BY Pablo Larios in Interviews | 21 APR 20

Can Germany’s Cultural Bailout Set the Groundwork for a 21st Century New Deal?

An interview with Germany’s minister of culture, Monika Grütters

BY Pablo Larios in Interviews | 21 APR 20

What will our post-coronavirus future look like? Despite stark outlooks for the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, the reality won’t be all grim. Crisis begets cause, and progressive ideals once deemed fringe are re-aligning the political and economic mainstream.

Last week, two senior United Nations economists penned an article for the World Economic Forum arguing unequivocally for Universal Basic Income (UBI). Governments such as Spain’s are taking note. Such broadened acceptance of these sweeping proposals, which challenge macro-economic, free-market norms, would have seemed faintly ludicrous until very recently.

Far from being the tailgater of society, the arts and culture sector often sets a precedent for structural shifts in the world at large. Already, many – from curator Hans Ulrich Obrist to frieze contributing editor Kito Nedo – are rallying behind the idea of a 21st-century update to the US’s New Deal and the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Between 1935 and 1943, the scheme gave salaries to thousands of artists, from Lee Krasner to Mark Rothko, to develop works for the public good. With any luck, our artistic system of private galleries and donors might soon enter a new era of broader sponsorship and wider public engagement and state support. What if entire school districts employed artists to give Photoshop tutorials for hundreds of students via Zoom? Could large-scale public or environmental art projects sweep the land in an age of social distancing and climate urgency?

Holger Cahill, national director of the Federal Art Project, speaking at the Harlem Community Art Center, October 24, 1938. Courtesy: Archives of American Art and © Wikimedia Commons; photographer: Aubrey Pollard

Sea changes are already underway. Take one of Germany’s recent boasting points: its swift aid disbursements to the country’s many freelancers. In mid-March, the Berlin-based countertenor David Erler organized a petition to shore up government support for Germany’s self-employed, from voice actors to yoga instructors. ‘It was clear that thousands of freelancers would lose commissions and concerts’, Erler wrote to me. Within two weeks, Germany’s minister of state for culture and media, Monika Grütters, unveiled an unprecedented aid scheme to the tune of EUR€50 billion benefiting specifically these groups. These are part of the largest aid package in German history.

Germany’s actions have shown not only what’s possible but also how paltry other governments’ responses are by comparison. The UK, for instance, earmarked GB£160 million for similar funds – a mere three percent of Germany’s allotted sum. Yet more than just one-off bail-out payments, these efforts set a remarkable precedent: logistically, economically and in terms of the social acceptance of such policies. What the arts look like tomorrow is determined, in great part, by what is being done right now. And this might well include a coming cultural New Deal.

To find out the story behind Germany’s cultural bailout, I spoke to Germany’s minister of state for culture and media, Monika Grütters.

Monika Grütters, German Minister of Culture. Photograph and ©: Bundesregierung/Kugler

Pablo Larios: The German government’s whopping EUR€50 billion aid initiative for freelancers – including artists, musicians, teachers and writers – has been widely praised. What did it take to push through this unprecedented effort?

Monika Grütters: The cultural sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis; I was able to convince everyone in the government of that. Now that the initial measures are coming into effect, artists and creatives are experiencing solidarity in a way I’ve never seen before, even within the Federal Government. The government is united in its desire for culture and the arts to emerge unscathed from this crisis. But it is also true that, as minister of state for culture and the media, I find myself having to advocate for this sector time and again.

PL: Museums, galleries, concert halls, clubs and theatres are closed. What will it take for cultural life to return to normal?

MG: We have already started thinking about how cultural institutions can reopen and how digital outreach can keep culture and the arts alive despite social distancing. In spite of all the problems, I am delighted to see cultural life really blossoming online. That shift will certainly have a greater influence on our cultural policy in the future.

We have introduced a package of measures to improve social insurance coverage and emergency aid in the form of grants for operating costs, such as rent for cinemas, music clubs, artists’ studios and bookshops, or to help with financial difficulties. Managing the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany and Europe requires societal solidarity.

Wolfgang Tillmans, LED project for Kunstmuseum Basel, March 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstmuseum Basel

PL: Do you believe that the European cultural sector will recover more quickly than our counterparts overseas, say in the US?

MG: What makes our cultural and creative sector special, above all, is its great diversity. European artists can also rely on a strong social safety net. Yet, throughout the world, culture and the arts have proved to be extremely resilient and vibrant: how else would they have survived two world wars?

I am constantly in touch with my counterparts in the EU member states to devise strategies for dealing with the coronavirus crisis. All of the ministers made moving statements expressing their great empathy for those working in the arts. At the moment, we can only speculate as to when and how cultural life will recover. But we are doing all we can to bolster the spirits of artists and audiences: in Germany, for example, bookshops are now allowed to reopen.

Berliner Philharmoniker, Digital Concert Hall, film still. Courtesy: Berliner Philharmoniker

PL: How do you think Europe’s museums, galleries and cultural venues will be affected by the crisis in the long-term?

MG: We are all keen to get back to normal life. The Federal Government’s aid packages are intended to provide help during the acute stage of this crisis rather than long-term support. Backed by myself and my European counterparts, Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, is in favour of a strong Creative Europe programme to support the cultural and audio-visual sectors.

Unity in diversity is at its most visible in the cultural sector. European and national policies must continue to ensure the conditions in which this diversity can survive. This is why we want to reopen our museums and cultural institutions as soon as possible, while making sure they comply with rules on hygiene and social distancing for visitors. I support this with all my heart. And, as I’ve mentioned, the crisis has given a major boost to putting cultural offerings online.

Mascha Kaléko. Photograph and © Gisela Zoch-Westphal

PL: What are you watching, reading and listening to now?

MG: I am really enjoying the performances of the Berlin Philharmonic in their Digital Concert Hall, a terrific service that is available worldwide and currently free of charge. Right now, I’m reading Hector and the Search for Optimism (2018) by François Lelord, which is suitably heartening in this time of crisis. I also love poetry, and Mascha Kaléko wrote a poem, Rezept (Recipe), in the 1940s that seems to me a very fitting comment on the present moment. As a Jewish woman, Kaléko constantly had to adapt to new and challenging circumstances in her life. Paying more attention to the experiences of people in such historically trying conditions can, I believe, help us gain a better perspective on our current situation.

Monika Grütters is Germany’s Minister of State for Culture and Media.

(Thanks to Sonja Borstner and Carina Bukuts for their research.)

Elsewhere in Europe:

Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group, has laid off 150 employees. This comes as watch brands including Rolex and Patek Phillippe have pulled out of next year’s Baselworld, the world’s largest watch and jewellery show that generates a significant profit for MCH. The companies will organize their own show in 2021.

One of the world’s leading decolonial thinkers, Achille Mbembe, was scheduled to speak at the launch of Germany’s RuhrTriennale on 14 August. His appearance is now in question as he faces push-back for statements he made concerning Israel in 2016.

As European countries slowly begin easing lockdown measures, some galleries, including Brussels’ Maruani Mercier, are pushing to reopen. A majority remains closed for the time being.

For our ongoing series highlighting shows affected by the crisis, see here.

Main Image: Wolfgang Tillmans, LED project for Kunstmuseum Basel, March 2020. Courtesy: the artist and Kunstmuseum Basel

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.