Patronage and Crisis: German theatre and cultural politics

Poster placed in the New York Times by a group called ‘Disgruntled Dutch Artists’

A dramatic subsidy cut is going to occur in the Netherlands from January 1, 2013 onwards … of ten orchestras still remaining in the country, four will continue; the number of dance companies gets reduced from 7 to 4; world-famous training institutions like the Rijksacademie which attracts dozens of talents from all over Europe each year, disappear.

These are the opening lines of an article published in 2012 by the director of the Munich Kammerspiele, Johan Simons. The Theater Instituut Nederland (TIN) in Amsterdam, housing half a million costumes, as well as scripts, masks, and other objects, is one of the first institutions to be axed by the conservative-led Dutch Government. The theatre and arts institutions of several European countries are currently facing the cultural meltdown warned against in the New York Times by a group of ‘Disgruntled Dutch Artists’. The extent of the damage caused by austerity measures has recently been charted in a collaboration between Le Monde, El País, La Stampa, Gazeta Wyborcza, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

One way of looking at the tense relation between cultural institutions and art patronage is through the lens of ‘crisis’. When ‘crisis’ is evoked, by politicians, activists, or artists it often brings to light the stakes that are at play for these actors and the shared or disputed assumptions. Despite frequent proclamation of crisis and calls for change, there is a significant sense in which certain traditions of artistic patronage are dynamic, institutionalised, and resilient. In her 1995 monograph on the Parisian music-technology centre IRCAM, Georgina Born makes the point that the relation between high culture subsidised institutions and market-based popular institutions has long been conceptualised as one of interdependent struggles for legitimacy. The German theatre traditions and German notions of cultural patronage reveal interesting facets of a resilient struggle. Yet the concerned institutions have also long been cultivating means of internal critique and response to external crisis. German cultural institutions, and I focus on theatres here, share a concern with the appropriation of cultural autonomy. And yet there is a strong and recurring desire to institute this autonomy in the form of state patronage and cultural sovereignty. A recent commission called for the article “it is the responsibility of the German state to care for and support culture” to be written into the constitution, but its proposal was rejected on the grounds that it was already a founding principle of the German Kulturstaat.


While in Germany the Deutscher Bühnenverein (German theatre and orchestra society) recorded an increase in numbers of people attending public theatres in the 2010–2011 season (19 million a year), headlines in theatre reviews proclaim that “the German city-theatre system is in ill-health” and a 2010 report calls for museums, theatres, and festivals “to structure themselves like modern enterprises”. Without such measures, the study concludes, every tenth cultural institution will face closure by 2020.

A recently published German polemic called Der Kulturinfarkt – the heart attack of culture – embraces austerity as the only remedy for cultural institutions weakened by state funding stuffed into them (from Latin infarctus, meaning ‘stuffed into’). The authors draw on funding statistics from Germany, Switzerland, and Austria to argue that a misconception of cultural patronage has created “too much of everything and the same everywhere”. Their conclusion: cultural subsidies should be cut in half. This, they claim, is the only way to resuscitate failed cultural institutions, and get them out of the hospital bed. Put differently,

we request: more entrepreneurial spirit, more engagement with the needs of audiences … And the acknowledgement that art isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.

The authors are motivated by a liberal conception of the state and an anti-Keynesian economic sentiment. Subsidies for theatres in Germany vary between 6€ per ticket at the theatre Stuttgart and 159€ at the communal stage of Frankfurt am Main. How, the authors ask, could such subsidies ever be justified?

Culture as the better politics

The idealised notion of a ‘culture-state’, Der Kulturinfarkt claims, is based on the misconception that art can and should be politically sceptical and yet safeguarded by the state. It is an idea that can be traced back to the 18th century when German theatre, as cultural historian Wolf Lepenies argues, became a “replacement-stage” for the political impotence of the bourgeoisie. The German political revolutions of 1848 and 1918 failed to bring about national unity and democratic consensus. So artists, writers and the cultural arts more generally took on this ambition. The failed dream of the poet and ‘first dramaturg’ Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is one example. His wish to establish a national theatre in Hamburg is echoed in Friedrich Schiller’s exclamation that Germany would only become a nation once it had founded and found recognition for a German Nationaltheater. Schiller also famously produced his manifesto of the theatre as “an institution for aesthetic and moral education” at a time of feudal patronage and control. As Lepenies argues, “German distance from politics went hand in hand with an overvaluation of culture. This is linked to a cultural illiberalism, which formed itself during the 18th century heyday of Weimar Classicism and remains influential well into the 20th century. It is part of a German tradition that culture misunderstands itself as better politics”.

Perpetuating this ‘misunderstanding’ into the mid-20th century, the critical intellectual left in Germany is supposed to have invented what the authors of Der Kulturinfarkt call a second myth, the ‘Adorno-trap’. According to the writers, the neo-Marxist critique of the culture industry advanced by Theodor W. Adorno and the critical left of the 1950s and 1960s produced a legitimate albeit morally incoherent and deeply ambiguous political standpoint. Artists, intellectuals, and activists, in the eyes of Der Kulturinfarkt, could simultaneously denounce the market for creating homogeneous populist ‘goods’, warn of the fascist potential of the state, and yet claim state patronage for elite cultural institutions. “And thus it came to be that the modern state exaggerated Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of the principle of the devaluation of art by overvaluing culture”. This created the fertile soil for the new Keynesian cultural politics of the 1970s, in which the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) claimed to be “on the way to a culture-society”. By presenting state support of the culture-society as fat strangling the otherwise pulsing heart of culture, Der Kulturinfarkt thus mocks this social democratic ambition of a Kulturgesellschaft.


The programme of the culture-society lives on today in the idea that the state is morally responsible for the promotion and patronage of cultural institutions (Raabe 2008, Scheytt 2008). This nevertheless crystallises aspects of fundamental contradiction based in the ambiguous legacy of the Frankfurt School’s critique: the arts are to retain their force as an autonomous field of social critique, and their role in providing a space for artistic experimentation outside the culture industry – yet politics is to be their patron.

Concerns about the role of the state and art are not exclusive to Germany. But many of these debates about the role of the state in supporting art and culture have deep roots in events and themes in Germany history. Central to understanding the (peculiarly German) relationship to the arts is the post-war intellectual climate and the critical responsibility assumed by West German cultural institutions at this time. As historian of Germany Gilcher-Holtey puts it, “until the 1980s theatre was a form – perhaps the central form – for social critique and discussion” in the Federal Republic of Germany. (The importance of theatre in the intellectual dynamic of the German Democratic Republic – so powerfully evoked in Das Leben Der Anderen – is a story that I cannot hope to cover in this article.)

Tradition and Crisis

Between 1950 and 1975, a series of symposia on current societal, political, and cultural debates were held in Darmstadt. They were usually accompanied by a major exhibition and attended by participants from several sectors of German intelligentsia. The fifth of these focused on theatre, patronage, and city-theatre architecture. The conversation is a prism for the political and cultural significance attributed to theatre, as well as the divergent ideas about how the institution should react to crisis. These conversations attracted leading intellectual figures, and, in this case, one of the fiercest critics of the contradictions of the emerging Enlightenment theatre stage, Theodor W. Adorno. The tension between political responsibility and artistic autonomy was central to the 1955 discussants. It is an important reference point, because it articulates a number of recurring debates. Amongst other things, it illustrated how the proclaimed ‘crisis’ of the city-theatre system was then already a repetitive symptom of the particular relation between national claims to moral and aesthetic education and responsibility and the autonomy of theatre in Germany.

Prior to the 1955 symposium, the dramaturg at the Darmstadt city-theatre, Egon Vietta, had published a polemic (Catastrophe, or the turn in German theatre) in which he attacked the system of subsidised state theatre as “a function in the public economy”. At Darmstadt, mayor Dr Ludwig Engel reviewed Vietta’s position that “the spirit of theatre” and state-subsidised theatre stood in contradiction to each other. This idea had been countered by the argument that public funding allows theatre to prioritise artistic experiment and to survive crisis. It was in fact owing to widespread communal efforts, architect Werner Kallmorgen argues, that the theatres were rebuilt so swiftly after the war.

Theatre subsidies are not a recent invention. The state minister for pedagogy and education, Arno Hennig, second to address the audience at the symposium, made the point that the discussion about subsidies missed this important observation. Feudal patrons who previously supported theatres only did what ought to remain a national and moral obligation: a cultural politics ensuring the existence of artistic critique of society in theatres. When we talk of a crisis in the arts, Hennig suggests, we should not immediately blame the failure of cultural institutions. Instead, a crisis of the arts is indicative of a crisis of society. Some 60 years later, the close link between art and crisis is emphasised again: the current state secretary of culture suggested in response to the 2012 Kulturinfarkt that “art remains a resonating body for the problems of our time”.

Origins of the Culture-State

Another attendee at the 1955 Darmstadt debate, Prof Dr Friedrich Sieburg, implicitly elaborated this metaphor of the resonating body. He argued that “theatre, as a public institution, is by definition subject to the will of a steadily changing public”. More so than literature or art, theatre institutions are especially prone to this dynamic tension between public cultural politics, changing consumer preferences, and political formations, as their form depends on a public and audience. Sieburg situates the “strangely agitated relation of the public to the institution of theatre” in the historic legacy of the end of the Holy Roman Empire (1806). The emergence of the German confederation after the Congress of Vienna in 1814 marked the beginning of a period of fragmentation in Germany, but also the rise of courtly theatres. In 1883, Adolf l’Arronge founded the German Ensemble-theatre in Berlin based on the model for German court theatres, the Meiningen Ensemble. It was the court theatre of Saxe-Meiningen, led by its Duke, George II, and became known across the state’s boundaries for its director-based, travelling productions. It had its roots in the 1830s court theatre system but was transformed into a company which toured Europe and influenced playwrights and other theatre traditions alike (Koller 1984).

The architect Werner Kallmorgen was invited to open an accompanying exhibition on theatre buildings. He decided, however, to question the importance of the transition from feudal patronage to communal theatres. In his practice as theatre architect, he argued, he experienced over and over again the problem of the origin and the ownership of theatre-institutions.

When the German citizens were surprised after WWII that they had chased away the fiefs from their land, they compensated one of their minority complexes by continuing old courtly theatres as new proprietors. … Thus far, their continuation of the courtly theatres was explicitly restorative and reactionary. To camouflage this continuation of an old form of political representation, they created a cultural politics which legitimated communal theatre as a necessary, moral enterprise.

The plurality of owners of theatres is another issue”, he continues. “Usually, the person who builds a theatre has the artistic program in his right pocket and in his left the corresponding money. … In communal theatres, these two things are separate. … And it is the good and original sense of communal theatres that they are separate. … But it is also that which creates difficulties, as it brings together the desire for political representation and cultural will.

The feudal transition is one central and recurring aspect of this debate. Johannes Jacobi’s contribution later during the Symposium relocates the debate to another one, namely the “elementary event of theatre subsidies post-WWII”. The restoration of theatre in postwar Germany, he suggests, illuminates a number of national dilemmas: the struggle between feudal representation and its cultural legacy, the desire for a shift or even rupture with the Third Reich and its political usurpation of artistic critique, and the emancipation of art as a forum of socio-political discussion.

The 1955 symposium points to a number of societal shifts in Germany after WWII. It problematised several events in German history to help rethink the role of public art institutions as public fora for socio-political critique. It reinforced the point that debates on the tradition and heritage of theatre patronage in Germany are not merely about the conflict of economic principles. They are also about the definition of the role of public, societal institutions and the ambivalent responsibilities of the state as moral patron. In other words, the debaters recognised that at different times and at certain points of perceived crisis – be it the transition from feudalism or the reconstruction of Germany – the position and role of public institutions has been renegotiated. And in turn, the political responsibilities of publicly accountable cultural institutions are resubjected to discussion each time. This returns us to the proclaimed “cultural meltdown” in the Netherlands and, arguably, other European countries at present.

Cultural Meltdown and Failed theatres

As the Kulturinfarkt suggests, it would be an oversimplification to suggest that the German theatre scene univocally embraces public subsidies. On the contrary, a significant conflict can be witnessed when looking at debates within the theatre system and its public. Again, crisis is the starting point. “The crisis of the culture-state is the crisis of the cultural budget in the communes, is the crisis of cultural politics … which is the consequence of failed cultural politics and failed theatres”, argues Prof Wolfgang Schneider, director of the institute for cultural politics, Universität Hildesheim. Alexander Keil demonstrated in a recent study that today’s discussions about the city-theatre system (by which he also refers to state- and county-theatres) and in particular the current voicing of crisis have their roots in the financial crisis in the USA in spring 2007 and its consequences for the German communal finances. The German Federal Office of Statistics noted the beginning of a recession in Germany in October 2008 and for 2009 the strongest recession in Germany since the end of WWII.

City-theatres are often perceived as static institutions with little flexibility to create daring programmes or advance the state of the art as an avant-garde. They are often described as extensions of political actors and therefore as unable to produce a veritable critique of politics. Benjamin Wihstutz argued in Der Andere Raum (2012) that politics (understood as the practices of the organisation and articulation of power structures) is different from the political, that is, elements of dissent or conflict which challenge politics. Political theatre, when it brings on stage disabled, unemployed, homeless, criminal or asylum seeking persons, is political, and not politics, since it renders visible the deeply embedded social antagonisms in aesthetic ways. Although groups such as Rimini Protokoll have produced innovative, internationally acclaimed projects involving cities and their inhabitants (e.g. 100% London), Keil’s analysis suggests that many city theatres are institutions seen as central to the identity and cultural vibrancy of communes and yet find paths to establish long-standing international links (Tinius 2012). The possibility of slowing down the production of plays, establishing long-term artistic contracts, and working with issues relating to local demographic pressures and migration are perceived as central advantages of theatres run as public, but not necessarily state-subsidised, institutions by their employees.

The equation of state-supported theatres with fiefly wages and conservative structures as opposed to the idealisation of free, mobile, innovative theatres risks ignoring the central advantages of a close relation between public funding and theatre institutions. The danger is that conditions of work in the ‘free scene’, where wages of 13,000€ p.a. are common, are idealised while the potential of centrally located institutions is underrated. Project-based financing of theatre companies in the Netherlands forces the groups and artists to move around the country, disabling more profound engagement with specific milieus and autonomous work. Those Keil spoke to during his research stressed the importance of an established institutionalised tradition of repertoire and ensemble theatres. Long-term employment, links to surrounding regions, and an engagement with cultural legacies allow city-theatres to react to the changing dynamics of the society and municipality in which they are embedded. As such, city-theatres provide an important input in a critical public by acting as think tanks of society.

Institutional responses

Theatres have also not been passive recipients of state support or victims of its absence. In response to major events, cuts, and decisions, public as well as private theatres have been reshaped: their audiences changed, access and politicisation were problematised, and many directors respond to a diversified municipal demography.

The “New-Acting-Society” founded by Gustaf Gründgens in Düsseldorf by the Rhine is one example. It reformulated the purpose and direction of the city’s municipal stages of which Gründgens had become director in 1947 and was central for the emergence of the Düsseldorf theatre (Schauspielhaus) in its new guise. On April 10, the theatre became a joint venture with the State of North Rhine-Westphalia, the city of Düsseldorf, the Society of Friends of the Düsseldorfer Schauspiel Society and the federation of German Trade Unions. The transformation of what had previously been an entirely communally owned theatre into a limited company (GmbH) had been preceded by “a power struggle with Gustaf Gründgens as the then General Artistic Director of the Düsseldorf City Theatres. He had negotiated the foundation of this new institution with the city’s cultural administrators. It enabled the institution to be freed from the tripartite communal theatre structure, given greater individual responsibility and scope to plan a broader programme with an entirely independent budget”.

Even more dramatically, such institutional innovations and critiques of cultural debates can be witnessed in the nearby Mülheim at the Theater an der Ruhr (TaR), where I conduct my ethnographic fieldwork. When the TaR was founded in 1980, it was created as a joint venture and non-profit/charitable limited company (GmbH) with the shareholders and directors Roberto Ciulli, Helmut Schäfer, and the municipality of Mülheim. The idea was to develop a structure which was flexible and capable of redefining itself according to the requirements of the theatre as collective art institution without having the structure determine the artistic output. The ensemble spirit of the institution incorporated artistic as well as non-artistic members and made contractual, unbureaucratic, collective and autonomous work the central directive of the theatre. With about 45 long-term employed members, it organised a budget of about 3.6€ million, of which more than 40 per cent are financed from revenues and travel; compared to city theatres, only 16 per cent of whose budget is financed by revenues, this model managed to sustain an unusually well-balanced economic contribution. Similar to the flexible institutional model implemented in Düsseldorf, the Theater an der Ruhr is supported by a number of institutions, including the foreign office, the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Goethe Institutes, the art foundation North Rhine-Westphalia and the society of Friends of the Theater an der Ruhr.

The dramaturg and co-founder of the Theater an der Ruhr, Helmut Schäfer, summarised the emergence and climate at its foundation in the following programmatic statement:

[f]or more than thirty years, a hefty debate has been waged about the structure of theatres in Germany. At the core, it is about the question how theatre work can be structured to balance artistic and economic needs – if and how the existing, sedimented theatre structures are to be changed. Most recently, these debates have been reduced to the financial viability of theatre. Politics and public ask in this context more and more the question of legitimation. Audience and revenue statistics become cultural political arguments. These games … are an imprint of an economic culture.

These structural reformulations of theatre institutions in response to crisis and external critique are the most evident illustrations of the ‘dynamic institutional traditions’ of German public-theatres. It is, after all, not the homogeneous similarity of institutions and traditions which allows them to be dynamic, but their capacity to incorporate infrastructural and political change, adapted to the particular social contexts in which they find themselves.


“Crisis? What Crisis?” is the topic of the 2012/2013 program of the Oberhausen city theatre in the Ruhr area. It is borrowed from a series of plays they have put on which respond to the anticipated, but avoided closure of the institution. These included Gogol’s The Government Inspector which reacted to a survey distributed by the local government, asking its citizens through a checklist, which public enterprises they would prefer to see shut. The majority spoke out against the closure of the theatre. The idea of crisis, debate, and artistic critique has been central to the survival of public theatre traditions, noted Peter Carp, director of the theatre. As public art institutions, communal theatres are uniquely positioned to negotiate and cannot avoid negotiating the role of public cultural institutions as think tanks of society.

In recent German history, formations of theatrical institutional traditions and debates have made explicit their political engagement and societal initiatives. Structural reforms of public institutions mirror the tension between the notion of the culture-state and cultural sovereignty, common interests and points of conflicts and the transcendence of crisis through critique. The rich culture of communal theatre today is in many ways a product of this, certainly not uncontested, fusion of the aesthetic with the pedagogic.

The critically debated yet sustained institutional link between theatre and politics has significantly shaped the current dynamic institutional traditions of German city-theatres. Concerns about local accountability, social engagement, and the role of alternative forms of theatre come to the fore particularly in times when crisis is invoked as a reason for change.

The Kulturinfarkt queried how culture could be so dangerously clogged by the German state. Johan Simons was aware of their polemic and responds to their criticism by analogy. He asks how the radical “siege” against the arts in the Netherlands could come about. Dutch artists, he continues, are organised in autonomous institutional bodies. Decisions about subsidies were made independently of politics. This led to a fatal and somewhat counterintuitive alienation of politics from art and society: patronage was no longer a matter of political responsibility or at least matter of concern, as it was before and as the German debates I outline suggest.

What Simons observes about the German tradition of cultural patronage is precisely the constitutional responsibility of socially accountable and democratically legitimated, representative politics to engage with the arts, and the close political ties of artists to communities and changing societal concerns. By retaining their role as patron of the arts, Simons suggests political actors commit to a responsibility for an engaged debate about the role of the arts in society, “which cannot be measured in numbers”. André Schmitz, state secretary for culture, responded in a SPIEGEL article by suggesting that, in times of crisis, art funding should be doubled. Representing only about 1.5 to 3 percent of the state economy, spending on the arts is by no means a “redundant luxury good”. He described the 1993 closure of the Schiller-Theater in Berlin as “a sacrifice of a national symbol”. Regarded by its critics as a “voluntary expense” and a dangerous obstruction leading to societal necrosis, art patronage (and with it certain historically central institutions) would sooner or later disappear entirely, Schmitz argues, precisely because it is regarded as an inflated, voluntary, and redundant good.

Jonas L. Tinius (PhD Cantab) is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), co-funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and based at the Department of European Ethnology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany. He studied British and American Studies as well as social and cultural anthropology at the Universities of Münster (Germany) and Cambridge (UK). He completed his PhD on German theatre and political self-cultivation under the supervision of Prof James Laidlaw at the Division of Social Anthropology, King’s College, University of Cambridge (2012-2016). His current post-doctoral research explores how Berlin-based curators, contemporary artists, and art institutions engage with notions of alterity and otherness through critical curatorial strategies to reflect on German and European heritage and identities. He is editor of Anthropology, Theatre, and Development: The Transformative Potential of Performance (Palgrave, 2015, with Dr Alex Flynn, Durham) and convener of the Anthropology and the Arts Network within the European Association of Social Anthropologists (with Prof Roger Sansi, Barcelona). More information: www.jonastinius.com