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Culture

Weimar's Last Chance

An icon of German culture is under threat. Mismanagement has made things go very wrong in the cradle of German classicism, Weimar.

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Weimar needs to do more for its heritage, like the Schiller Museum

The devastating fire that gutted the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar last September destroyed a jewel in the town's cultural crown. But a recent report has found that many other landmarks in the eastern German city are endangered.

A commission set up by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK) examined the state of Weimar's cultural affairs. It has now accused the foundation created to preserve and manage the town's cultural heritage, Stiftung Weimarer Klassik (SWKK), of serious mismanagement.

And it warns that Weimar's treasures are under threat.

"There is reason to believe that works are in serious danger in a number of facilities," said SPK president Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, who headed the inquiry.

Results are deeply disturbing

According to Lehmann, Weimar's graphic art collection is one example of a jeopardized cultural good.

"Goethe's drawings are still mounted on acidic cardboard, which means there is a real risk of damage and deterioration," said Lehmann. "These are all things that deeply disturb us."

He said that authorities had become more sensitive since the fire in the 18th century Anna Amalia library.

Deutschland Geschichte Kultur Anna Amalia Bibliothek Brandschäden

One of the many works destroyed in the library's famous Rococo room

The blaze destroyed 50,000 precious and mostly irreplaceable volumes and badly damaged a further 60,000. The total estimated damage amounted to some 67 million euros ($81.7 million).

The library's centerpiece, the famous Rococo room, was also destroyed.

Weimar's fortunes are slumping

Weimar is known to tourists around the world as a picture-perfect town. The cradle of German classicism -- once the home of Goethe and Schiller -- has played host to some of the greatest European artists and intellectuals.

Weimar

The city's most famous citizens: Goethe und Schiller

After German unification, the government and the European Union pumped millions of euros into the city to restore its former splendor.

Weimar got another boost when it was named EU cultural capital in 1999. The town hosted an ambitious cultural program and drew many visitors. But when it was over, Weimar's fortunes slumped again.

No glossing over the facts

The blaze in the Anna Amalia library was started by a cable fire. Now, experts fear the same could happen elsewhere in Weimar -- for example in the city castle, and in particular the rooms that house the collection of prints and drawings.

The commission was highly critical of conditions there. Hellmut Seemann, SWKK's president, said the findings were "devastating."

"But it is an accurate assessment of the situation and there's no way we can gloss over the fact," said Seemann. "Conditions in the museum are catastrophic."

Weimar needs to wake up

In response to the commission's report, the government has thrown Weimar a life line of fresh cash. Due to this additional funding, the foundation was able to improve the situation in the summer months -- at least provisionally.

Some of the funds are earmarked for the preservation of Goethe's drawings, of which only a third have been restored so far. But experts say merely saving what is there is not enough. The town needs to wake up to its responsibilities.

Nike Wagner Kunstfest Weimar

Nike Wagner is the great-granddaughter of famous composer Richard Wagner

"Weimar always needs fresh wind," said Nike Wagner, head of Weimar's Arts Festival. "Weimar has an unhealthy tradition of rejecting whatever is new and modern." It had snubbed the art nouveau and Bauhaus movements, for example.

"The people of Weimar have always tried to exclude whatever is modern, and remain fixated on images of classicism," said Wagner.

Weimar needs a vision

Another problem is the contemporary art collection in the "New Museum." Fewer than 5,000 visitors came last year. The modern works seem neglected and unloved, compared to the treasures of earlier centuries.

Renowned art collector Paul Maenz had loaned the museum many important works. Now, he wants the works back. It's a slap in the face for Weimar and those in charge of its arts policy.

"Nostalgia for the past is not enough," said Lehmann. "In order to define one's place in today's world, one needs vision, one needs to explore new approaches. I think people failed to grasp what it meant for Mr. Maenz to loan his collection to the Neues Museum."

Saving Weimar's legacy

The commission said a proper visitors center should be created in the city castle, the Schloss. The experts also want to build a central storage facility for Weimar's art treasures. The city, they said, must shape up for the 21st century.

"I will take great pains to ensure that everyone, apart from the public who can always say 'it's all rubbish,' who shares responsibility for this foundation furthers these goals," said Seemann.

The government has earmarked 10 million euros in emergency funds for Weimar. Many believe it's the city's last chance to save its legacy as the home of Germany's cultural titans.

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