Spotlight: U.S. vs. European Public Arts Funding

Spotlight: U.S. vs. European Public Arts Funding

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President Donald Trump released a budget proposal last month that would eliminate all government agencies that support arts and culture in the U.S.

These types of cuts have been on the table for decades, but Congress hasn’t passed them. In contrast, other governments around the world invest a much larger portion of public funding into arts and culture, both at home and abroad. We’ll take a look at how Germany funds the arts with Herbert Quelle, the consul general of Germany in Chicago.

Why Europeans value the arts

Herbert Quelle: Arts form an integral part of the culture and traditions in Europe. More or less every European country is proud of their own music, their own paintings, and their dance schools, and these enjoy value as a national heritage. In Germany, for instance, the paintings of [Lucas] Cranach go back to the time of Martin Luther, 500 years ago. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach and all the other great German composers, and the literature of [Johann Wolfgang] von Goethe and [Friedrich] Schiller.

There’s no question that this heritage needs to be preserved in museums; that it needs to be kept alive through exhibitions or performances on the stage. And citizens consider this as a general obligation of the state, financed with their taxes.

Artist as civil servants

Quelle: This commercialization [of government arts funding], which seems to be a principle in the U.S., doesn’t exist in Germany. It goes as far that musicians in major German concert ensembles are paid as civil servants, which is unheard of in the U.S. And this produces great quality. I’m not saying that the quality is lesser in the U.S.—in some cases I’d argue that the quality is exemplary in the U.S. —but the main point I want to make is there’s really no question of arts and culture playing a marginal role in society. We identify with this being a responsibility of the state; actually it’s written in the constitutions of our federal states—the obligation to promote the arts and culture.

German public arts funding model

Quelle: We don’t fund individual projects. We fund institutions, and it’s up to the institutions to decide about the programming. This allows them to give marginal artists, who aren’t mainstream, the opportunity to produce their stuff. And even if this doesn’t become a success with the public, there’s been that chance due to the support of the state or through federal taxes. They can occupy a niche and exist there.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was produced by Alexandra Salomon. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.