Sorry, this page has not been translated yet.

How to get off the Hamster Wheel

By Falk Schreiber

How is performing art actually created? With its new #TakeHeart funding package, the Fonds Darstellende Künste is asking the really big questions. In doing so, it is possible to be more open about results. Holger Bergmann talks to cultural journalist Falk Schreiber about the new funding programs.

Holger Bergmann, we spoke to each other more than half a year ago. A lot has happened since then. The long lockdown was an extreme stress test for culture. What does this half year mean for artists?

There wasn’t just one factor involved. There were interdependencies, it was a roller coaster ride – everyone thought that art would return to its audience much more quickly, but that wasn't the case. We put in a lot of effort, made proposals, planned, thought: what works, what can we do? We discarded plans we had made, reoriented. There was already a certain wariness, an uncertainty as to how artistic work could continue, but there was also the question of keeping safe as a society. With our project of #TakeThat grants, we made at least some work possible; under pandemic conditions, digital, analog, at a distance, as an installation or as a closed work process for which no or only a small audience was intended. On the other hand, this was a time when a lot of money was available for that work, but when interaction with the audience for it was incredibly limited.

And for funding institutions? You have already indicated that more money is available.

Yes, when more money comes in, it means that much more has to be decided upon and managed. But what has changed above all, right from the beginning, is that the attitude toward the rescue package, which was all about preservation and stabilization, has been redirected towards attitudes. The current situation is not only due to the pandemic, but it has also come about, on the one hand, as a result of very basic funding structures. These look different in every state and every city. On the other hand, it’s the result of a very project-dependent artistic life and existence in which all costs are linked to individual projects. But this means it’s impossible to plan ahead securely. Our particular pandemic situation has exacerbated this. The Neustart Kultur program is therefore not only about rediscovering the relationship with the audience, but also about the question: what will happen to this artistic scene in the future? This is not just an aid measure, but a fundamental examination of how we create performing arts in Germany. What are their mainstays? What makes them different? How do they differ in terms of social protection? In what ways do they differ aesthetically and in their formats?

Portrait photo of Falk Schreiber and Holger Bergmann. © Bernd Voelkel / Benjamin Krieg

Six months ago, the question was, "How do we make it possible for people to keep paying their rent?" Today it’s, "How is performing art actually created?"

We are talking about this. We have an active nationwide performing arts scene of individual artists, mostly solo self-employed or GbRs, who produce artistic content, think up new formats and, in addition, co-found structures. There are production venues, production houses of very different sizes, from more guest performance-oriented cultural venues to larger units. There is a funding arena that has developed on a municipal level since the 1980s and 1990s, where successful artists have received solid funding in their states and, finally, there is also funding from the federal government. This whole production system needs to be "flexibly stable" to allow movement, over and over again. This clearly raises questions about cost and financing plans and about conditions and specifications. These are the only way to maintain an artistically dynamic process and, at the same time, build secure pockets of finance so that personal and social challenges can also be absorbed.

Let's take a look at the new funding package, #TakeHeart. "Take heart" — what kind of heart is meant here?

What is meant here is the courage to communicate these changes and to allow people to think in the longer term. Of course, this is not easy in a crisis situation like this. An artist really does ask themselves "How can I pay my rent?" and it's no use saying "Just be brave!" But you always have to be courageous when things start to change fundamentally. This funding program is about us now entering an uncertain phase. We have agreed on six funding lines for this together with the federal states and with the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, and this is not a quick bailout concept, but rather a planning approach. The grants from the #TakeCare program have proven to be very suitable for enabling individual artists to work conceptually beyond productions, from "I want to do research" to "I want to develop my own artistic profile" to "I want to make my work more paradoxical" — whatever! And they no longer have to do that with money that was actually meant for a production! That's why we decided to continue the fellowship-like research funding. We are also continuing the residencies, because here, too, the focus is not on production, but on artistic research and development, in collaboration with production locations. In addition, there is process funding or creative process funding, which is about funding a period of work for artists, designers, directors and technicians. This used to be done as project funding, but now there can be a result at the end of the work process, there can also be two or three results, but also there’s the possibility of producing no result at all. We still don't know exactly what the next measures to prevent infection will look like. Support for reopening is new and, stimulated by the federal states, it is aimed at helping works which were perhaps developed alone or digitally during the pandemic, to move on to stage, to adapt, to have new, sustainable futures. The last funding module is our conceptual funding, increased to provide funding for three years. Until now, artists have been stuck on a hamster wheel and think that they have to keep producing because only productions have been funded. So you have to have the courage to sit on the hamster wheel and ask yourself questions. "What is actually spinning round here? Is it me, or is it the wheel? What does the world around it look like? And how do I get out of this cage?" That is probably the crucial question. And it's not just us as patrons who need to be brave, but also the federal states and cultural policy. And even you as an artist should think about it. Therefore: #TakeHeart!

You skipped the network and structural support...

Ha! I counted to six, but I left one out!

It says who is funded. "Clubs, associations, networks, dance and theater venues, as well as festivals with appeal across regions that are not predominantly publicly (institutionally) funded." So who are these people?

That is the basic premise of the Neustart Kultur program. It is not intended to replace funding from the states; the federal government does not want to assume responsibility for fixed cultural expenditures there. Associations and interest groups within the independent performing arts, for example, can apply. Or different networks and festivals that do not get most of their income from institutional funding, but from mixed financing by many co-producers.

Another point is conceptual funding. In cultural policy, conceptual funds are known as "lighthouses," and you explicitly refer to "professional artists who have been successful for many years”. So a handful of international festival stars can apply?

That's always a question of perspective, and that's precisely what we're trying to describe. On the one hand, we want to make it clear that we are not targeting young talent with this funding. With a three-year grant of 200,000 euros, 100,000 in the first year, then 50,000 twice, it is also a question of being able to prove that you will still be there after these three years. And then, of course, there's the question of evaluation: who assesses that? At #TakeThat, we worked with more than 80 jurors, who made different assessments of precisely this question, "What is actually successful over many years?"

One term comes up again and again: "open-ended." This is important, but it complicates both the evaluation and the application.

The research and the residencies should be open-ended. That's also very important to make clear that this is not part of a production. You're not supposed to go straight back into the production loop, the funding here is really related to the artistic concept and research. And then we have process funding. It is definitely a challenge to describe these, especially financially. But this is a more flexible way of working, which not only affects the artists, but also us. At the same time, it’s important to say that it’s not our aim to just get things started for a period of time without getting results. The open-endedness is important at the moment, because we don't know what protective measures are still to come. Yet it’s also important that we don’t then say that because productions can’t be created, there’s no money for the work process! That's the case with project funding, whereas here we make it clear that it’s not about finishing a job! It is about the fact that work is being done!

Will art change for me as a viewer if funding changes?

I would say that what is changing is the framework in which work is done. This shouldn't become more and more like it is with a city theater; it's not a matter of knowing what the result should be by the time of the mock-up set rehearsal at the latest and then everyone just working towards that. The issue is rather how content and format relate to each other; it's about the entire aesthetic mesh of an evening, a show, a performance. That's what I, as a patron, would like to see. And in the best-case scenario, from my perspective on theater, I would then also like to see that have an impact on an engaged audience; with the way in which one looks at the work or lets it develop together.

Are there forms or artists that are not covered by funding? Earlier, on the subject of conceptual funding, you indicated that young artists don't have a chance here for the time being.

On the other hand, the residency program explicitly addresses young talent for the first time, which is an important new change. Also, the void for independent curatorial and dramaturgical work that existed in the #TakeThat program has now been filled by the research grants. Unobtrusive background work maybe, but this is where long-standing relationships are formed. One area is cultural journalism; perhaps that will be provided with grants via VG Wort. And there are still those who work as guests at municipal and state theaters, even if the responsibility lies a bit more with the Bühnenverein. And finally, there is what really worries me: we are going to see massive cuts on the part of the states and municipalities. And these will certainly hit independent production for the most part. The fundamental issue here is to think – and now we're back at the beginning of our conversation – about how we can think about a different kind of cultural development, in smaller and medium-sized cities, with the question of what culture and art in the those areas should be in the future.