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Spin the big wheel for comfort

When it became known at the end of last year that Düsseldorf would be awarded the contract for the German Photo Institute, there was great disappointment in Essen.

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Spin the big wheel for comfort

When it became known at the end of last year that Düsseldorf would be awarded the contract for the German Photo Institute, there was great disappointment in Essen. In the end, a commission of experts confirmed that the city in the Ruhr area was the best location for the photography center. Now the 41.5 million euros in federal funds are going into the coffers of the state capital Düsseldorf. However, the matter was not shelved for Essen, because since then a possible compensation for the lost prestige project has been discussed. Two rumors persist: one says that the federal budget committee is making 1.5 million euros available to Essen. According to the other rumor, it is 15 million euros.

What both rumors have in common: the money is to be used for a new festival, a Summer Academy, on the premises of the Zollverein colliery. This festival is intended to be an initiative for cultural education for students and young professionals, i.e. for young professionals. A kind of talent factory with hands-on offers, workshops, master classes, holiday camps, management courses and singing schools, focused on the field of music. This is what you can read in the concept papers available to

But how much money is available to the Summer Academy? And which concrete projects should it contain? What at first glance looks like two easy-to-answer questions turns out to be a confusing game after many discussions with politicians and cultural workers, in which the NRW Ministry of Culture and the State Ministry for Culture and Media in Berlin (BKM) are the main actors. The two keep the scene in the Ruhr area excited, because after all it should start in July 2024.

The first clarification comes from Otto Fricke: "The 1.5 million euros that the federal government is providing is not a compensation payment," says the FDP MP, who sits on the federal budget committee. And this budget committee, explains a spokesman for Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth, has "on its own initiative earmarked up to 1.5 million euros for a Summer Academy in Essen". According to the BKM, a total of 500,000 euros would be made available this year, of which 150,000 euros for a feasibility study. The remaining million will follow in 2024, but only if the study is available.

But how much money is made available for the implementation of the Summer Academy? In response to inquiries from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, this newspaper only received unclear statements. "The feasibility study should clarify the total costs," writes a spokesman for Culture Minister Ina Brandes (CDU). A small inquiry from the SPD parliamentary group, which its chairman Thomas Kutschaty had started regarding the costs and content of the Summer Academy, also came to nothing. Minister Brandes shifted the responsibility to the federal government: "The Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media will inform the state parliament about the current status of the development."

So one could think that the 15 million euros is a misunderstanding that can be traced back to a simple shift of a decimal place. But the first concept paper of the Summer Academy shows 15 million euros for the seven-week festival under the item "Budget". "The necessary infrastructure investments have not yet been calculated," it continues. This would make the Academy one of the most expensive cultural projects in the country. For comparison: the NRW cultural budget is around 320 million euros. It was actually supposed to be increased by 30 million euros this year, but due to the corona pandemic and the Ukraine war, it was only 5.6 million euros. It remains unclear where the millions for the Academy will come from.

Why is the NRW Ministry of Culture handling such a costly project so secretive and not including the most important actors, the city of Essen, the festivals in the Ruhr area, the universities and cultural institutions? Perhaps, say insiders, because the idea for the Summer Academy came up in the ministry and they wanted a unique selling proposition. For this reason, external experts were also hired for the development of the idea paper with the former director of the Bochum Symphony Orchestra Steven Sloane and Marietta Piekenbrock, most recently program director of the Berlin Volksbühne. "We were not involved in the preparation," says a spokeswoman for the city of Essen. They found out about the Academy from the newspaper. Essen's Lord Mayor Thomas Kufen (CDU) is indignant about this, after all, the Zollverein colliery is on the site of his city. In addition, the city is the sponsor of the Zollverein Foundation alongside the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Rhineland Regional Council. "But without local participation, it doesn't work," says Kufen. Because it is primarily the Zollverein Foundation that has to shoulder the project. The head of the foundation is keeping a low profile. Even when asked several times, she did not comment on this, probably because, like most cultural institutions, she does not want to alienate the state, an important donor.

Insiders claim that the fact that Mayor Kufen was even aware of the Minister of Culture's plans was due to an indiscretion. After completion, the concept paper was punctured by an employee of the Ministry of Culture.

However, the resentment is not only felt in Essen. Many cultural workers in the Ruhr area, with whom this newspaper spoke, are alarmed. After all, the Summer Academy should take place during the period in which the Ruhrtriennale and the Ruhr Piano Festival are taking place.

Therefore, two zoom conferences were set up in the past few weeks, in which representatives from Chorwerk Ruhr, PACT Zollverein, the Museum Folkwang, the Chorakademie Dortmund, the Regionalverband Ruhrgebiet (RVR) and the Ruhrtriennale took part. "We were all asked to outline our ideas and conceptions and to 'think big'," report participants. Overall, strong skepticism about the feasibility of such a mammoth project in just one year was expressed to the country's chief negotiator.

"We are used to getting large projects off the ground," says Andreas Jacob, Rector of the Folkwang University of the Arts. But the exaggerated expectations are difficult to meet in the short time available. This is also why, according to criticism, the authors of the concept paper could not have clarified some key questions: "If it's about social aspects or the training of young people, do you want exclusive support or popular culture, do you want to reach the population in Essen and the Ruhr area or maybe the whole world after all?”

The country is not taking the time to calmly bring the project to maturity. Insiders say Minister Brandes is putting a lot of pressure on her. Every cultural manager knows that top artists cannot be hired at short notice because they are fully booked years in advance. It is still possible overnight to set up new venues at Zollverein and to find staff for organization and technology. Only a few institutes need such a short lead time as the Chorakademie Dortmund with its 32 choirs: “We simply wait until a concrete concept is available. Then we offer what is in demand, from a small choir to a huge sing-along campaign, from individual support to group workshops," says Managing Director Stefan Quehl.

Even an experienced politician like Andreas Bialas, cultural policy spokesman for the SPD parliamentary group, is "surprised" by the minister's actions. In these times of crisis, culture needs sustainable projects. With 15 million euros you can also do a lot for the weakened cultural institutes and artists in NRW.

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