Keeping the lights on for private sector culture

How many of your favourite cultural activities are run by private sector players? Shutterstock

How many of your favourite cultural activities are run by private sector players? Shutterstock

If public sector cultural venues have been able to ride out the crisis relatively unscathed, private sector operators are in “survival mode”. Experts discuss the need for both and the lessons to be learned from the pandemic.

The creative industries sector made up 6.1% of the total number of companies in Luxembourg in 2014. But, as the effects of pandemic lockdown and subsequent health and safety measures are borne out, numbers could well decline in future.

If key public cultural institutions were relatively sheltered from the effects of cancelled events, privately-run venues and other cultural actors had to shift into survival mode when lockdown began on 16 March.

“Very early on we were looking for alternatives to maintain the minimum activity,” Michel Welter of concert venue Den Atelier told Delano. His team presented a drive-in concert concept to a number of communes, which eventually received the backing of Pétange. “The concept is that we are here to employ local artists and local production companies. That was the idea. It’s really meant to keep the technical and production staff busy,” Welter said, pointing out that production companies working largely with the self-employed were at great risk of folding when events were cancelled during the lockdown.

As Luxembourg restrictions on social gatherings eased in June, the problems did not end. Welter said his firm was able to survive using the partial unemployment measures. But, as long as international acts put all touring on hold, the mainstay of his business is also in limbo. “If we lose partial unemployment, it will be very tough,” he said.

Within the cultural ecosystem private institutions like Den Atelier were at a disadvantage when it came to the state aid being disbursed. Den Atelier, whose activities are operated by two companies, received just €5,000 in aid for one of the companies. “As soon as you’re a professional organisation and not an ASBL [not for profit], or another form you’re not qualified to receive aid,” Welter said. “This crisis shines a light on how in Luxembourg, the DNA of culture is to be publicly funded.”

Public investment

Luxembourg invested €87.7m in culture in 2019, equivalent to 60% of the ministry’s budget and 0.5% of the total budget for the year. The biggest recipients were public sector institutions like the Philharmonie, which received €21.5m, while modern art museum Mudam received €8m, Neimenster €3.9m, Casino Luxembourg €2.35m, Rotondes €1.9m, and the Théâtre National du Luxembourg €1.7m.

January 2019 photo shows venue Den Atelier, in Luxembourg-Hollerich. Photo: Patricia PItsch/Maison Moderne

Compared to countries like the UK, where The Guardian recently reported that theatres are on the brink of collapse because public funding is so thinly spread, Luxembourg’s institutions are mostly cushioned through public finance. “The public sector is crucial for developing the whole creative and cultural branch, I won’t argue against that,” said City of Munich’s director for cultural and creative industries team director Jurgen Enninger. He said that he heavily supports the private sector “because there’s a lot more employment and cultural diversity being done in the private sector.”

That, however, does not make the playing field any fairer. In Munich where he works, private operators make up roughly two thirds of the sector. He said that some public operators, like the Bavarian broadcasting organisation Bayerischer Rundfunk, which has its own classical music record label, have an unfair advantage because “For them it’s impossible to become bankrupt. On the other hand, they compete with privately-run record labels that have no public support whatsoever,” Enninger said.

He is heartened by the fact that at least public funding for the arts exists in Europe. “We could say it keeps a little infrastructure alive which when you pass the crisis helps the other companies as well to gain support and gain some turnover again,” he said.

Learning from the crisis

It seems unlikely these issues can be solved in the middle of the current crisis. The way forward, said public cultural funding expert Sylvia Amann, is to “learn from the crisis to understand there are some structural deficiencies in the whole financing of cultural and creative sectors.”

Amann compares the self-employed operators who received little or no relief to “seasonal workers, because they’ve an unstable income” and are in a “weak market position”. She advocated discussing social protections for cultural players with this legal status and starting a debate on how we define culture in the twenty-first century.

For example, she pointed out that the public definition of culture is shifting to incorporate many elements of entertainment, but cultural funding policy definitions have not followed. “I think it became also visible how crucial cultural creativity and all artistic practices are for society. Can you imagine the situation in quarantine for a single week without having access to music, for example?” she said.