On October 29, the day German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would not seek reelection in 2021, she called for greater gender parity in the arts during a speech made at a ceremony celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Culture Ministry’s founding. The event took place at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a major cultural complex that’s under construction until next year as part of the royal palace’s redevelopment.
“Whoever cares about diversity cannot accept that women still earn considerably less than their male colleagues,” Merkel said, according to transcripts of her speech. “Let’s ask ourselves — how many female conductors have we experienced? How many women rank among the top-selling painters? The answers are rather sobering. This means we need real equality of opportunity for men and women in arts and culture.”
Last year, a study commissioned by the government and conducted by Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance found that although women represent about 48% of the cultural workforce in Germany, they only hold 21% of the top management positions at media companies and 16% of the decision-making positions at major culture departments.
Though on-message, Merkel’s speech cloaks a much more fraught relationship with the country’s sizable and government-subsidized art sector, which has long-criticized her conciliatory approach to the immigration policy demands of the country’s rightwing politicians. Germany’s far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), recently made major gains in their regional election defeat of the Chancellor’s ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union. According to a September poll, the AfD is the country’s second most popular party with 18 percent support, beating the mainstream Social Democratic Party into third place by a single point. Those developments have urged Merkel’s administration to revise their open-door refugee policy and create border camps for asylum seekers.
Now, almost 8,700 cultural workers in Germany have signed a petition calling for Interior Minister Horst Seehofer’s resignation. Artists, gallerists, curators, and architects were among the signatories of the letter, which accuses Seehofer of destroying “the working capacity of the federal government” and damaging the “values of [the] constitution.”
Seehofer is not part of Merkel’s political party, but rather the more conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) whose members comprise around seven to ten percent of voters in Germany’s federal elections. Still, his inclusion in the Chancellor’s cabinet was somewhat of a ploy by Merkel to assure rightwing conservatives that her administration would take their opinions into account, especially when it comes to immigration policy. After all, Seehofer is a proponent of the vaguely patriotic “Heimat” concept (roughly translated as “homeland”) and has vowed to increase deportations and video surveillance in Germany.
The petition, titled “Dignity, Responsibility, Democracy” was organized by author Jan Böttcher, film director Matthias Luthardt, artist Rebecca Raue, author Moritz Rinke, and theater director Mathias Schönsee. After circulating the petition within the arts community through September, the letter’s organizers sent it to Seehofer on Wednesday, October 17. The document accuses the Interior Minister of supporting violent far-right demonstrations in the country, such as the Chemnitz protest about the alleged murder of a German citizen by an Iraqi and a Syrian asylum seeker. German media reported that Seehofer expressed a desire to join those protesters in the streets, if not for his position as minister. Previously, Seehofer declared immigration as “the mother of all political problems” and has openly claimed that anyone who is a criminal in Germany comes from abroad.
The petition letter ends with the following message:
We want a stable democratic society in which all citizens find their place and those in need of protection are helped to the best of their abilities. This country needs a federal policy that is aware of humanitarian values. Seehofer damages the values of our constitution. His behavior is provocative, backward and undignified toward humans. He disguise this as a path toward a sustainable Germany society. He does not unite the land, he splits it.
In her evening speech, Merkel focused on how the art world could trailblaze more equitable social and financial guidelines for the rest of the country. She noted the great headway made by the federal film grant-making authority to provide even support across demographics. She also discussed interest in seeing how artifacts acquired during Germany’s colonial era, now in public collections, will be handled by museum leaders.
There was no mention of the German art world’s sizable petition of her interior minister.