Controversial art patrons: What is the situation in Germany? | Arts | DW | 15.08.2019
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Controversial art patrons: What is the situation in Germany?

Following the boycott of the Sackler family in various museums, private sponsors are being examined more carefully. The president of the International Council of Museums' German chapter cites some disturbing cases.

Prof. Dr. Beate Reifenscheid (privat)

Beate Reifenscheid

Protests against questionable patrons are having an unprecedented impact on cultural institutions, especially in the US and the UK. Photographer Nan Goldin's campaign against the Sackler family, who made a fortune off the highly addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin, drove various  major museums to start boycotting their funds.

To find out the situation in Germany, DW got in touch with Beate Reifenscheid, director of the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz and president of the German committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

DW: Public museums in Germany get financial support from the federal, state and local governments; are they perhaps less dependent on sponsors than, for example, museums in the US?

Beate Reifenscheid: Essentially, yes, but in the end only 1% of the entire gross national product goes to culture altogether. And only a fraction of that is allocated to museums. So the sword of Damocles always hangs over us: How much does a municipality want to invest in a museum or a cultural institution? Such investments have fallen drastically. It started in the 1990s when the public sector withdrew a bit and said, "There are of course very potent sponsors to turn to."

At the same time, museums are facing growing insurance requirements from transportation providers and lenders. That means they have to provide more coverage with fewer funds. Finding sponsors to keep operations going is an additional responsibility. 

Reacting to the cancellation of public subsidies in culture, German-Japanese artist and professor Hito Steyerl recently warned that sponsors and patrons in Germany could gain more influence over artists and museums.

I agree. There's a growing danger of that, and we've seen it happen this year. Major corporations and organizations are beginning to intervene in the work of museums. They're also questioning curators and directors, undermining curatorial freedom and perhaps even freedom of research. That's a very dubious development. Museums should be free to do research and decide on their own content. There should be no commercial or political interests intervening — but it is happening.

Where for example?

I found the last-minute dismissal of a colleague in Wolfsburg frightening; he was also replaced very quickly. That colleague was planning an exhibition on the topic of petroleum ["Oil: Beauty and Horror in the Petrol Age," still planned for 2021], and Volkswagen apparently took a negative view of it. There wasn't an open discussion, but that was the reason for his dismissal. That was of course a case of interference in the museum's curatorial freedom.

Ralf Beil (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Gollnow)

Ralf Beil, director of the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, was unexpectedly terminated a year before the end of his contract

Then there's the case of the director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, who resigned because a colleague had promoted an article on Twitter that the Central Council of Jews deemed unacceptable. That had nothing to do with curatorial freedom per se, but it was a demonstration of how people are overreacting to certain opinions in a nervous, sensitive or defensive way.

As the president of the German committee of the International Council of Museums, how do you support institutions against this threat?

It is very important for us to support museums that feel threatened by these developments. We serve as a contact point when such cases emerge. On a political level, we will continue to work with the committees that protect the curatorial freedom of museums as institutions of research and education. We work with the ethics code established long ago by the ICOM. That's a helpful instrument.

The discussion is not just about the excessive influence that sponsors exert on a museum's decisions. It's also linked to patrons with dubious fortunes, such as the Sackler family. Is closer attention required here?

The process launched by artist Nan Goldin is good and important. Society needs to sharpen its awareness. A council can't achieve that on its own. You have to follow the money trail. I think we are very blithe, maybe even naive about the good faith of certain sponsors. We should be looking at large chemical companies for instance, and at how they are massively destroying the environment. In talk about ethics, morality and sustainable development, we need to be our own moral yardsticks.

But when municipalities ask them to look for other sources of funding, public museums are in a bind. Museums depend on state support, and they need to liberate themselves from that straightjacket. If subsidies are cancelled, they are either forced to close or to find private funding. But we also need to check the sponsors and their societal links.

Is that something the ICOM would be ready to initiate? There could be lists with names...

It's a suggestion I'll take along. The council definitely wants to address the topic more directly. We could look for ways to deal with the problem in meetings or workshops. It's bound to become more, and not less, important.


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