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Excellence and Accountability in the German Orchestra Field

Perched on the banks of a quiet lake beyond which the snowcapped mountains of Switzerland rise into the sky, the South German city of Konstanz (population 80,000) is a relaxing getaway for weekend tourists and tranquil home to many retirees. Both culturally and geographically, it’s hard to imagine a place in Germany further from the bustle of Berlin.

And yet the local symphony orchestra, the Südwestdeutsche Philharmonie (SWP), was recently recognized by the German federal government for its outstanding accomplishments. When we met earlier this spring, the unassuming director Beat Fehlmann claimed not to be sure why his orchestra received this honor, but surmised that it may have had to do with the orchestra’s commitment to public accountability, which has recently been making waves in the German orchestra field.

Mr. Fehlmann is in the enviable position of leading an organization that receives over 80% of its budget from state and local subsidies, with few, if any, questions asked. While utterly unheard of in the US or UK, this situation is quite typical of cultural institutions in Germany. However, given what is happening to cultural budgets in other countries and realizing that politicians everywhere are increasingly under pressure to explain and justify public spending (particularly spending that might be seen as primarily serving the well-to-do elite), Mr. Fehlmann sees the writing on the wall. It seems clear that state and municipally funded cultural institutions in Germany will increasingly need to show how they are using taxpayer euros and explain the value they are bringing to society in return.

For the past three years, the SWP has therefore published an annual report detailing everything from the number of subscriptions sold, to the number of special events that were presented, and the number of sick days taken by the musicians. Not satisfied with managerial accounting, the SWP has identified and is in the process of refining five Impact Goals, to which it wants to hold itself accountable. They include celebrating the breadth of the musical cannon, presenting innovative programs, and fulfilling an educational mission. The annual report presents specific measures associated with each.

In adopting this practice, Mr. Fehlmann has positioned his organization ahead of the curve. Unlike colleagues in the UK who are being required to report standardized audience survey scores, the SWP is in the enviable position of defining the metrics to which it wants to be held accountable. If these measures prove effective, the organization may well avert other external impositions.

As someone who spent more than a little time contemplating the purpose and effects of cultural subsidies in Germany in an earlier life (resulting in a 500-page doctoral thesis on the topic), I have been fascinated to learn about the SWP’s work in the area of accountability. I left our weekend of meetings in Konstanz inspired by Mr. Fehlmann and his enterprising team, and both curious about and full of hope for the orchestra’s future.

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