THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 23, 1994
A Cultural Machine in Crisis
By Anne Midgette
(Copyright (c) 1994, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
Frankfurt -- Last month Frankfurt kicked off its 1,200-year anniversary celebrations with a thick, glossy catalog containing the schedule for a year of special cultural events, ranging from exhibits in the city's 13 new or newly renovated museums to operas and film screenings.
The catalog puts up a good front. In fact, the opera house is staging fewer and fewer performances each month; there's no guarantee that the municipal cinema will still be operating come summer; and the tourist offices are handing out museum brochures full of information about shows from 1992 because they can't afford to print new ones.
You see Frankfurt has no money. The city that once symbolized Germany's economic strength now represents its recession. Frankfurt has the highest municipal debt of any German city: 8 billion marks ($4.76 billion). This reflects inflated spending in every area, not only culture. And every area is affected by the struggle to cut costs: Street lights are being dimmed after 8 p.m., for example. But culture is being hit particularly hard, losing 47 million marks of its public subsidy in 1994. This is because Frankfurt's cultural budget is the highest of any German city, although Frankfurt itself, with a population of 650,000, is only the fifth-largest city in Germany.
The budget is high because Frankfurt is trying to maintain an international arts scene on a municipal budget. Most other large German cities receive generous funding from their states. Frankfurt is not the capital of the state of Hessia, so its institutions don't receive the kind of money that Munich's Bavarian State Opera, Bavarian State Ballet or various state galleries get from Bavaria. With a population twice as large as Frankfurt's, Munich pays only 12 million marks of its Bavarian State Opera's 123 million-mark budget; Frankfurt pays 65 million marks of its opera's 69 million-mark budget.
"Frankfurt is an extreme case," says Christiane von Wahlert of the city's Cultural Office. "Few cities operate such an expensive institution as an opera house municipally."
Whether Frankfurt can go on operating one is the question. Rather than sacrificing one institution for the common good, Cultural Officer Linda Reisch has opted for cuts across the board. While the fixed operating costs of museums and theaters will still be covered -- rent, utilities and personnel -- their flexible "artistic" costs will not be guaranteed. One practical consequence is that museums here are being forced for the first time to charge admission fees, like most other museums in the world -- a development greeted with much protest from press and public.
Granted, the city's institutions have been spoiled by lavish arts spending for a long time. But the projected across-the-board cuts don't always take the achievement of individual institutions into account. William Forsythe's world-renowned Frankfurt Ballet, for example, is supposed to lose 1.7 million marks of funding, although it sets international standards of excellence and earns the city about 1.6 million marks a year with its regular appearances in Paris.
There also have been rumors that the experimental Theater am Turm (TAT) will close; a commission is looking into combining its technical and administrative staff with that of the Frankfurt Playhouse (Schauspiel), and its budget is being slashed 25%. This is in spite of the fact that TAT is one of Frankfurt's most respected venues, cooperating with other theaters throughout Europe and regularly presenting artists of the caliber of Peter Brook or Robert Wilson. By contrast, the fall offerings of the playhouse, which receives about 35 million marks from the city (TAT, before cuts, got 8.7 million marks), were less than earth-shattering.
"Too little energy . . . too conciliatory . . . too much talking . . . too little thought" is how the critic Verena Auffermann summarized the beginning of the current season.
Frankfurt's cultural crisis has gotten plenty of attention all over Germany. As recession and reunification eat into government spending, the city is merely the most extreme example of a nationwide phenomenon. Every city felt the pinch when, in October, the federal government announced that it was cutting back on unemployment spending by a total of 4 billion marks, a sum that the cities are obliged, under the German Constitution, to cover. "Cities in Need" became the slogan of German municipal leaders. The arts will be one of the first areas to suffer.
In all the national debate about the future of the arts, there's much criticism of politicians such as Cultural Officer Reisch, who are responsible for making the cuts; Frankfurt citizens are loudly calling for her resignation. But surprisingly little attention is being paid to alternative sources of cultural funding, such as private sponsorship.
It's an article of faith in Germany that the traditional model of government arts patronage must endure. One German state has even passed a bill to continue subsidized culture: In December, Saxony's Landtag, the state parliament, made supporting culture as much of a municipal duty as paying unemployment benefits. But Saxony, in former East Germany, is still shielded from the financial crunch: Half of its 1994 budget comes from the West, under programs designed to aid German reunification.
Frankfurt, whether its 1,200-year-old arts scene crumbles or prevails, is a more likely model for the future of Germany's mammoth cultural machine in the face of dwindling government support.