Nele Hertling

The role of festivals and artists

© Inge Zimmermann

Nele Hertling was born in Berlin and studied Philosophy and Theatre Sciences studies at Humboldt University, Berlin. She then worked for various radiostations and publishing houses. In 1963, she started at the Academy of Arts Berlin West, sections music and performing arts, a position she held for 25 years. From 1986 until 1988, Nele directed the artistic programme of “Berlin – European Capital of Culture”. In 1989, she founded and directed until 2002 the Hebbel-Theater Berlin. From 2002 until 2006, she was the director of the Berlin based DAAD Artists in Residence programme. In 1998, Nele was elected as member of the Academy of Arts Berlin and assumed the vice presidency from 2006 until 2015. Since summer 2017, she is the director of the Performing Arts section. Nele is also a member and cooperator in different cultural / political initiatives and organisations such as “A Soul for Europe”.

Bernard Faivre d’Arcier, longtime director of the famous Avignon festival said some time ago: “The role of a festival is to help artists to dare, to engage in new projects.”
I do in principle agree, but I think it is today necessary to extend this motto. More and more in times when an increasing number of human beings is threatened globally by political, religious or also climate change – radical – developments, by social and natural catastrophes, we have to question ourselves more critically about the role of art and culture – and of course of artists.

Is there a chance of influence to support a belief in other values, in teaching understanding, a feeling of “belonging”, or caring?
Can festivals, art institutions react or (better) act apart from their role of
helping the artist? Do they really have a responsibility towards society, their audience, the urban context?

Festivals, art institutions have the possibility to open a window to the world, to create awareness about the immense diversity of this world – based on the visionary power of art, the persuading influence of artistic imagination.
It is us, individuals and groups, that engage in cultural and artistic work,
that have to keep and develop our conviction that these can be used as tools against tendencies of fear, hate and despair, to give people an idea about the chance to work together for another reality.

In the city I come from, Berlin, for example, we can see a great number of examples, how artists, how groups and initiatives use their competence, their skill and engagement in the situation of having to face an incredibly difficult situation of very big numbers of migrants and refugees – most of them for longer periods living in difficult circumstances, not knowing the language, having no work, mostly no privacy at all and mostly fragile chances for the future.

Artists and cultural initiatives engage themselves to create projects for – mostly – children and their mothers – activating them in groups with musicians, dancers or actors. Participants slowly loose their fear and shyness, they start to communicate between themselves and to others, they learn to express themselves. By working with professionals, they find a new feeling of belonging and Identity. They become able to tell their stories, to find a new family, and of course, that is not only true for migrants.

I am aware about the fact that this is not an easy process. Foreigners, even artists from foreign countries, can bring disturbances, provocations, new challenges – but even then it is a way to create more curiosity and understanding about the “others”, to support openness and tolerance. We can learn to listen to each other, to accept our differences as a positive challenge and enrichment.

But apart from that somehow new role for festivals or institutions – it is of course immensely important to care for the freedom and the necessary basis for the work of artists – to create the facilities for their visions and their presentation to audiences, to create curiosity and interest in new audiences.

More than ever – we see the frightening developments in the world all over – we have to defend art and artists against ignorance, censorship, against economic interests and misuse, budget cuts – against a tendency in many cities to be driven away from town centre spaces for the sake of investment interests.

We also can witness signs of a lack of curiosity, of not taking risks, of supporting more easily the already well known, succesful accepted work, with the result that the same performance or project is seen all over instead of caring for and supporting the young and upcoming artist, more radical and experimental ideas, ways of expression and structures.
There is sometimes a heavy pressure from the financing bodies or the political structures – to be “successful”, meaning to sell the highest number of tickets, to earn the highest income, to have the most positive media reviews. The idea of the fashionable “cultural industries” against the true support of art and artists.
We have to be aware all the time why, where and for whom we work in a festival or in any other artistic or cultural institution.

More than ever, we have a need for communication, for co-operation, a new need for sharing ideas, convictions, visions, to stand up against threatening developments.
Art and culture bring people together, creating exchange, contacts and friendship; they can start long term relationships across all sorts of borders. And – it is important to open to as many parts of our societies, including our political decisionmakers. They have to experience the powerful influences of art and culture, together with their citizens, to understand their important role as facilitators for the working conditions for the security and freedom of artists in changing societies, and to understand the immensely important and influential role or art and culture. They should understand that artists could be a helpful partners with their own competence in the difficult process of creating a united peaceful Europe.

Art and Culture are not profitable, they can’t be assessed and evaluated. But they are EFFECTIVE. And they have a great power over people. Thex can give people a sense of security and identity, of belonging, pride, meaning.” Wim Wenders

Speech by Nele Hertling in La Valletta, January 2017 in the context of a debate about La Valletta European Capital of Culture 2018 with politicians, artists and cultural managers.

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