In 2016, the “idea and practice of organising shared interests in co-operatives” was inscribed into the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. This decision constituted an official, cultural acknowledgement of a socio-economical form of organisation that has existed in its current form for around 200 years. The United Nations had already honoured the cooperative movement in 2012, which it declared the International Year of Cooperatives. It made this decision in response to several years in which the cooperative movement gained new momentum after an extended period of stagnation, expanding its activities to fields and industries beyond its traditional scope. This includes the cultural sector.
In 2003, the European Cooperative Society (Societas Cooperativa Europea – SCE) was established. It created a legal framework for cross-border cooperatives in the European Union and was enshrined in Germany in the 2006 amendment of the Cooperatives Act (Genossenschaftsgesetz). While there had been some cooperatives in the German cultural and media sector in the past, the amendment specifically extended the promotional mandate to social and cultural organisations. This allowed groups with the legal status of a cooperative (Genossenschaft) to pursue idealistic goals that were previously the domain of associations (Vereine). Since then, dozens of cultural cooperatives have emerged in Germany. They fund cinemas, theatres, museums, publishing houses and agencies and implement campaigns for the protection of the country’s cultural heritage.
Cooperatives are distinguished by three principles: self-reliance, autonomy and self-responsibility. These values reflect the fundamental concerns of cultural initiatives, i.e. the desire for independence and creative contribution within the scope of the own possibilities. Factors such as entrepreneurial self-responsibility, communal solidarity and democratic participation shape the work of cooperatives and offer extraordinary opportunities to cultural institutions that operate in pluralistic societies and increasingly competitive markets.
Cooperatives have set a precedent for the organisation of work in the cultural and creative sectors – industries that are known for poor employment security, excessive working hours and isolating conditions. The cooperative model offers an alternative working culture characterised by mutual support, collaboration and solidarity. Cultural cooperatives belong to their members and are run by their members. They do not have external shareholders, sole proprietors or rigid hierarchies. Unlike freelancers, cooperatives work with a permanent member base in solidarity and collaboration.
The model of cultural cooperatives is still in its infancy. We look forward to witnessing its future development and impact.