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“It was always a tightrope act”

Interview: Joachim Sartorius. The Berliner Festspiele is turning 60. Sartorius, the man at the helm since 2001, is using the occasion of a duly celebrated jubilee on August 27 to throw in the towel. Time for a chat.

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Photo by Craig Hull
The Berliner Festspiele – the institution that oversees such prestigious cultural festivals as next month’s Musikfest and International Literature Festival, as well as art venues such as the Martin-Gropius-Bau – is turning 60. Joachim Sartorius, the man at the helm since 2001, is using the occasion of a duly celebrated jubilee on August 27 to throw in the towel. The diplomat, poet and translator who made Heiner Goebbels, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pina Bausch Festspiele regulars and rediscovered Tempelhof before Bread and Butter, has decided to move on to new horizons involving Cyprus and a “weird erotic novel set in New York”. Time for a chat. And don’t forget to check out our “Sixty years of the Berliner Festspiele” timeline and our photo slideshow of the opening of the Freie Volksbühne, the building that Haus der Berliner Festspiele has occupied since 2001. It’s your last year. Why? It’s my decision. I thought 10 years was enough. I have one very egoistic motive: I want to have more time to deal with my own work. I had a lot of fantastic jobs over the last 40 years. But it was always about creeping into the heads of others and trying to realize their projects. The other thing is that I think it’s about time a new person with new passions and networks takes over. It’s important for the institution. This is my noble motive! Why did you join Berliner Festspiele to begin with? Was it something like a dream job for you? Actually, when I was 21-22, my dream was to become the secretary general of the Goethe Institut! And then it happened somehow. But it was a difficult time, because heavy financial cuts were imposed by the Foreign Ministry under Joschka Fischer. I spent four years in conferences and meetings trying to deal with the cuts. I had to close a few institutes, which was very painful. I always wanted to be close to artists and concrete projects. At the Goethe Institut, the artists were light years away. I only got in touch with them when a problem arose, like when the institute in Moscow called me and said, “Mr. Baselitz is very angry. Can you please call him and try to calm him down?” So in the end I resigned. The experience didn’t turn you off of cultural management? The Berliner Festspiele is much smaller. So I was very happy when I got the offer, because I knew I would be close to artists. You took over at a special time, when the Festspiele got itself a proper house… Not one, two. We got two buildings! One was this theatre here (in Schaperstraße, Wilmersdorf) and the other one was the Martin-Gropius-Bau. The BF never had a building, and suddenly we were dealing with two huge, beautiful spaces. That’s also when the federal government decided to take over the BF’s funding. That was crucial, wasn’t it? Yes, until then, 50 percent of the BF was always financed by the state. In 2001, because of Berlin’s financial struggles, the federal government took over completely. Suddenly we were presenting federally backed festivals in the capital. Yes. Berlin, a broke city, had just become the capital of Germany. It needed help. Undeniably. Also, Chancellor Schröder had appointed the first-ever federal minister of culture, and this minister needed to have some toys. The federal government took over the Jewish Museum, the Festspiele, the Berlinale and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Germany has a long tradition of state-sponsored culture… All countries have different traditions. In the US, the National Endowment for the Arts has a budget the same size as that of the Munich Opera House. To us, this looks ridiculous. Of course we cling to our tradition, and it’s very difficult to change long, ongoing processes quickly. About €14 billion in cultural funding are provided by public institutions annually, compared to only €600 million by the private sector, so arts funding in the private sector is somehow underdeveloped in Germany. How much does the Berliner Festspiele actually get? We receive roughly €9 million in state funding, and we earn about €4 million through ticket sales. Sponsoring varies from year to year. Overall, our budget is €15 million. For extra projects we need additional money. The nice thing about not being supported by the city of Berlin is that you have security of planning. For the long-term projects – the Musikfest, the big exhibitions at the Gropius-Bau – you have to plan three or four years in advance, so it’s nice to know it’s not going to be a financial catastrophe. What is your personal conviction about funding for culture? I think there should be strong state support for art. I think art is extremely important for society. Why? Gosh, now we’re entering the field of philosophy. There is a famous dictum that art is wine and that we need it more than bread. A truly democratic state doesn’t interfere in the artistic field. In my 10 years, I never had a single directive. But as soon as you have sponsors, you are confronted with a hundred wishes. BMW wants to give €100,000, but then you must bring Simon Rattle to the BMW office and he must caress some cars. Sponsors always have a lot of demands and these demands do influence your programme and your content to a certain degree. This doesn’t happen with the state. So when you took over, you had two great buildings, a solid, dependable budget, many existing running festivals…. What was your vision? What new ideas did you bring to the Festspiele? Normally, my passion is for rather small, extravagant and experimental projects, and of course being federally funded in the capital, a lot of glamour and rather big things were expected, more like the National Ballet of Canada – which I never invited – and not some strange, dirty performance groups. So somehow it was a tightrope act: to not betray our own artistic convictions and at the same time to cater to some external demands. You also started a new theatre festival: Spielzeit’Europa It was designed to show important productions in dance and theatre from abroad, while making good use of the BF during the winter months. Theatertreffen was our only German-speaking festival. Spielzeit’Europa is somehow its international twin. Theatertreffen has been made more accessible to internationals, with more and more productions surtitled in English and even a partially English-language blog. Is that important for you? Very important. There’s also the Stückemarkt, which is a kind of smaller festival within the Theatertreffen and we open that up to Europeans, so that it’s not just German playwrights The next Spielzeit’Europa has a small focus on Tunisia and the Arab Spring, with director Fadhel Jaïbi opening the season. Is this something to do with your personal connection to the country? I lived in Tunisia from age 10-14. For me it was very important. Later I spent time in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Cyprus and Istanbul. So I think I have an antenna for what happens in the Islamic or Arab world. I have known Fadhel Jaïbi for 15 years, so I wanted to invite him for this particular theatre play [Yahia Yaïch Amnesia] which somehow foresaw what is happening in Tunisia. Is there a colourful personal memory that sticks out from those 10 years? I think one strong moment was when I paid a visit to Tempelhof with Simon Rattle. We stepped in and Simon Rattle slapped his hands and said, “Fantastic acoustics! Let’s do it here.” The Stockhausen concert was to follow. How would you assess the changes in Berlin over the past 10 years? This was one important question when I started in 2001, because Berlin was changing. The old Festspiele was an instrument of Western cultural policy during the Cold War. So I think the main question was: how can you participate in this new Berlin? It must have been a challenge to be located in the old West at a time when all the focus was on the ‘new’ East. It was difficult in the beginning. The west, especially Charlottenburg, was snoring… It’s changing.  In the west the Schaubühne and our theatre are the two strongholds in the performing arts. Although our theatre is located in the old West, our audiences also come from the East, from around Germany, from Europe. I also think some of our events shaped the image of Berlin. The exhibition of Olafur Eliasson at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, for instance, which also had a lot to do with the city. And we discovered Tempelhof a few hours before it was closed. We had this huge concert with Stockhausen there. It was a beginning, a rediscovery of this location, a realization you could do a lot of things with it. At that time, there was no Bread and Butter! What was it like to move back to Berlin after working in Munich for the Goethe Institut? It was fantastic. I like Berlin. It is the most exciting German city. In Munich you have only high culture. Here you have all these off theatres and experimental stuff. It’s quite amazing what happens every night in Berlin. I always praise the Berlin public. Even if the most obscure poet from Bulgaria gives a reading in a cellar somewhere, 40 people show up. What’s the first thing you will do when you leave office? I will probably write a travelogue in Cyprus. I spent some time there in the 1980s and have been asked by a publishing house to do that. After that, a weird erotic novel set in New York!