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'The culture sector will survive the pandemic'

Susanne Lenz-Gleissner
December 18, 2020

Cultural institutions are supported by the state during the coronavirus crisis, but there are also many critics, including star trumpet player Till Brönner.

Till Brönner plays a trumpet
Trumpet player Till BrönnerImage: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

The culture sector and public funding authorities are at loggerheads. The cultural sector in Germany has already been experiencing since the beginning of November what now applies to a broad range of businesses: lockdown. It's a severe test for Germany's cultural institutions.

"We already have 10,000 infections per hour here," an actress wearing a yellow protective hazmat suit and a gas mask declared in a parody of German chancellor Angela Merkel dealing with a strange virus. Until a few days ago, the sketch was still in rehearsal at Berlin's Die Stachelschweine (The Hedgehogs) cabaret theater — under almost normal conditions, thanks to a new ionic air purifier. The device was financed in large part by the program Neustart Kultur (New Start Culture) by Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters, providing €1 billion ($1.2 billion) in aid.

Theaters in deep crisis

For weeks over the summer, Stachelschweine managing director Caroline Lüdecke scoured the internet for funding programs, trying to get her head around complicated application procedures. She was pleased with the outcome: "This is our survival strategy and in this respect I am very grateful that these coffers exist."

Like many independent businesses on the culture scene, Berlin's oldest cabaret theater has been plunged into a deep crisis by the months-long lockdown of culture venues. Even if Die Stachelschweine will be able to reopen at some point thanks to its elaborate hygiene concept, things will remain difficult because there is no way the usual 330 guests will be able to attend a show in the near future, which in turn makes it impossible to cover the costs. Without subsidies, many independent culture venues will not survive.

To ensure that the funds don't dry up, Grütters said the aid program will need more money. "The initial €1 billion was a response to the first lockdown in the spring, and we didn't expect at the time that there would be a significantly longer winter lockdown," she told DW. "We will have to follow up."

Minister of State for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters at the Berlinale in 2020
Minister of State for Culture and the Media Monika Grütters at the Berlinale in 2020Image: Getty Images/A. Rentz

The New Start Culture project is one of many federal and state aid programs for people and institutions in the the culture sector, tremendously affected by the restrictions in the coronavirus crisis.

Brönner: Wake up and act

The state needs to finally wake up and take action, said German star trumpeter Till Brönner at the end of October in a video on Instagram that was viewed more than 2.8 million times.

But too little has happened since then, he told DW. Brönner calls for for quick and unbureaucratic aid, in particular for freelance artists. "After almost 10 months of not being able to work it is all about making one's living because the lockdown will continue," he said. Many people don't know how to pay their bills before Christmas — in Germany of all places, where culture is the most important heritage, he added.

A different appraisal

This dissatisfaction is a typically German phenomenon, said Wesko Rohde, managing director of the German Theater Technical Society, adding that nowhere in the world is the culture industry taken care of so well. Yet the mood is worse in Germany than in other countries, he said, pointing out that people often aren't aware of the available aid programs.

Over the past few weeks, artists have increasingly been drawing attention to their situation in nationwide campaigns — calling for more financial support as well as appreciation of the arts. Among their arguments was the fact that hardware stores and hair salons were allowed to stay open, while culture institutions had to close weeks ago.

Just before the new, harder lockdown, Gonzalo Ruelas, an art student from Mexico, organized this weekend a small art exhibition for his friends on the outskirts of Berlin. He showed his artworks that deal with the coronavirus, arguing he needs feedback so he can work.

Many artists suffer not only from financial hardship, but also from isolation. They miss the dialog with others, making music together, the reaction of the audience, the thrill of the performance — it's what keeps them going. The internet, which has become the most important artistic forum, cannot replace the shared experience of art.

The Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media is aware of their dilemma, but she is confident that artists in particular will overcome the crisis. "One should not forget that our cultural wealth goes back several hundred years, and we saved it through two world wars," Grütters said. "That's why I'm confident that, with our help, our very tough and resilient culture will also survive this pandemic."


Translated from German by Dagmar Breitenbach.