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Culture

A palace, a garden and Germany's politics of culture

Germany's cultural scene appears to be rich and flourishing. But the problems lie beneath the surface. It's a political balancing act between careful planning and artistic whim.

On a June afternoon in Berlin, curious tourists observe the colorful cranes reaching up into the sky between Alexanderplatz and the State Opera. Here is where the reconstruction of the historic Berlin City Palace is getting underway. A collection of non-European art will one day be housed behind the replica Baroque façade.

It is a highly controversial project that has divided the German public - even outside of the capital - into two opposing camps: those for and those against a rebuilt Berlin Palace. In 2007, the German federal government voted in favor of the reconstruction of at an estimated cost of around 590 million euros ($774 million).

Germany allocates a lot of money for its "high" culture and it's easy to see how culture and politics mesh in colossal projects such like this one. At the Federal Congress on Cultural Policy, Bernd Neumann, Germany's minister for culture, boasted that he had increased his budget by 21 percent in eight years.

That sounds good - but it's only half the story.

It is mainly in the smaller cities that culturally minded citizens and those working in cultural industries have been protesting against the fusion of orchestras and the closure of museums and theaters.

Wolfgang Brauer, a spokesperson on culture for the Green party, said that "the cultural infrastructure of the German Republic is under threat." In actual fact, only 1.64 percent of the combined federal, state and local budgets is allocated to culture. Is the country lacking in private initiatives and public participation? 

The construction site of the Berlin City Palace

The reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace has become highly controversial

Grassroots initiatives

A 10-minute bicycle ride from the site of the Berlin City Palace is the multicultural district of Kreuzberg. Amidst the whir of traffic lies a green paradise, known as the Prinzessinnengarten.

A few people from the neighborhood are puttering around with rakes and watering cans. The vegetables growing in the garden will later be sold. The garden café offers freshly squeezed juice and an open library invites visitors in to browse.

Here, locals have, in the truest sense of the word, cultivated a piece of the city in their own way and their project has been headstrong and innovative, but successful.

But for many years, people had to fight for the very existence of the garden. In the wake of the exponential rise in the value of real estate, investors swooped down to buy up every available space in the area.

Politicians in Berlin only recently recognized the value of the garden, not least as a center for education. The workshops for schoolchildren held at the garden are hugely popular.

Now the privatization of the land has been stopped, but nobody knows whether the conflict between a grassroots, citizen-led initiative and top-down politics has finally been resolved.

Securing, not planning

From the subculture next door to high culture in the Berlin City Palace, the politics of culture in Germany is uniquely diverse. In the face of all the closures, the theater and museum landscape is still among the densest in the world; even the smallest of cities have their own stages.

Having so many cultural institutions is both good fortunate and a huge challenge at the same time. But how political intervention is necessary for culture to thrive?

"Politics was never tasked with planning culture, but with securing its freedom," said Monika Grütters, a politician from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and chairperson of the Committee for Culture and Media.

The funding of institutions as opposed to individual artists has proven most successful, and members of other political parties see things similarly.

"The most important thing is to produce creative milieus in order to strengthen development in the local area," said Oliver Scheytt, the head of culture in the Social Democratic Party's (SPD) campaign team. In practice, that could mean a subsidy for a fringe theater, the conversion of a former factory into a cultural space, or simply the decision not to allow ateliers to be sold to investors.

The Prinzessinnengarten on Moritzplatz in Berlin's Kreuzberg district

Berlin's Prinzessinnengarten was an initiative of local residents

Booming creative industries

The type of knock-on effect that arts-friendly milieus can have is visible in the creative powerhouse of Berlin, where new galleries and creative projects are established on a weekly basis. It's a climate that attracts artists from all over the world.

The entire creative branch has long been an important economic force with a gross value added at 61.4 billion euros in 2010, ranking between the finance and energy sectors. The creative industries are booming, with more than a million people in Germany working in the sector, from actors to game designers.

So it's all good then? Well, no. The income levels of creative professionals tell a different story, with the average person earning 12,000 euros per year ($15,700).

"Most of them earn so little that one asks how they can afford to live on that at all," said Olaf Zimmermann, head of the German Culture Council. "But one has to recognize that these are dream jobs. Increasing numbers of people want to learn these trades.

Zimmermann added that the number of freelance artists participating in Germany's Künstlersozialkasse - the social insurance body that provides health insurance and pensions for self-employed artists - has tripled over the past 20 years.

Investing in future generations

Artists only have to pay 50 percent of their social insurance; the other half is contributed by the state and employers. That's something that people in many other countries can only dream of, said Bill Flood, an advisor on private cultural initiatives in the US.

"It's no wonder that artists from all over the world come to Germany!" he pointed out. "They say, wow, if I live there then I've got health insurance and I can do my work. I think that's why artists value Germany so highly."

Dancers during rehearsals at the Wuppertal Opera House in 2009

The Pina Bausch Dance Theater in Wuppertal maintains an international reputation, while others face closure

Nevertheless, Germany is no cultural paradise - at least not for those who don't have access to the diverse range of cultural offerings.

The problem begins in schools, where academic achievement is closely linked to social background. It's not just education policy, but also culture policy that needs to be changed, according to Oliver Scheytt.

"Other European countries have secured cultural education entirely differently. Eighty percent of those countries have laws on libraries. Here, public libraries are being closed," commented Scheytt. "The acquisitions budgets are being slashed, making the offerings less attractive, because we're entrusting this system to financially weak local governments. As a nation of culture, Germany could really learn something from other countries."

Perhaps more informal education could also help.

"Going to school and facing the requirements there is maybe less effective than just wandering through your neighborhood and the streets around you," said Adrienne Goehler, the former culture senator in Berlin. "We need institutions which do not say, we're going to education you culturally, but those that encourage kids to be active."

Perhaps what Berlin needs most is more gardens like the Prinzessinnengarten and a stronger neighborhood culture so that in the future, children from disadvantaged areas of the city can also enjoy the exhibits in the Berlin City Palace.

DW.DE