Favorable Exchange Rates
Dresden, Germany and Cleveland, Ohio have been swapping artists annually for 19 years.
Looking out from the top of the tower above the Grafikwerkstatt in Dresden, Germany, you can see where the Allied bombs fell toward the end of World War II. A line of boxy architecture from the 50s and 60s runs south from the Elbe river through the heart of the city. Just about all the rest is at least 200 years old. Where new buildings stand now, there was rubble in 1945.
The Grafikwerkstatt is a fine art print shop. Together with Zygote Press in Cleveland, and with support from the Ohio Arts Council and the City of Dresden, they’ve co-hosted Ohio’s longest running international artist exchange program. In 2014, artists Clemens Reinecke and Rita Geissler came from Germany to work in Cleveland. Their work was featured in Foreign Affairs 19, at Zygote Press in October. Artists representing Ohio in Germany were Miami University professor of print making Ellen Price, and yours truly, wood block / letterpress printer (and CAN publisher) Michael Gill. Through the years, Ohio artists have stayed at the Raskolnikoff Hotel, a few miles away from the Grafikwerkstatt. On the walls of its stairwell, you can see prints by artists who have been part of the exchange through the years.
Dresden and Cleveland both seem to be in recovery. Cleveland, of course, is rebuilding after the departure of industry and jobs. Capitalists found cheaper labor elsewhere, and people exercised their freedom to buy new houses, leaving the city behind. Meanwhile Dresden is recovering from not only the bombing raids (which destroyed the beloved Baroque Frauenkirche, the Semperoper Haus, the palatial Zwinger complex of museums, all of which have been rebuilt, stone by numbered stone) but also from the economic stagnation of communist rule during what the people in Dresden call “GDR time.” There just wasn’t enough productivity or money. Things ran down.
Now, in Dresden as well as Cleveland, people are making their way back to once abandoned buildings and filling them with new businesses and ideas. The Neustadt—the neighborhood around the Raskolinikoff—has narrow, cobbled streets, packed tight with four-story buildings. Twenty years ago, it was a haven for squatters. Now it’s filled up with a lot of businesses that will sound familiar in revitalized Cleveland: Restaurants, bars, bicycle shops, art spaces. There’s plenty more, too, but you get the idea. Young people are leading the way.
Indeed, there are more similarities than differences between the Grafikwerkstatt and Zygote Press. Both are located in old factory buildings, equipped with massive old presses and other machines. Both offer expertise in intaglio, relief, letterpress, and other printmaking techniques. Both are staffed by supportive people who help others do their work.
Support for the Arts
In both places, too, public investment in the arts has significantly helped the effort to rebuild. Clevelanders are well familiar, of course, with the boost given to the local art scene–and as a result to the quality of life in the region as a whole since 2006–by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. In Dresden, significant public support for arts activity dates farther back. After World War II, the Zwinger complex of palatial museums was the first of the bombed out, Baroque-era structures the people of Dresden chose to rebuild. They went through the rubble left behind by the bombing, sorted and numbered the pieces, and –stone by stone– rebuilt it. Subsequently also came the grand opera house Semperoper, and the iconic domed church, the Frauenkirche, which in addition to church services also presents a busy schedule of concerts. Now those buildings are at the heart of the city’s tourist economy, surrounded by businesses, from fine restaurants to street performers.
Dresden’s public support for the arts is not separate from the local city government, as it is in Cuyahoga County, but instead part of the general fund budget. Martin Chidiac, who is in charge of the city-supported museums, galleries and cultural exchange programs for Dresden, says the city’s entire budget is about 2 billion euros, or about $2.54 billion US per year. Dresden’s support for the arts, he says, is about four to six percent of that—which amounts to $101.6 million to $152.4 million annually. Compare that to the $15 million or so that Cuyahoga Arts and Culture collects and distributes from the cigarette tax.
But to fully understand how far Dresden’s investment goes, more information is necessary: It’s the Free State of Saxony—not the City of Dresden—that supports big, traditional institutions like the Zwinger complex of museums, with its Old Masters Gallery, and the grand Semperoper company. Imagine if Cleveland had an arts budget somewhere between $100 and $150 million, and didn’t have to support the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Orchestra, or Playhouse Square, because the State was already doing that.
Dresden’s arts dollars are therefore free to focus on contemporary and twentieth century art and performance. Chidiac says most of its arts budget goes to expensive, performance-oriented companies, which include orchestras and dance companies, but adds that its support of visual art–because it is inexpensive and, of course, visual–makes an excellent bargain on both the quality of life and promotional fronts.
Further, the government does not give individual artist grants. “We have a bigger social welfare system than the United States,” Chidiac says. “If an artist is not selling his work, he can get welfare like any other unemployed person.”
Instead, the city invests in capacity, and organizations that create social fabric. The Grafikwerkstatt is an example of both. Founded in 1958, it is at the heart of an active artist printmaking scene in Dresden. The three men who work there each have their specialty—Peter Stephan working with lithography, Torsten Leupold with intaglio, and Udo Haufe with relief printing and letterpress. The city pays their salaries and for the building and its costs; the Grafikwerkstatt earns money for supplies by charging fees for service, and by selling paper and printing plates. The city’s investment provides quality of life for the city, but also supports artists as entrepreneurs.
The Alte Feuerwache Loschwitz is an example of an organization Chidiac says helps to build social fabric. It’s a community arts center in a renovated old firehouse, with music, art, and theater classes for all ages, in addition to a gallery that presented an exhibit of works by resident artists from Ohio. “There is no other civic center in that neighborhood,” Chidiac says. “At the time of reunification, the building was occupied by squatters. People who were artists squatting there now teach courses and are employees of the co-op. They make money now, by teaching classes.”
Dresden’s ample public support for the arts does not overshadow a lively commercial gallery scene. Indeed, on a Friday night in October, more than a dozen of them stayed open late for a kind of art walk, the Long Night of Galleries and Museums. With diversity paralleling the range of tastes in Cleveland, individual galleries specialized in contemporary work, as well as historic art of the region, from serious and traditional to cheeky, avant garde, and social commentary.
The greatest sense of familiarity we found, though, was in the spirit of the printmaking community around the Grafikwerkstatt. Printmakers just seem to understand each other. Whether working out issues in the printing process, choosing the right paper, sitting around a table for tea, or even talking about where we get our rags, we found common concerns that break down language barriers, and any other kind of barrier, as well. And that, I’m sure we can all agree, is what international exchange is all about.