looking for something mystical

Bildauswahl in einer Artothek

Large, colorful paintings are the most popular ones

Educating renters about the pieces they choose is part of the package. Stahl hands them leaflets with information about the artist and his work. He said he's hoping to get people to choose art not just because it's "pretty" and matches the living room carpet. "Naturally there's more demand for large, colorful paintings than small black-and-white ones," he said.

Rental habits change over time, according to Stahl: "Those who come more frequently don't just look for the obvious: They're choosing paintings that mystify them."

But that wasn't the case for 7-year-old Josef, who recently stopped by Bonn's artotheque with his mother to pick a painting for his room. "That one's silly and that one's totally boring," he said, pointing to a couple of pieces before settling on a screenprint depicting dark-green raindrops with faces in front of a dying forest. "I want that one," he screamed. "That one's funny!"

His mother didn't seem to get it. "Well, it's a bit serious," she said, looking slightly unhappy before telling Stahl to wrap it up. For the next two months, it's going to adorn Josef's bedroom walls. And then it's time redecorate again.

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