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International arts hub

July 24, 2012

Around 35 percent of Cologne's population has an ethnic minority background. In that vein, the city's new academy of the arts intends to enrich the international diversity of its culture scene.

Image: AP

Following imprisonment, torture and political repression in his home country of China, author Liao Yiwu came to Germany last year. His works are critical analyses of the political climate in his home country and the precarious situation of people living on the fringes of Chinese society. This year, the prominent dissident was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for his courageous political engagement.

Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu, pictured here on the cover of one of his books, is one of the first 13 members of the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne.
Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu is one of the first 13 members of the Akademie der Künste der Welt

Enriching cultural life

Liao Yiwu is one of the first 13 members of the Akademie der Künste der Welt (Academy of Arts of the World) in Cologne, which was founded last month. And he's not the only one with an eventful past. At the age of 13, Ali Samadi Ahadi fled the first Gulf War to Germany in order to avoid conscription into the Iranian army. The film director and screenwriter is famous in Germany for "Lost Children," a documentary about Ugandan child soldiers which was awarded the German Film Prize in 2006. Other members of the academy are, among others, Indian documentary filmmaker Madhusree Dutta, Lebanese artist Walid Raad, Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio and Israeli curator Galit Eilat.

The academy is intended to enrich the cultural life of Cologne - first and foremost with a range of contemporary non-European art. Navid Kermani is behind the project. The German-Iranian author proposed the establishment of a Cologne-based subsidiary of Berlin's Haus der Kulturen der Welt to the city administration board in 2007. He is also a permanent fellow of the Berlin institution.

For Sigrid Gareis, the Secretary General of the academy, the project is a model for the future. "What's new is that the nation-state thinking, central to institutes such as the Académie française or the Akademie der Kunst in Berlin, has been left to one side here. The target course is explicitly global," said Gareis.

Sigrid Gareis, the General Secretary of Cologne's new Akademie der Künste der Welt.
The target course for the academy is explicitly global, said Sigrid GareisImage: privat

Dynamically unified

The members of the academy elected a review board which, alongside the quality of the artworks, concerns itself primarily with three aspects, as Georg Quander, the deputy mayor in charge of culture in the city of Cologne explained: "First of all, to ensure that the academy represents all genres, so film, dance, literature, the visual arts, music. Secondly, to ensure artists from all over the world come here. Thirdly, that we present artists who are still fully active in the creative process."

The artistic fellows of the academy will not remain fellows for life, just for the next five years. "We want an establishment that is dynamic, that can adapt to change and that shines in the city's society, something that is not just honorable but something which is actively engaged with the cultural life of the city and the country," said Quander.

Global and political

And it's not just art that can be expected from the academy. "In the inaugural meeting at the end of June it became apparent that the members of the academy are very politically engaged, that they will also certainly want the academy to become and be used as a political mouthpiece," explained Gareis.

It should all begin properly in October. After that, the academy members - a maximum of around 40 - will meet on a regular basis and plan concrete projects. No particular content has yet been decided upon. As part of a stipendium program, artists from around across the globe will reside in Cologne for a few months at a time. Aside from that, external projects based on themes such as migration, will be supported.

Starting in October, the Young Academy will be built, where young people from ethnic minority backgrounds can accompany the academy's projects. The academy also plans to work closely with other cultural organizations in the city.

A work by Walid Raad / Atlas Group
Global and political: A work by academy member Walid Raad / Atlas GroupImage: Walid Raad/Atlas Group

Precarious funding situation

Funding of 150,000 euros ($182,000) per year are set to come from the state of North-Rhine Westphalia and, in addition, one million euros ($1.2 million) from Cologne's city budget. The financial support has already been approved by the city council. But that was before a decision by the Administrative Court in Leipzig to introduce cuts to funding for culture, also known as the bed tax.

The city of Cologne had expected an income of around seven million euros from taxes on overnight stays in hotels. Following the judgment in Leipzig, cities are now only able to tax tourists and - crucially - not business travelers. Because the administrative costs of enforcing the tax are now no longer feasible, it is possible that the city of Cologne will ditch the tax entirely. Quander declined to comment on the consequences of the tax decision for academy. In any case, at least in the medium term, the institution will have to continue the search for a third source of funding.

Author: Christina Ruta / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen