As far back as the 13th century, Italian city-states guarded their cultural artifacts as carefully as they did their borders. Some 800 years later, in the unified nation that claims Michelangelo and Titian as part of its heritage, that legacy still has power. From masterpieces hanging in museums to precious works held in private collections whose owners cannot so much as move a painting without official approval almost all of Italy's treasures are jealously protected by the state. Culture, says Salvatore Settis, an Italian professor of art history and classical archaeology, "holds a historic memory that belongs to the citizens."
This same deep sense of obligation is shared by governments across Europe. But fiscal pressures are forcing countries to rethink and restructure the way they look after their artistic pasts and nurture the present and future. It's not that public funding is falling; in the U.K. and France, for example, money for the arts has risen slightly. But governments across Europe are pressuring arts bodies to become more self-sufficient even to embrace once-taboo methods like privatization and corporate sponsorship and to recognize that commercial viability is as critical to survival as artistic merit. "Culture is business," says Werner Heinrichs, dean at the State University for Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart. "Nobody should pretend that these two things are not linked."
That lesson is being learned at the Staatsoper on Unter den Linden in Berlin. The city of Berlin faces debts of more than €45 billion, so the opera house and other premier cultural venues are feeling the pinch. Like all German arts organizations, the Staatsoper relies heavily on state funds. This year, it will receive about €44 million in subsidies out of a total budget of €66 million. Less than 1% of the opera's money comes from private donations, with the rest coming from ticket sales. But last month Berlin Cultural Senator Thomas Flierl announced cost-cutting plans to reduce staff and jointly administer the city's three opera houses the Staatsoper plus the Deutsche Oper and Komische Oper.
Flierl's rescue plan is viewed with suspicion by the management of the opera houses. The Staatsoper, which last year had a financial surplus of €7.2 million, will be obliged to transfer its savings to the cash-strapped Komische Oper. Many fear that the plan may save money only at the cost of quality and diversity. "I hope we don't have three weak operas," says Georg Vierthaler, managing director of the Staatsoper. "Berlin needs one strong opera that has the power to compete with London and Vienna." But first Berlin's three opera houses will have to learn how to compete among themselves.
As far as sponsorship goes, the relationship between culture and corporations is most developed in the U.K. In 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available, sponsorship from business accounted for about 11% of all arts funding; in Germany, where public investment in the arts is seven times higher than in the U.K., the figure stands at about 4%. But even in those nations where the arts and business worlds have been viewed as mutually exclusive, private funding is increasingly important. In France, it is one of the pillars of Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon's new policy for the arts.