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The Crisis is now — But what about Tomorrow?

By Dorte Lena Eilers

Managing Director Holger Bergmann and Chairman of the Board Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schneider talk to Dorte Lena Eilers about NEUSTART KULTUR and what the crisis could change in the funding system in the long term. You can read the whole interview here.

Laptop on which a video call is running. The four tiles show Holger Bergmann, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schneider, Dorte Lena Eilers and the logo of the Fonds. © Carolin Meyer

Holger Bergmann und Wolfgang Schneider im Interview mit Dorte Lena Eilers

Holger Bergmann, Wolfgang Schneider — in Latin America there is the tradition of posadas, where figures made of papier-mâché, called piñatas, are beaten by a person with a stick until they reveal their innermost being. The piñatas stand for evil, their filling for blessing. What shape would your piñata have been in 2020? And which filling would be a blessing for you?

Holger Bergmann: That's not easy to answer. I think my piñata would actually have the shape of a Q — like troublemakers, troublemakers who display a lack of solidarity in our society. At best, a kind of solidarity-based common sense should trickle out of the piñata, which would get a hold on more people than it has perhaps managed so far, in particular on those who are currently getting far too much attention.

Wolfgang Schneider: I would like to find some kind of snack hidden in the piñata – my tip for theater, if you like: the question of taste, aesthetics. Theater can be a feast for the eyes, something that can indeed be consumed, but that also stimulates and, at its best, makes you hungry for more. If I could come up with a New Year's wish, I would refer to my long-standing credo: "More theater for more people" — after all, that is what the Fonds Darstellende Künste stands for.

Exactly. That's why I actually thought you were hoping for money to trickle out of the piñata.

Schneider: We didn't want our answer to be so crude. (laughs)

Solidarity, Holger Bergmann – you just mentioned it – is especially needed in the corona crisis. The measures to contain the pandemic have hit the independent scene particularly hard. Without permanent employment, freelance artists live from regular performances and tours. With venues closed and festivals cancelled, many are threatened with professional ruin. With NEUSTART KULTUR, the Federal Ministry for Culture and Media has established a multi-billion-euro rescue program for the cultural and media sector, from which the Fonds Darstellende Künste, one of the six federal cultural funds, initially received ten million euros. How has this changed your work?

Bergmann: It has become much more intensive. While many other areas have been scaled down, our work has been ramped up – while we are of course observing all precautionary measures. As early as March 2020, we put together a first small #TakeCare package from our own funds. Then our budget initially went up by ten million euros through the increase mentioned and, at the end of September 2020, a further 55 million euros was added so that we could continue to take measures and expand them under the title #TakeThat. Throughout these months, we were in close talks with the Federal Ministry of Culture and Media about a package to stabilize and maintain the diversity of the independent theater landscape — which is not actually part of the core task of the fund. The core task of the fund has always been to create incentives in the federal states for the promotion of culture and the arts.

Because culture is actually a federal state matter.

Bergmann: Exactly. Nevertheless, we are of course so well positioned that our fund helps a great many artists from the independent performing arts: from the semi-professionals who are organized in the Bund Deutscher Amateurtheater (Association of German Amateur Theaters), to the children's and youth theater represented by ASSITEJ, but also the many participants involved in the independent performing arts and those whose guest performances move between municipal theaters and the independent scene. In this way, we were able to work out a package that takes this diversity into account and – at least this was the response we received – responds to individual needs in a very comprehensive and targeted way.

The #TakeThat program is now divided into eleven sub-programs. What characterizes the package of measures and how does it differ from previous funding programs?

Schneider: What has really changed is the great differentiation of the programs. It's not just a lot of money, but our measures have been developed on the basis of decades of observing the theater landscape in order to try to do justice to the diversity of independent theater.

Within the framework of #TakeCare, up to 5,000 euros per person were initially provided for the solo self-employed who were in difficulty – quickly and unbureaucratically, in cash. A very important step. However, we have also, even in a crisis like this, taken into account where emphasis should be laid, talking to those involved, the board of trustees and member associations. Because one thing is absolutely clear: the crisis is now - but what about tomorrow? Do these funding opportunities provide insights that we can implement?

In addition to the three classic methods of initial funding, project funding and conceptual funding, when developing the #TakeThat program we attached importance to the fact that certain groups, institutions and phenomena should be able to continue to develop over a longer period of time. We provide freedom through the #TakeCareResidency program, support for audience development projects in the #TakePart program and we promote knowledge transfer and collaborative projects for production venues, networks and festivals in #TakeNote. We were also interested in strengthening certain areas of development, for example, puppet and object theater within the funding program CONFIGURATION or theater work in rural areas in GLOBAL VILLAGE.

In other words, you see the increased funding budget as an opportunity to improve funding methods, to individualize them and to make the independent scene more future-proof by carrying out some restructuring?

Bergmann: Through the aid package, yes. Of course, we still have to evaluate the measures. What works? What doesn’t? Some programs are currently very well received, others less so, such as structural projects, which we have never promoted before. We have to ask ourselves – Wolfgang, you already mentioned it – which measures could be useful in preparation for the new start, in order to make the operation more effective and more economical in the future with regard to audiences, technical equipment and ecological certification.

It does seem almost paradoxical to deal with optimization at a time when one is just trying to survive. We argued about this for a long time with the Federal Audit Office. Actually, our initial proposal was to offer those who are not publicly funded a percentage compensation of their lost income. This would have had a stabilizing effect and could have been calculated with certainty by balancing the income from 2019 and a forecast for 2020.

Why wasn’t this possible?

Bergmann: In terms of budgetary law, it's quite simple: you can't pay for what hasn't taken place.

This is different from the corona aid for the gastronomic sector, which, for example, were reimbursed on a pro rata basis for the losses in November 2020 compared to the same month in the previous year.

Bergmann: Exactly, the rule for the fund is that what is not done may not be funded. Despite the will of the BKM, this meant we had to find formal workarounds. But we didn't dwell on political conflicts for long for another reason: our scene was enormously active despite the lockdown. Suddenly the audience played a greater role – precisely because it was no longer there. Artists asked themselves how they could reach people during this time. This is what distinguishes the independent performing arts: they are not dependent on certain formats such as the stage and the auditorium. That is exactly what we wanted to promote.

Seen in this light, one could also reconsider the statement that artistic freedom was restricted by lockdown. The practice of art was possible. Only – and this is the crucial point – the traditional means and places of production were missing.

Schneider: Corona has shown that the entire performing arts world in Germany is still committed to a tradition that is very strongly bound to the theaters. And yet the black box and empty space were already around a few decades ago. This means that our theaters are restricting themselves to certain formats.

During such a crisis, aid can challenge these restrictions and help us leave the theater behind. We are very happy that there are city theaters. But we also know that there is theater in the city – and that one can grow from the other. There were many examples of this before corona, but during the lockdowns, new places came into being, and I don't mean primarily digital venues, but real ones: there was theater in the marketplace, in front of nursing and old people's homes, even on balconies. “Travelling theater” came into play again. In this respect, such funding programs are also conducive to the reform of the theater landscape.

Are the measures and funds sufficient to avert major damage to the independent theater scene despite everything?

Bergmann: From a federal perspective it is very difficult to say, because the main players in the promotion of the arts are of course the states and municipalities. I think it's a very good system, because we support the arts where they have an actual space, where the theater has its audience, where the artists carry out their work.

In addition, however, there is nationwide activity within the independent scene – unlike in the municipal theaters – because of guest performances, the connections between production houses and such. Therefore, I believe that the federal government has a special role and task here. I’m not just lobbying here, we are already seeing clear cutbacks within states and municipalities, for example in Munich or Bamberg. Of course, these affect voluntary expenditures first and foremost and as a result – I don't need a crystal ball here – those who are working independently in a city. If we could manage to develop a model that, through incentives in the form of complementary federal funding, succeeds not only in stopping such cuts in municipalities and states, but also in stabilizing and possibly even further developing the local independent scene, that would be great.

Schneider: We do indeed see our funding – and this must be clearly stated – as an impetus for cultural policy. And this is because we know relatively precisely what is in demand. We are familiar with thousands of applications and also know how some of the allocated funds have been used.

Is there enough money for the independent performing arts? Well, yes. One could take a look at how the one billion euros of NEUSTART KULTUR is distributed in percentage terms to the various forms of theater. Even in relation to the hundreds of billions that are made available for other areas, the sum is reasonable. We cannot ensure that everyone has enough, but we can at least alleviate the underfunding a little by providing additional funds.

Which area are you talking about when mention unequal distribution of NEUSTART KULTUR funds?

Schneider: I don't want to play allies off against each other here. Continued conceptual development of the theater arena will also depend on not competing with each other when it comes to money and working more cooperatively and constructively. This also applies to other foundations and private funds. For me, it is essential that art and culture no longer only be defined as a state objective – as it already is in all state constitutions – but that the promotion of this area be declared a compulsory task for both states and municipalities. Once this has been achieved, the states, municipalities and artists must come together in concerted action to define what sort of theater should be developed in the coming years. I hear that in Frankfurt am Main there are discussions going on about rebuilding the 1912 Schauspielhaus! Municipalities like to invest in real estate, but there has to be a change of perspective when it comes to the theater of the future.

The discussion about defining culture as a compulsory rather than a voluntary remit has been going on for a long time. In the crisis, during which many associations and lobby groups in the cultural scene have made their presence felt, do you now see a real chance of getting this demand accepted?

Schneider: If we didn't see an opportunity, we wouldn't be so committed, both full-time and on a voluntary basis. I was very pleased to hear recently that children's rights are to be enshrined in Basic Law. I signed a petition for this back in the 1980s and have been campaigning for it for years.

The anchoring of art and culture in Basic Law is also long overdue. Much more important, in my opinion, than the debt brake. It is true that we always have to think about which burdens we leave to the next generation, but it is at least as important that people actively participate in society. And they actively participate in society when they live in their culture and when they can think wisely about the future of the arts.


The conceptual artist Jochen Gerz once said: art should be like a football match, but one where 60,000 people are playing and only 22 are just watching. I think this makes the point very vividly: how does democratic culture work? Not art, that's not always democratic, that's why we have the wonderful Article 5 of the constitution. But for culture, we have to ask ourselves this question, because – and here I return to my piñata – we are just now noticing how much non-enlightenment, how much non-discourse, how much non-culture can break through if we don’t have cultural spaces, including in the digital sphere.

We have now received a huge push to take digital spaces, as well as the audiences that inhabit them, seriously. We should at least get to know these audiences, maybe it’s as simple as saying hello to them. Every form of expansion also carries the possibility to reflect. Keyword — economy: to what extent am I, as an artist, well organized in business terms? Or keyword – ecology: we were all amazed that we were suddenly able to achieve climate-related goals.

There is a lot of potential for change in this situation. Artists as seismographs; exactly the right people to detect which paths our society could take. It won't be one, it won't be two, even better, it will be 80 million paths that don't lead away from each other, but cross and meet. Culture creates cohesion and is thus the core of a democratic society.

Schneider:In the discussion about the so-called systemic relevance of theaters and independent performing arts, I always point out that of the 80 million Germans mentioned, more than half never go to publicly funded theaters in their entire lives. But if it is rightly claimed that theater belongs to this culture and to this country, work should be done to get more people involved. This includes all projects of aesthetic education, all projects of amateur theater, also those relating to social culture. But these areas are still very much separated from each other in our country. "After the pandemic, things will never be the same again" – if one takes this somewhat banal saying seriously, plans for interdisciplinary cooperation should be on the table now in order to do things differently from next season onwards — in terms of audiences, staff and programs.

During the crisis, however, the opposite was sometimes communicated: when the federal government announced the partial shutdown in November, cultural institutions were lumped under the umbrella term "recreational facilities". Some artistic directors spoke downright disparagingly about swimming pools and paintball facilities, which they, as representatives of high-culture venues, didn’t want to have anything to do with. But this also disparaged people who like to spend their time at swimming pools or playing paintball. Is the discussion about the relevance of theater too elitist?

Bergmann: Yes, there's no other way to put it. I see it in exactly the same way. Of course, a visit to the theater is also a leisure activity. And of course it also has the effect of entertaining me – in the sense that it entertains me by providing me with unfamiliar points of view that I may not understand at first. That's what I like about it. For me, it's a form of entertainment – someone else doesn't have to perceive it as entertainment. I don't see theaters as centers for adult education, and I would really argue against using this kind of categorization, because then we would have to survive on adult education center budgets and carry out educational work in the truest sense of the word. I am of the opinion that this balancing act of interest, leisure activities, fun and desire belongs vehemently to the theater. No one went to the theater in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Baroque period, in order to be educated. There is a long tradition of theater that is closely linked to leisure.

Schneider: But theaters also do a lot of concrete work in society. All the projects that were created with refugees in 2015, which we also supported through the HOMEBASE fund, are of course much more than just leisure activities. They don't just hang the big banner "Refugees welcome" on the opera portal, but also provide support in the form of language courses, the establishment of social networks or very simple assistance in everyday life. These are all achievements that should be maintained politically so that new, even more participatory, diverse and interdisciplinary formats can be developed.


Ultimately, a fundamental change in the fund is that we are now increasingly supporting work processes rather than projects. In these work processes, one project can take place, two projects can take place, but there can also be no performance. Of course, we have to communicate this orientation to the municipalities and states, which are still very much result focused in their funding. Having space to think is a prerequisite for artistic work.

We are also concerned about freelance artists being taken seriously. Business and personal life need some financial separation. Of course, life and work are closely linked for artists. Nevertheless, social romanticism and hard neo-liberalism coincide here, when they say "It's nice that you and your work are one. That means we don't have to pay anything for it." So we need artistic freedom and at the same time stable economic planning. No one wants to use the slogan "poor but sexy" to describe themselves anymore. The question is: how can we stop the independent scene from looking like an underfunded creative pool from which the creative industry or gentrifiers help themselves, but instead re-establish it as vital? To do this, we have to leave the 1990s or early 2000s behind us. The pandemic has made this task clear to us once again on many levels. We would certainly not mind if such a quantum leap were to fall out of a piñata in the near future.

The interview was held on January 12, 2021.