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Roland Witzel LLM’03, L’07, co-founder of the Penn Club of Germany, discusses his work uplifting the creative sector during COVID-19

December 02, 2021

The following post has been adapted from a discussion on Tuesday, November 2, 2021, with Roland Witzel LLM’03, L’07, Senior Legal Officer at Germany’s Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM).

As the COVID-19 crisis advanced, weakening economies worldwide, the creative sector was particularly hard hit. In 2020, throwing a lifeline to the sector, the German government launched a cultural support program called NEUSTART KULTUR (Restart Culture) with funding of 2 billion Euro.

Leading the team that coordinates NEUSTART KULTUR is Roland Witzel LLM ’03, L’07, Senior Legal Officer with the Federal Minister of State for Culture and the Media (BKM).

“The last two years have sent shockwaves through the culture sector,” Witzel said. “It lies in the nature of the cultural experience: people assemble and enjoy the performance of a work in a group, and it’s hard to do that if you can’t meet.”

The 2 billion euros in relief funds the BKM has received for the NEUSTART KULTUR program — roughly equivalent to BKM’s annual budget — has enabled the agency to implement a national recovery program for the cultural sector.

“We’ve established 75 different funding lines that respond to the needs of the various cultural branches,” Witzel said. “We grouped those funding lines into three different categories. The first category has funded investments by cultural institutions that allowed them to reopen their premises safely — with the purchase of protective equipment, acrylic barriers, visitor guidance systems, cashless payments systems, and ventilation systems, for example. The second category covers pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and additional expenses. A third category focuses on supporting digital offerings, which blossomed during the pandemic.”

All facets of the program have provided much-needed support to the cultural sector, but a few of the funding lines have been particularly in demand, including several scholarship programs for freelance artists and project-based performers.

Recently, there has been even greater investment in the cultural sector. In June 2021, BKM allocated an additional 2.5 billion euros in aid to establish a special fund for cultural events.

President Amy Gutmann meets with the Penn Club of Germany President Amy Gutmann meets with the Penn Club of Germany“People are hesitant to organize events because there’s always potential for another lockdown or a need to cancel,” said Witzel. “The special fund encourages the planning of cultural events. There are two elements. One is a ticket subsidy that aims to make events economically viable despite social-distancing limits on sales. The other is an insurance mechanism in case of cancellation due to COVID restrictions.”

Unsurprisingly, given his position, Witzel admits to having “an artsy side” himself. In a family that had produced an opera singer, a pianist, and a landscape painter, he turned his attention toward classical composition. But along the way, he also “got hooked on the U.S. legal system.”

It was this interest that carried him to the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School in 2002 for an LLM degree, then brought him back in 2005 with a transfer into the JD program. Witzel calls it “the most inspiring but also intense period of my life.”

He originally intended to stay in the U.S. following his JD.

“But I received an offer from an American firm for whose Washington, D.C. office I had interned,” he explained. “They were opening a Berlin office headed by one of Germany’s leading politicians. It was an offer I couldn’t decline.”

Witzel moved from private practice to the government ministry in 2010, starting in BKM’s unit for copyright and media law. “At the time, there were great debates about net neutrality and the regulation of internet intermediaries in general,” he recalled, “and the knowledge that I gained in IP law classes at Penn Law helped me with my work.”

Early on, his job involved working on legislation and arguing for culture-friendly amendments to bills proposed by other ministries, trying to “spot the holes in the legislation where the rights and situations of artists need to be taken into account even better.”

Later, in a different role at BKM, Witzel’s focus was on supporting and promoting female artists, which led to the establishment of a mentoring program for female artists striving for leadership positions.

He drew on that program as a template for a mentoring initiative at the newly formed Penn Club of Germany, an organization that Witzel co-founded in 2019 and now calls his “baby.”

“Until two years ago, there wasn’t an official Penn alumni club in Germany, probably because Germans don’t feel attached to their alma mater as much as Americans do. So, we tried to convey the American spirit to Germany,” Witzel explained.

Already with more than 70 official members, a distribution list of 1,800 German contacts with ties to Penn, and its own Bavarian-themed clubhouse with a taproom in Berlin, the Penn Club of Germany is committed to providing professional education opportunities, promoting student exchange, and advancing international understanding.

The organization, officially recognized as charitable under German law, is not letting the pandemic slow it down, either. It recently endowed a scholarship for international students doing an exchange at Penn and sent its first German exchange student to the university for the fall 2021 semester.

“We are also excited about the prospect that Amy Gutmann may become the next U.S. Ambassador in Berlin,” Witzel said. “We met her when she visited Berlin two years ago, and we hope to see her here again.”

Witzel now serves as vice president of the Penn Club, and he appreciates the opportunity it gives him to mentor German students forging their pathways to and from the university.

His advice to current law students?

“Always follow your passion.”

With the Penn Club of Germany thriving, and his BKM team pushing to keep the German cultural sector vibrant through the challenges of the pandemic, this is advice that Witzel clearly heeds himself.

Learn more about opportunities for Law School alumni to connect with one another.