Battle Cry Resounds in Hamburg as Spending Cuts Decimate Museum

Torkild Hinrichsen
Torkild Hinrichsen, the director of the Altonaer Museum in Hamburg, Germany. Hinrichsen is organizing petitions protesting the closing by the Senate. ``I have surprised myself by daring to do the things I didn't dare do in 1968,'' he said in an interview. Photo: Catherine Hickley/Bloomberg

Hamburg’s main theater, the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, has temporarily traded its gentle dolphin logo for a vicious shark.

“This is a battle cry,” Florian Vogel, the theater’s deputy artistic director, explained in a meeting room backstage. “We have to fight back and defend ourselves.”

The theater’s opponent is the Hamburg Senate, or state government, whose spending cuts also are forcing museums to close and libraries to scale back opening hours. With 1.22 million euros ($1.7 million) to be slashed from its 2011-2012 budget, the Schauspielhaus may be forced to shut workshops and eliminate its renowned youth-theater project.

The city-state’s new mayor, Christoph Ahlhaus, announced annual savings of 510 million euros in September, a month after he took over as head of a coalition between his party, the Christian Democratic Union, and the Greens. The Senate says the reductions are necessary because the world economic crisis caused a shortfall of 6 billion euros in tax revenue through 2013 for Germany’s biggest port, whose economy relies on global trade.

Others argue that Hamburg, whose 1.8 million citizens are the wealthiest in Germany measured by average income, should not be scrimping on its museums, libraries and theater. Culture Senator Reinhard Stuth, appointed by Ahlhaus in August, is aiming to push through arts cuts of almost 8 million euros over the next two years. Through a spokesman, he declined to be interviewed for this article.

Culture Metropolis

“Hamburg advertises itself as a cultural metropolis, and yet it is sending a very negative signal to the rest of Germany,” said Torkild Hinrichsen, the director of the Altonaer Museum. The Senate has slated the museum for closure at the end of the year, with cost savings estimated at 3.45 million euros.

“It will be the first time since World War II that a museum of this size has been closed in Germany,” he said.

These are not the first arts cuts Hamburg has sustained in recent years. The Schauspielhaus lost its director, Friedrich Schirmer, in September, before the latest round was announced. He gave lack of finance as his reason for quitting.

In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine published Oct. 18, Schirmer said that at least by resigning, he saved the theater his salary. In acknowledging his departure, Stuth responded that the theater was “adequately financed” even if existing funding agreements no longer could be honored.

Shark Badges

While the Schauspielhaus is hanging protest banners on its facade, printing shark badges, organizing demonstrations and targeting Stuth in a postcard campaign, Hinrichsen is collecting signatures for a petition and exploring legal options in his fight to save the Altonaer Museum.

The museum, which attracted about 53,000 visitors last year -- many of them schoolchildren -- focuses on the cultural history of Altona, a western district of Hamburg that belonged to Denmark until 1864. Exhibits include models of historic ships and barns, recreated farmhouse rooms from different eras and a traditional pharmacy.

“The Senate wants to rip out the heart of Altona, the collective common history,” Hinrichsen, 62, said in a meeting at the museum. “Altona was the hub of northern Europe -- a link between Scandinavia and the south.”

Hinrichsen, who has worked at the museum since 1986, argues that the Senate’s arithmetic is flawed. Only a fraction of the planned savings is possible through closure as employees are mostly on contracts that don’t allow them to be fired, he said. There is nowhere for the museum’s contents to be stored, meaning a new depot would have to be rented, Hinrichsen said.

Dissatisfied Citizens

The Altonaer Museum is festooned with defiant banners protesting the cuts. Hinrichsen, who has an unruly gray beard, is relishing the fight.

“It is important to persevere,” he said. “We are not alone. It is not in the Hanseatic culture to protest against elected governments. But the circle of dissatisfied citizens is growing. I have surprised myself by daring to do the things I didn’t dare to do in 1968.”

The citizens of Hamburg have found a scapegoat for their frustration: The vast Elbphilharmonie concert hall under construction on the banks of the Elbe, overlooking the sea of cranes in the busy port below.

Landmark Hall

Intended as a new landmark and designed by Herzog & de Meuron, its cost to the state has escalated to 323 million euros from an initial estimate of about 70 million euros. At an Oct. 1 demonstration, 16,000 people formed a chain from the Senate’s finance authority to the building site. Protesters burned fake million-euro notes to symbolize the waste.

“I am sure the Elbphilharmonie is going to be impressive, but it is unacceptable that the costs have spiraled out of control,” said Sabrina van der Ley, who is co-director of the Galerie der Gegenwart contemporary-art museum in Hamburg.

Though her museum isn’t hit by the latest round of cuts, previous savings attempts have left it under-financed by “several hundred thousand euros,” Van der Ley said over coffee in the museum cafe during a break from preparing the opening of an exhibition devoted to the Canadian artist Rodney Graham. The only way to make up the shortfall this year was to shutter the entrance hall and other areas for weeks at a time, she said.

“It seems that the arts and culture education have no value for this Senate; they are just an extra cost,” Van der Ley said. “Culture must be spared from the spending cuts from now on. We are willing to fight, and there’s a lot of solidarity between the different institutions.”

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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