Will Zoning Laws Make Us Love The Arts More

I am back from my trip to Germany. Part of my trip was devoted to helping my mother do some genealogy research. In the process, I came to a realization I think we have all have suspected- The relationship Europeans have with the arts can never be replicated in the United States. There are just too many fundamental differences in the lives we lead and the the way we interact with the arts as we develop from children to adults.

I have traveled fairly extensively in China, Japan, Mongolia, Ireland and Germany and in my view, the arts seem most present in the lives of Japanese and Germans. Though in Japan it manifests more as a pursuit of general excellence while in Germany it seems to manifest as the intentional creation of artistic work.

No matter where I went in Germany from large cities like Frankfurt and Munich, to smaller towns like Obernburg and Volkach and the university town of Heidelberg, there were dozens of notices of concerts, recitals and plays everywhere we went.

Now granted, Germany has the benefit of churches and castles as well as theaters in which these performances can take place.

Stage in Heidelberg Castle Courtyard
Stage in Heidelberg Castle Courtyard
stage outside Heidelberg Castle
stage outside Heidelberg Castle
stage in courtyard of Aschaffenburg Castle
stage in courtyard of Aschaffenburg Castle

Germany also has a “percent for art” program where a percentage of the construction project cost is set aside for a work of public art. The wife and daughter of our host in Obernburg had both had works selected for public buildings. (I apologize, I neglected to make note of the names of Marianne’s works.)

by Marianne Knebel
by Marianne Knebel
by Marianne Knebel
by Marianne Knebel
Die Tore Sind Geoffnet (The Gates Are Open)by Petia Knebel
Die Tore Sind Geoffnet (The Gates Are Open)by Petia Knebel

I did some research to see whether the German percent for art program pre-dated the United States. It does by a decade, though it is a policy rather than a matter of law. According to my research, this has produced some inconsistent results in terms of quality.  I have to admit that my first impression was that Petia had obviously copied ideas from her mother.

Questions of quality aside, what impressed me was that an effort was made to use the work of local artists. Marianne’s work is a half hour drive from her house. Petia’s is about 2-3 miles from the house as the crow flies.

And from what I understood, there is something of a infrastructure to support artists with foundries and factories setting aside space for the artists to work on these pieces.  It sounded similar to what the Kohler Company does in the U.S. Even if the quality of work and the selection process is uneven, this seems to be an environment which encourages and enables artistic expression.

It isn’t just concert notices and public art by local artists that a German sees as they go about their day. There are other reminders that aesthetics are valued. The old part of every town we visited had stone streets. In both Obernburg and Volkach, the streets had been dug up for construction and then the stones were cut and laid back down. This wasn’t just a narrow strip for a sewer pipe, it was the whole width of the street.

Obernberg street
The street only looks narrow until you have to put all the stones back


Germans also apparently devote a fair bit of time bringing beauty to death. We went to three cemeteries in the course of our genealogy research and they all looked like this:


I don’t think it is a matter of Germans being better artistic human beings as it is a reflection of the fundamental differences in the activities of our daily lives. I had a bit of insight during my travels that lead to this hypothesis.

My mother’s side of the family came from Obernburg Germany and founded the town of Obernburg, NY. While in the German town, I learned that until around the 1800, it wasn’t permitted to build outside the walls. From the way other towns we visited were structured, I am guessing this was the case in many places. Even now that people are building outside old parts of town, most of the infrastructure for daily life from grocery stores, banks, churches, government buildings, restaurants, are all located in the old town centers.

These areas still have very narrow streets where the speed limit hovers around 15 mph and is better suited to walking and biking than driving. Whereas in the U.S. old buildings might be demolished to make way for a modern building, if any building has been replaced in these German towns, the new construction has conformed to the general dimensions and style of the surrounding buildings.

As a result, people’s lives are centered in these very communal places where they walk past notices about performances and speak to their neighbors about events around town. (Not to mention walking by the venues multiples times a day.)

Remember, I don’t speak German so I didn’t read any newspapers, watch television or go online to learn about local events. Every performance I became aware of was due to walking past a poster, banner or marquee. In this particular environment it was an effective method of communication.

One thing that we know about my ancestors in Obernburg, NY from letters and diary entries was that they didn’t have the opportunity to replicate these community towns that they had left. This was a little disorienting for them. Because land was parceled off in patents that had to be occupied in order to hold it, people were forced to live on their land miles from each other rather than next door.

In a moment of insight, I wondered if this basic difference between being forced to live together in Germany versus being forced to live apart in the U.S. may have been a major factor in the differences that developed in the way each country experiences and views their relationship with the arts. Can land use policy be as, if not more, important than education and direct funding when it comes to participation in the arts?

If nothing else, as far as I was concerned, walking around these picturesque towns were a great argument for the benefits of mixed used neighborhoods.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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