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Seymour Gris: Kultur for the 90 percent?

Who is Germany's state-funded culture really for? Should more be done to attract "diverse audiences" to Berlin's cultural institutions?

Image for Seymour Gris: Kultur for the 90 percent?
The Schaubühne’s “Hamlet”. Photo by Arno Declair

When the statistic of 10 percent leaves the lips of Prof. Dr. Birgit Mandel, the eyes of the audience members literally pop open. It’s 10am and a few hundred bodies have assembled in Radialsystem V. The performing arts space in a former historical sewage pumphouse on the Spree is celebrating its 10th birthday with a day of discussion on “Culture of the Future: 10 challenges”.

Ten percent, the speaker explains, that’s the portion of the population that actually visits state-subsidized cultural offerings: museums, theatre, classical concerts, opera etc. A depressing statistic, considering that an impressive €10 billion in state subsidies flows into culture every year.

It’s a reality-check moment. Most of the people at this conference are involved in Germany’s subsidised “high” or “off” culture. “The rest of the population, the 90 percent, primarily consume privately funded, commercial pop culture,” the professor continues.

The conference is addressing the big questions – everything from marketing in the age of social media to gentrification’s impact on artists, to the fair allocation of state funding. After the intros, we form into groups to discuss each “challenge” in greater depth. I join the group with the tagline “Demographic development: For whom are we doing this actually?”

By and large, subsidised culture is popular with older white German people. Everyone seems to agree on that. But shouldn’t culture, at least taxpayer-funded culture, do more to reach new audiences: the young, the unemployed, the uneducated, the refugees, the immigrants from other “cultural groups”?

Our 20 or so group members cram into an elevator which brings us up to a rehearsal studio on the fourth floor of Radialsystem V overlooking the Spree. We arrange the chairs in a circle.

The discussion kicks off with a short talk by Claudia Nola, the communications head of the Berliner Festspiele, a venerable institution founded in West Berlin during the Cold War as a heavily subsidised showcase of cultural openness in the walled-in city. She presents Foreign Affairs, the international theatre festival the Festspiele ran for the past five years, as a way that an institution with a somewhat dusty, stuffy image successfully attracted a younger, more international audience.

The discussion soon drifts away from the “demographics” question towards a talk about marketing in the digital age. A disillusioned theatre producer who “just wants to support good art” says he can’t understand why he has trouble filling the 80 seats of his theatre (Theaterdiscounter) every night in a city of 3.5 million inhabitants. The maxiumum ticket price is €13. The price doesn’t seem to be the problem: the 90 percent are happy to shell out €150 for Lollapalooza or a Paul McCartney show.

A woman who makes independent documentary films says cinema audiences for her kind of work have fallen dramatically in the last few years, even in Berlin. A young man who “works in marketing”  advises her and the theatre guy to make short, fun behind-the-scenes videos for their social media, creating a “closeness” between your project and your audience via digital media.

Prof. Dr. Birgit Mandel, who’s also in our group, suggests that cultural players should “be a good neighbour” by reaching out to people in their community who would never normally consume culture: by inviting them to discussions, events or to be involved in the actual programming and production. This might close the gap between “regular people” and “culture” and perhaps even create art that is relevant and engaging for them.

Of course, most large cultural institutions have been organising outreach programmes for years – from Philharmonic artistic director Sir Simon Rattle’s fantastic project with school kids, Rhythm is it! back in 2003 to the “refugee workshops” planned at the Schaubühne this autumn.

And then there is Shermin Langhoff, who pioneered “post-migrant” theatre: first at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse and now, for the past two years, at the Gorki, where she has been bringing material to the stage inspired by the hitherto under-represented “immigrant experience”. Groundbreaking work in a theatre on Unten den Linden which would previously put on endless re-adaptions of the classics. Even so, it’s uncertain whether Langhoff’s concept, despite a full house on most nights, has translated into a more diverse audience. As an acquaintance in PR put it to me: “At Gorki, you still only see white faces in the audience.”

At the same time, more and more international Berliners, the privileged so-called “G-8 Ausländer”, even those with poor or no German skills, are finding their way into German theatres in Berlin, thanks to English surtitling at places like the Schaubühne, Berliner Festspiele, Gorki, Ballhaus Naunynstraße, HAU, Komische Oper, even Deutsches Theater. Major hold-outs are the Berliner Ensemble and the Volksbühne, who seem to feel that surtitles projected over the stage distract from the immediacy of the theatre experience. That said, the Volksbühne will be in the hands of new director Chris Dercon in under a year – and his team is already saying “nearly everything will be in English”.

In the hour and a half discussion about demographics and attracting new audiences, the participants seem more concerned with getting anyone to consume their works – whether independent films, challenging music or off-theatre – than attracting diverse audiences.

Despite the AfD’s “closed border” fantasies, immigrants aren’t going to stop coming to Germany any time soon. Berlin always aspired to being a Weltstadt. Now it’s turning into just that. The city is attracting 40-50,000 new residents every year, mostly foreigners. These are both the taxpayers and cultural consumers of tomorrow. Reaching out to them could soon become a matter survival for Berlin culture.