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The Guide

Germany's cultural scene


Art and artistic positions could never be simply reduced to a common denominator. However, the diversity of artistic forms of expression worldwide is greater that ever. Painting, sculpture, photography, installations, performances, film, internet or audio-based works are as present as the sociological or architectural experiments of interventionist art practices. In addition to traditional venues for communication and sales such as museums, galleries or art fairs, in the meantime new forms of presentation and dissemination have been created, for example temporary off-spaces or subversive and provocative actions in (virtual or real) public space.

Art has high ideal value – and is simultaneously a commodity that can be dealt, bought and sold. This ambivalence is also reflected in artists’ different fundamental positions. While for some the aesthetic value of their work is in the foreground, others want to let art’s potential for societal change take effect in experimental art forms and political fantasy.

Art does not allow itself to be evaluated in terms of market-based criteria or the measures of efficiency and applicability. For the Federal Republic of Germany, which sees itself as a cultural state, this is of essential importance; it is the reason why the state’s responsibility for the arts is a necessity. In concrete terms, this means: financial support and the political context that allow for art and cultural communication. In the process, traditional as well as experimental forms of artistic production must be addressed. And since artistic work, independent of questions of form or style, always takes place in the context of changes in society, politics and the media, a commensurate and suitable art support system can’t be set in stone; its structures must constantly be re-adapted to the latest developments.



The over 600 art museums in Germany are important protagonists for presenting and communicating about contemporary visual arts. Public and private exhibition halls or exhibition venues that, in contrast to museums, don’t have their own collections, also play a decisive role. (Please see the Deutsche Museumsverzeichnis (German museum listing- only available in German), as well as art museums and current exhibitions in Germany (only available in German).

The approximately 300 art associations throughout Germany also offer a forum for art; they are financed by members’ dues and municipal cultural support. Art associations, with their decentral presence in large and small cities and rural areas, are diverse as well as remarkable institutions that thrive from the enthusiasm of art-interested citizens on location. These art associations are organised in the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutscher Kunstvereine (ADKV).

In the past few years, off-spaces have been created as alternative locations for art in a sphere that lies beyond established institutions. Interdisciplinary networks of art makers and creative minds organise and run these “training camps for subculture” (art-magazin) that test new forms for the presentation of and communication about artistic positions.

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Privately run galleries show the works of the artists they represent in exhibitions and art fairs. They play an important role in presenting and selling artworks. The artist receives a percentage of the gallery sale (as a rule, approximately 50%). If the work is resold, a fee must be paid to the artist as stipulated in the re-sale rights. The prerequisite is that the artist is a member of a collecting society; any rights can only be enforced by such a society or agency.

Professional galleries have joined together in the Bundesverband Deutscher Galerien und Kunsthändler e.V. (The Federal Association of German Galleries and Art Dealers- only available in German). In addition to traditional galleries with their own space and regular exhibitions, purely online galleries have now also begun to become established as locations to sell art (for example,

Gallery weekends and art fairs play an important role for the art market. The objective of attracting solvent collectors and thus increasing sales can be more easily reached, the more well-stocked the fair is and the more attractive satellite fairs and spectacular gallery presentations are that take place at the same time. The German art fair that is the most rich in tradition is the annual Art Cologne, which was founded in 1967. In September 2012, the Berlin Art Week took place for the first time. Under this umbrella brand, public cultural institutions together with private galleries and fairs (abc – art berlin contemporary and the Preview Berlin) are bundling their activities in order to attract collectors and art lovers.

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For the majority of artists, it is very difficult to just survive from art sales. Many must thus rely on additional income, e.g., fees from artistic teaching positions.

In addition, often different support and sales possibilities are combined. Besides public art and culture support and the art market, private foundations, collections, associations and initiatives play an important role. This structural mix for income demands that artists not only deal intensely with the respective emphases and modalities of support, but also have a high self-marketing skills, mobility and flexibility.

The income opportunities that artists find for themselves play an increasingly important role. Producers’ galleries run by artists or interdisciplinary project platforms that are connected to communications networks of specifically art-centered scenes are emergeing in cities such as Hamburg, Cologne, Berlin or Leipzig; they provide inspiration and exchange, as well as a (usually humble) source of income.

Artists who are members of the collecting society Bild-Kunst (only available in German) can receive fees from it. The collecting society, an association founded by copyright holders (from the fields of art, photography and film), protects the copyrights of its members in the visual field that the individual can’t enforce on his or her own for practical or legal reasons. The fees for visual artists are made up of a distribution of blanket copyright fees as well as the licensing of individual rights (e.g., the rights to reproduction, or the resale rights when artworks are resold). Becoming a member of the VG Bild-Kunst (only available in German) occurs upon agreeing to a contract in which the collecting society is commissioned to protect the artist’s copyrights. The distribution of the collected fees takes place according to a plan that is decided upon by the general assembly. If and to what degree fees are used for social or cultural purposes is also determined here.

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UNTIL 1945

In contrast to most other European countries, the German Reich, founded in 1871, emerged from many independent feudal states and city republics that all had their own respective objectives in cultural politics and created numerous cultural institutions such as museums or theatres. The period of the Weimar Republic (1918/19 - 1933) is seen as one of the most creative and experimental epochs of German cultural history, while the National Socialist regime (1933 - 1945) stands for the end of the avant-garde and modernism, and the centralisation of cultural diversity: art was instrumentalised for the NS-regime’s goals. This experience led to the situation that federalism – decentralised structures – has a strong position in Germany.


Two German states emerged from the end of the Second World War: in the East, the German Democratic Republic (GDR); and in the West, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The different production contexts and dissemination practices for art in the East and west influenced the choice of subjects and was an important cause for the development of different formal languages. 

In the 1950s, many West German artists experimented with abstract forms of expression such as Informel (the art of the non-form) and Tachism (its French version) – with models from foreign countries in the West. Artists such as Emil Schumacher, Ernst Wilhelm Nay or Rupprecht Geiger were able to develop their own profile in the face of these models with strong, personal, signature styles; they emitted further impulses for art in Germany. Exhibitions such as the first documenta in 1955 also played an important role: one attempted to rejoin the modernist connections that the National Socialists had so violently cut and re-introduce German art into international discourse.

At the same time, the foundations and regulations for a party-controlled commissioned art were created in the GDR: socialist realism. Abstraction was seen as anti-state, and the SED unity party had an effective instrument to enforce their art doctrine: since there was no private art market, the party controlled art production with public commissions. Sculpture and monumental painting served propaganda purposes the most. During this period, independent accents in style could be found, above all, among drawings and graphic art, as exemplified in the works by Arno Mohr.

However, one does not do justice to artistic production in the GDR by simply differentiating between “state art” and sub-culture art – at least not if one classifies the state-supported art per se as inferior. A precise differentiation between aesthetic criteria and moral judgments or condemnations is necessary – for example, in the cases of the painters Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke, who had been definitive for the party and state-supported Leipzig School since the 1960s. With their technical perfection and unconventional visual language, the three turned Leipzig into a centre of visual art in the GDR.

But despite all differences, in the East and West parallel developments also took place. In the late 1960s, Joseph Beuys in West Germany and Gerhard Altenbourg in East Germany were both active in introducing an expanded concept of art – for a close connection between art and life (see Karin Thomas: Kunst in Deutschland seit 1945, Köln 2002).

GDR cultural policies had already been backing new forms of everyday culture since the 1950s, for example, in institutions such as cultural centres for worke. These new forms were supported and ideologically controlled in the SED unity party apparatus. From the mid-1970s, a new scene of young artists developed outside of the official and state-steered cultural activities; one of the most famous was in Berlin/ Prenzlauer Berg.

In the Federal Republic of Germany and beginning in the 1970s, the reform-oriented New Cultural Policies introduced an expanded concept of culture as a part of a general process of democratisation. With the slogan “culture for all”, socio-cultural activities then counted as well; they were tied to an attempt at offering a larger part of the population access to art and culture.

SINCE 1990

In the reunification of the two German states in 1990, the adminstration structures of the old Federal Republic (BRD 1949-1990) were taken over by the new Bundesländer (federal states in the territory of the GDR). The financial problems and structural changes related to this change – new forms of law and business, fusions, closures – also affected many cultural institutions. 

After the Fall of the Berlin Wall, East German artists had to adapt to the way the free art market functioned and, in the process, re-assert their artistic identity and forms of expression. Numerous young artists – for example, the painters of the New Leipzig School – celebrated triumphs in doing so, with great international success. Neo Rauch is one of them. He was educated before the Fall of the Berlin Wall by the Leipzig professors Bernhard Heisig and Arno Rink. Rauch’s emphatically cryptic images, in which he works with temporal cross-fades, have been attracting a great amount of attention and selling extremely well since the 1990s.

Painting, sculpture, photography, multi-media installations, art as a social catalyst, field research or service: the diverse spectrum of contemporary art practice has led to a dissolution of traditional media borders, as can be seen in the works by Thomas Demand or the documenta13 participant Andrea Büttner.

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Compared to the incisive change in the years after reunification, cultural politics in the early years of the new millennium have stabilised. The current challenges are, on the one hand, financial: as a result of the financial crisis, the cuts in local and regional cultural budgets are noticeable. On the other hand, there are structural deficits: the cultural budgets’ structures have hardly changed in the last decades, and new forms of art, e.g., interventionist works, don’t necessarily qualify for public funding according to traditional criteria. Cultural policies need a conceptual update that takes current societal change – and thus changing prerequisites for artistic work – into account. An important point here is digitalisation: it changes traditional models of artistic creativity and production, the usual storage and dissemination media as well as the forms of reception. The rules must be re-written for the digital world. Above all, contemporary copyright protection plays an important role in this context, since it has massive effects on the income situation – and thus existence – of artists. 

The debate about the Bologna process is of great importance for the education of artists; the goal is to achieve unified university degrees in Europe. The introduction of BA and MA degrees is supposed to be an important cornerstone, but it is meeting with criticism: the utopia of an open European education and research territory is opposed by the fears of bureaucratisation and economisation of artists’ education. At the same time, the traditional German art school structures with personalised teaching in master classes no longer appears up to date. Though artists from German art schools belong to the most successful on the international art market, only very few graduates actually participate in this market. 

In order to remove structural deficits in the support structures for the visual arts, German artist associations are active in lobbying for exhibition compensation.
Their argument is the following. Works of visual art are mostly present in exhibitions. However, proceeds are only gained when the original is sold; the re-sale compensation ensures that the artist has a (minimal) stake when the work is resold. However, the main activities in which the artwork plays a role are exhibitions. Artists’ associations are thus lobbying for fees when exhibitions take place in museums or other exhibition venues, e.g., a moderate percentage of the admission fees and/ or exhibition budgets. The art market and galleries would be completely exempted – after all, the artist receives his or her payment if the exhibition has reached its goal.

Last but not least, the future of cultural politics is inter-cultural: Germany is a state of immigrants. In the year 2050, the percentage of citizens with a migrant background will be 30%. In this context, the results of a study by the Bundesverband Bildender Künstlerinnen und Künstler (BBK) (only available in German) on whether art can be a factor for integration is remarkable. The conclusion: artists who live in Germany and originate from foreign countries are not only accepted and integrated – in fact, they participate more actively and with great enthusiasm in the cultural activities of BBK associations (see BBK survey 2011: Die soziale und wirtschaftliche Situation Bildender Künstlerinnen und Künstler 2011 / Zusatzaspekt: Migration und Integration (only available in German); Table of contents).

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