Artistic working conditions - German perspective

The three-day symposium Working Together Transnationally. Structures, Conditions and Artistic Practices took place from March 31st until April 2nd in collaboration with the European Dancehouse Network. Curated together with the Brussels based sociologist Rudi Laermans and facilitated by Fearghus Ó Conchúir, about 70 international guests and participants discussed and practiced models of solidarity within and between production structures and artists, investigated possible media of collaboration and explored choreographic forms of collaboration.

Janina Benduski is chairwoman of the German Association of Independent Performing Arts. She opened with a lecture about minimum fees for artists in Germany: “One way to attempt to compare differences and working realities in Europe is to take a closer look at project budgets in different European countries. And what do we see? Precarious working conditions on all sides, massive inequality between partners and countries all artfully listed in columns and rows”.

Find the full opening speech here below.

Improving Artistic Working Conditions · By Janina Benduski

Dear colleagues,

I am very grateful to Kerstin Evert and Rudi Laermans for inviting me to speak here today. And I am even more happy about the fact they have dedicated the first day of this international conference to the subject of improving artistic working conditions. It is truly a topic that concerns us all. And it is one that we have all talked a lot about, but as long as these conditions do not improve, I fear we will have to carry on talking about it. At least until something gets done about it.

Today, I would like to give you some idea of the political and economical background of independent performing arts here in Germany. My name is Janina Benduski. I am currently – among other things – honorary elected president of the board of the German Federal Association of Independent Performing Arts aka Bundesverband freie darstellende Künste.

The Bundesverband is an umbrella organisation, bringing together and coordinating the activities of 16 regional associations across Germany on a national level. These 16 regional organisations have momentarily around 1.200 members. These include venues, production houses, artists groups, collectives, producers, but also individual artists, running their own companies. We have a small office in Berlin, which is financed by membership fees and funding by the federal government. We have three people there with paid positions, but much of the work is also done on an unpaid, volunteer basis by members of various working groups, as well as by the seven board members.

The Bundesverband was founded in 1990 at a time when independent structures for the arts were gradually beginning to stabilize and professionalize. The association’s first and foremost goal at that time up to today was and is to improve living and working conditions in the independent performing arts.

To do so, we are momentarily mainly focusing on three areas:

  • 1 - Political involvement and lobby work concerning all policies that affect the work of artists and cultural workers on the federal level in Germany: e.g. social security regulations (Künstlersozialkasse and the Bayrische Versorgungskammer – both are special programmes providing reasonable social security benefits for performing artists), but also all regulations concerning taxes, financial administration, etc.
  •  2 - Improving structures: feedback sessions, working groups, studies, papers, asking the community what they want, telling politicians what they should do, you name it…
  •  3 - Improve Visibility: Raise Awareness. Approach the public. Activate Media. Activate audiences, both new and old. Put performing arts on the agenda.

To many of you, this is surely no new fight and one that you are probably equally involved in your own countries. For as this meeting and the talks that went before it confirmed: fair, stable and secure living and working conditions for artists and art makers are vital and prominent factors in all forms of artistic collaboration and coproduction.

Yet, when we work across national boundaries, coming from countries with very different backgrounds concerning production structures and funding for the performing arts, the task does not get easier. Financial instruments across Europe are extremely different. Wages or other remunerations such as per diems are difficult to compare. This is even more so the case, if we look beyond Europe.

One way to attempt to compare differences and working realities in Europe is to take a closer look at project budgets in different European countries. And what do we see? Precarious working conditions on all sides, massive inequality between partners and countries all artfully listed in columns and rows. I recommend that every politician on the European level take a look and remind himself or herself on this once a day.

None of this is new. We all know and are very well aware of it. A lot of colleagues, who I have been asking lately about this topic, have told me about the practical and ethical challenges, they face in international projects.

So: what can we do about it? It’s difficult to say, but there is one thing we can do: exchange.

  • We can exchange knowledge about numbers and working conditions.
  • We can talk about methods and strategies.
  • We can try to find a common language.
  • We can practice solidarity.

One such model of general solidarity, which has gained quickly in speed and strenght over the last years in Germany is the “Empfehlung von Honoraruntergrenzen” i.e. recommended minimum fees in projects. The movement towards adhering to budgeting and paying recommended minimum fees in projects in the performing arts sector is a good example of a successful case of the independent performing arts community leaving a strong impact on general working structures in the arts in Germany.

The concept was first developed in Berlin in 2008 through a joint effort by local dance and theatre makers. Freelance artists working with public funding in Germany are not required to adhere to certain standards of minimum pay to their teams. Absurdly, the funding regulations do mention how high fees are allowed to be, but not how low.

So, the community decided to calculate a monthly recommended minimum fee for artists working full-time on a project with the idea that if this recommendation is actually applied to every project, then:

  • We have clear numbers and it is easier to argue for a substantial increase on funding for the performing arts.
  • We can provide best-practice examples to help artists draw up fair budgets.

The recommended minimum fee movement came at the same time, that minimum wage was likewise being discussed in Germany and then finally made national policy in 2015. That same year, after the Berlin arts community had followed the strategy of lobbying for minimum fees for over 7 years, the government finally officially acknowledged the necessity of the recommendation.

Ever since, the City of Berlin asks all artists applying for funding to respect the minimum fees in their budgets. To secure this, the city raised its funding for performing arts by half a million euro in 2016 and another 1,2 million euro in 2017.

At the same time, in late 2015, the German Federal Association of Performing Arts also decided to follow the Berlin example and encourage further local associations to develop their own recommended minimum fees for artistic projects.

In Berlin, the recommendation originally began at 2.000 €/month. Today, the Federal Association has raised that recommendation to 2.300 €/month, based on the minimum wage for employees at big institutions plus an average sum for social security, which freelancers have to pay themselves.

Since then, things have begun moving quickly. Regions and cities all over Germany have tried to understand and adapt this system to local living conditions. In some place, it has been introduced without problems with local funding already well equipped to handle the change.

In other places, recommended fees could only be introduced after substantial work into securing new sources of general funding.

And in some cases, the local artists had to say: no, we cannot request minimum fees in our projects at this moment, because then there would hardly be any projects left. But we can now prove to our politicians and funding administrators that the system is relying on the artists working for too little money.

So what is happening there, is actually really wonderful:

  • The performing artists themselves – the communities – are talking about what work is worth. Can you pay it? Can we pay it? What is worth working for?
  • And the governments and the funding institutions are also talking about what kind of funding they want for the independent performing arts: What does society want? Lots of very cheap projects that exploit artists, living at the margins of society? Or artists, who can actually make a living making art?
  • We do not know when or where this will end up. But what we see at the moment is a development. And all this is thanks to the actually quite simple idea of providing HUGs – HonorUntergrenze.

In preparation for my talk today, I tried to inform myself about similar movements in other European countries. It was not so easy. As a member of the IETM, I was able to find some information there, but not much on the individual cultural-political goals and strategies of different countries. The Compendium on Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe is quite useful, but sufficiently not qualified for comparing the situation in various independent art scenes. And of course, websites such as Touring Artists do provide practical information – how to apply for a project, how to handle funding in different countries, how to get a visa, but the information that they give is about how things are and not about how they should be.

Over the last year, the German Federal Association of Performing Arts has begun working together with other European associations for independent performing arts. We are trying to exchange knowledge and to talk about common strategies, but we are only at the beginning of our journey.

And I do hope, that networks such as the European Dancehouse Network will join in this process. Because it is very important that not only political associations, but also artistic companies, venues and networks take an active role in the development of policies for the arts.

So these are the questions that I wish to leave you with:

  • Do we want to know more about the social situation in other European countries?
  • Do we want to have a plan for joint action as independent performing arts on a European level?
  • Do we possibly even want to draw up guidelines or recommendations on how to react to the challenges of European arts projects with many different countries?
  • And last, but not least: how can we all behave with greater solidarity?

I wish all of us a successful conference with many inspiring moments of solidarity in the arts.