(I wrote this article this morning for the German website Nachtkritik (read it in German). I wasn’t going to publish this English version as it hasn’t been corrected by a native speaker, but I received some requests to read it asap, so here it is. I hope to replace it with an edited version over the weekend.)
Next Monday, the Dutch parliament will decide on severe cuts in the arts budget. The minority government, consisting of the liberal VVD and christian conservative CDA and supported by the populist, right wing PVV (headed by Geert Wilders), wants to decrease the arts budget from roughly 950 to 750 million euro. These cuts aren’t distributed evenly across the board. Especially the performing arts will be hit hard, with an estimated 46 procent budget cut.
Before getting into the details, causes and effects of this shrinkage, it is necessary to explain a little about the byzantine way Dutch arts funding is structured. The state currently takes responsability for a so called ‘basic infrastructure’: museums, large theatre, dance and opera companies, orchestras, some festivals and seperate institutions called ‘production houses’ where young theatre makers can develop their work and which also function as focal points for the small and midsize theatre scene.
Those small and midsize theatre and dance companies themselves, as well as music ensembles are funded by the Performing Arts Fund, the government fund for the professional performing arts. Finally, the municipalities have their own agenda, supporting theatre venues, adding local money to nationally funded companies, or supporting their own local institution. Local communities contribute roughly 1.6 billion euro to the total public spending on the arts.
From the day the right wing liberal party VVD won the national elections one year ago it was clear that the arts were in trouble. The VVD, headed by current prime minister Mark Rutte, announced early on in the campaign that severe cuts in the government budget were needed to recover from the banking crisis, and the arts would not be exempted. The populist PVV, whose support Rutte needed to form an administration, went even further and tapped into a long running vein of anti-elitist sentiment that has always run close to the mercantile Dutch heart. Geert Wilders labeled arts subsidies, along with foreign aid and the European Union, as “leftist hobbies”
It is vitally important to understand that in The Netherlands the debate about the arts between conservative and progressive sides never followed the traditional European line of classical vs. modern. Politician’s interest in the arts is traditionally dim, and in the last decade parties on the left found the arts useful if they could be applied to their agenda (art enlightens, brings people together, bridges gaps, etcetera) and the right wing considered art as a form of luxury, and artists should be able to survive in the market or find a more economically feasable profession.
When the latter formed the new government, autumn last year, they immediately announced public spending cuts of around twelve percent. The VVD has shifted from classic liberalism towards a staunch neoliberalism, with its focus on small government an lower taxes. The arts however were clipped further, with cuts to the amount of twenty percent. The arts are too dependent on government subsidies, the reasoning went, more could and should be gained from the audience, business sponsorships and wealthy patrons. “The arts have their backs to the audience and their open wallet towards the state”, Rutte was heard saying.
The implicit ideal was the Anglo-Saxon model: in Britain and the US the state plays a very minor role in arts funding, leaving it to the market and and charity. However Rutte’s administration was inconsistent. It announced for instance that the performing arts would no longer fall under the low VAT-tariff, which kept covering movie, circus and sports events. So on the one hand the arts should gain more from the market, on the other hand it was made harder for them to do so. This lack of alternative chances and the ongoing belittleing of the arts cause many artists to think that this isn’t just a change of policy, it’s retaliation.
Over the last few months the consequences of the cuts have gradually become clear. State secretary (or sub-minister) Halbe Zijlstra, responsible for culture, has decided to salvage cultural heritage, meaning the heaviest load of the cuts will come down on the performing arts. There he largely spares the big institutions, like De Nederlandse Opera, Het Nationale Ballet, Holland Festival and Nederlands Dans Theater. Large theatre companies, like Toneelgroep Amsterdam, wil face cuts, but their existance is secured.
This focus on “top institutions” means that the terrain below it, the fertile fields of small and midsize companies, will be decimated. All production houses lose their funding and the budget of the Performing Arts Fund will decrease from 64 to 27 milion. Only when the fund makes its grant decisions next year will the full scale of this annihilation be graspable. But it is already clear that the internationally renowned domain of small scale avant-garde companies, like Veenfabriek, Omsk, Bambie, Wunderbaum, Orkater and Dood Paard, artists like Dries Verhoeven, Boukje Schweigman, Anouk van Dijk, Emio Greco and Krisztina de Châtel, and festivals like Oerol and Festival a/d Werf will take a very tough blow.
Furthermore Zijlstra decided to cut funding for Theater Instituut Nederland and the training institutes like DasArts and the Rijksacademie, claiming that he wanted government funding to contribute to art productions rather than institutions for support, promotion and postacademic education. Many tasks that used to be acknowledged as essential for a functioning arts field are now considered a responsability of the market or the arts themselves.
And the worst is yet to come: the municipalities have to cut their budgets too. The exact amounts will not be learned until later this year, but cuts in the arts expenses of around twentyfive percent are generally expected. This will hurt community services like music schools and libraries on top of arts institutions.
Monday, as parliament gathers, there will be massive demonstrations in The Hague. There will be sit-ins in museums, concerts, marches through the country, and white crosses on black – the unofficial logo for the protest – are already seen all over theatre facades and Facebook profiles. Public opinion however has not been very supportive. The framing of the arts as estranged form the audience and addicted to subsidies has been very succesful and government plans in other sectors – like health, education and pensions – are pretty serious as well.
Even if the protests have any impact on the political outcome it seems that the artistic landscape of the Netherlands wil be fundamentally changed. Large institutions will dominate, the midfield will be devastatet and young artists who just graduated will find very little opportunities. After the decisions have been made, and the protest have died out, the art world needs to pick up the pieces and face an enormous challenge: win back the support of the public and find a new relationship with the powers that be. That is a necessary, maybe even exciting task, but it is enormously sad if so much might be lost in the process.