Interview Gavin Kroeber and Ant Hampton

english,interviews — simber op 31 oktober 2013 om 10:13 uur
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[Voor de krant van DasArts]

In architecture it is an honorable tradition: the design of imaginary or even unrealizable buildings. How would this translate to the performing arts? Block mentors Ant Hampton and Edit Kaldor invited New York based artist an cultural entrepeneur Gavin Kroeber for a workshop on ‘imaginary interventions’. “Can you write a description of a site specific show that is so fantastic that you don’t have to do it?”

The day after watching eight Dasarts students give a public showing of their work Ant Hampton and Gavin Kroeber look back on their work and express their ideas on interventions and alternatives for the ‘show’. “The presentation was the result of two days work with Gavin, starting from a one page prompt he wrote for us”, explains Hampton. “We wanted to create a sort of ‘charrette’, a term from the design field meaning an intense, responsive working environment designed to open things up to a lot of new ideas. Beside small, quick projects, on the market or other sites in the city we wanted the students to work with slightly less restrictions of time and resources.” The results were eight proposals for speculative performances and interventions.

Imaginary performances of course have a strong utopian dimension. “I like this Steve Lambert quote: ‘Utopia is not a destination but a direction’”, says Kroeber. “We try and stimulate the students to use the utopian aspects of this exercise as a critique, not as a model. During the working sessions it turned out we had to calm the utopian impulse. Students would think up worlds in which the performance would take place that would render the proposal moot. Yet the starting point should be that the proposed performance reveals something about thís world.”

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Arts Holland Magazine: Expat perspective

english,interviews,overig — simber op 31 augustus 2013 om 14:47 uur
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[Geschreven voor de tweede editie van het Arts Holland Magazine]

Like many expats living in The Netherlands, Nigel Bagley (director of industry affairs at Unilever) after a few rather painful initial months, fell in love with the low lands, and especially with its arts and culture. After living in Amsterdam with his wife for twelve years, in a canal house chock-full with contemporary art works, he offers a unique perspective on Dutch cultural attitudes.

Mr. Bagley and his wife are cultural omnivores, one day getting down with The Killers in the Ziggo Dome, the next day visiting the Opera, and the next scouring the local galleries for new works by unknown artists.

“Prior to coming to Amsterdam we lived in New York and London, so we lived in these fantastic cultural cities”, he says in his living room looking out over the Prinsengracht. “My  awareness of Dutch culture was non-existent. Of course I was taught Rembrandt and Van Gogh in school, but who was interested?”

“I remember our first weekend here. We arrived on a Sunday and at night we went out for something to eat and there wasn’t a single place open. And then it rained for three months. We thought: we can’t live here. Luckily we agreed on staying only two years. But after a few months we started to see a different side of Amsterdam. And it was the arts and the culture that changed our perspective.”

“The main quality of Dutch culture, compared to London or New York, is how accessible it is. People here always say ‘Amsterdam is like a village’ in a very  negative way. But I think that’s actually very charming. You can go out on a Saturday afternoon and go to the galleries and the museums, and they’re all minutes away. In the evening there are world class concerts, performances and the most fantastic events, all within walking distance. And in all these places you often see the same people, so it’s easy to meet them and keep in touch. That’s a great charm, and something you can’t do in New York or London.”

Needless to say, Bagley and his wife stayed after the first two years. They bought the appartment the lived in. “I hate to even be called an expat, because this is my home.”

Bagley has seen quite some change in the cultural institutions the last decade, and most of it for the better. “Take the Van Gogh Museum for instance: it was a nice place, but suddenly they started opening on Friday evenings. So when we have visitors for the weekend, could there be a nice way to start their stay than go to a museum and have a drink? So you start spending more time in the places you already love. And you also have this other fantastic cultural thing in Holland: the Museumkaart, with which you can visit almost any museum free of charge for a small yearly subscription fee. So you can say: I’m going to the Rijksmuseum just to see that painting of the winter scene by Avercamp with the man having a crap.”

“Ten years ago when Foam opened it was quite a different building to most of the museums in the city, and the way they presented their exhibitions was unique aswell, more modern, less musty. As a photography museum it’s in the top league with ICP in New York or the Photographers’ Gallery in London. But the astonishing thing is: just down the road there’s Huis Marseille, and in Den Haag there’s another photo museum, and in Rotterdam another. So you have four fantastic photo museums in an area the size of greater London. That’s incredible.

As an art collector Bagley spends a lot of time in local galleries. Again, accessibility is the key. “When you walk anywhere in Holland, you can look into people’s homes because no-one shuts the curtains. And many, many people have paintings on their walls. There’s a culture here of art buying at all levels, which doesn’t exist in the US or the UK. This is reflected in the art galleries: many focus on young artists, there’s no snootiness and the prices are realistic.”

Bagley has even become an evangelist of sorts for Dutch culture, especially the performing arts. “Some of the best dance I’ve ever seen was by the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) with choreographers Lightfoot & Leon. We have friends in London and Germany who now go to the NDT because we told them how good they are. But beside that there’s so much more: The National Ballet, Conny Janssen, Emio Greco, The Netherlands Opera. How can a country so small manage to do all of this?”

“Part of the answer is government subsidies. I’ve lived very well, having my entertainment delivered by Dutch arts subsidies. And I believe strongly that as an expat, you shouldn’t only come in for two or three years and take things, you should also give back. So we sent a letter to the Holland Festival which we enjoyed very much, saying we’d like to give back some of the subsidy they spent on us.”

“Shortly after we received a phone call, and the Festival said they nobody had ever just written them to become a sponsor. So you can see that a ‘culture of giving’ is still in it’s infancy. But as a consequence the money you give is well received. In London you can sponsor something and no-one from the institution you support will ever talk to you. In Holland there’s a coyness about asking for your money that I find rather endearing.”

And Bagley also gives back in another way, for instance by contributing to the famous Grachtenfestival, during which every summer classical concerts take place on pontoons in the Amsterdam canals. “During the festival people opened their homes for in house concerts. Violinist Lisa Jacobs, then unknown, now a soloist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, played in our living room for 36 visitors. It was a sunny day, and I sat in the open window and saw people on the street stop and listen to the music. That was quite a wonderful experience and it really felt like the essence of Dutch cultural life.”

Nigel Bagley (Scotland, 1959)
Director of industry affairs at Unilever
Lives in Amsterdam since 2001
Married, no children

Production Houses in The Netherlands

english,overig — simber op 15 september 2012 om 22:23 uur
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[Oude meuk van voor de zomer. Dit schreef ik voor het Jahrbuch des Bundesverband Freier Theater 2011/12 als uitleg van het (bedreigde) productiehuissysteem in Nederland.]

For a long time the system of production houses in The Netherlands has been the envy of the Freie Szene in Germany. The exact working of these houses however has been largely unknown.

The history of the production houses lies in the rise of black box theatres in the 1980’s. Based in the culture of community centres, squatters and punk rock venues they started to show, support and produce small scale theatre performances. In the nineties, when most of the important smaller groups received subsidies in their own right, the focus of the production houses shifted toward younger theatre artists: scouting directors and choreographers, supporting their work for a few years, helping them in setting up their own company and finding an audience.

It wasn’t a clearly defined field: some organisations called themselves ‘studio’ or ‘workshop’, some kept working with established artists. Some were inextricably connected with the venue they arose from (like Frascati in Amsterdam, de Toneelschuur in Haarlem or Grand Theatre in Groningen), some were connected with festivals (like Huis and Festival a/d Werf in Utrecht) others had only minimal performing spaces.

During the last years of the 00’s ‘talent development’ suddenly became the buzzword of Dutch cultural policy. The role of the production houses became clearly marked and the field was heavily institutionalized. 21 Production Houses became part of the so called ’cultural basic infrastructure’. They receive funding of roughly between 500.000 and a million euro each. Ten are aimed at theatre, four at dance, three at modern music and others at mime, youth theatre, music theatre and multicultural theatre.

The mission of the new style production houses was layed out most clearly in an interview with Mark Timmer, artistic director of Frascati: “When a theatre maker leaves school he or she has a diploma, but isn’t a director yet. You have to learn how to manage and inspire a group of people in practice. When you’re starting as an independant director you need some kind of structure: working space, actors, technicians, stage designer, publicity and so on. We give talented artists time and chance to develop their own artistic signature. And we do that in a somewhat sheltered environment with support and guidance within reach. Young directors need to be allowed to fail.”

This system seems to work very well. Almost every esthablished director or collective below a certain age has spent at least some time working within the structure of a production house. Talented directors like Susanne Kennedy, Jetse Batelaan or Dries Verhoeven have moved on to one of the bigger companies in The Netherland, or have founded their own. Especially interesting has been the project TA2, in which the country’s biggest company Toneelgroep Amsterdam worked together with Frascati and the Toneelschuur to have young directors work with their ensemble of actors.

On the other hand it was clear form the start that 21 production houses is a ludicrously large number. There are hardly enough young directors to fit all the (5 to 10) spots at each house, and, more importantly, the absorbtion capacity of the Dutch theatre field for new directors and groups is far from infinite.

But in its austerity fever the Dutch right wing government took it to the other extreme, cutting the national funding for all production houses, claiming ‘talent development’ is a task of the big companies themselves. This is a dangerous argument though: when young directors are limited to working within the ‘machine’ of a big company, they won’t develop their own voice, but turn into carbon copies of their predecessor, eventually not leading the company but being subservient to the institution.

Maybe the production houses partially brought their fate to themselves: they hardly ever take credit for their work, serving the artist and letting him or her shine. When they later become succesful you’ll often hear the cliché: great artists surface by themselves.

Now the future doesn’t seem so bleak as we feared earlier. Most cities value the work of the production houses within their walls greatly and do what’s possible to keep it afloat. Some houses merge with other institutions, some tighten their bonds with the local companies. Some will inevitably perish, but maybe that isn’t all bad.

The best news however is the fall of the right wing government, late April 2012. The populist PVV party is now out of power and one of the first things the government did was to reverse some of the cuts in the arts budget.

Silent planning; A letter from The Netherlands

beschouwingen,cultuurbeleid,english — simber op 13 maart 2012 om 22:33 uur
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(I wrote a follow-up to my first ‘Theaterbrief’ from The Netherlands for the wonderful people from TeaterTanken in Oslo, who last november invited me (along with Eric de Vroedt and Manja Topper) to explain what’s going on in The Netherlands for a surprisingly large and dedicated audience. They wanted to be kept up to date of the developments, resulting in this rather gloomy overview. Earlier today Nachtkritik published the German translation.)

It’s been a strange few months. In June the entire arts world stood united against the government’s austerity program and the arts cuts, but soon after the protest dissipated and the last few months everybody has been remarkably silent, if not to say apathetic. What you see is Dutch consensus-culture hard at work.

Artists like Johan Simons and Jonas Staal have warned about this for some time: the Dutch lack a mechanism to demonstrate their conflicts while leaving them intact. The strong urge to find middle ground, to dissolve our disputes, to working out solutions leaves us vulnerable to compromising our (moral) principles. Even the arts, which in other countries often are the natural arena for social conflict, are not immune to this predicament. “Noone speaks”, said Jan Joris Lamers –venerated innovator of the Dutch avant-garde theatre– in  an interview, “It seems like you would invalidate yourself by speaking.”

And so, after the anger was vented, all the artists and arts institutions quietly went to work on their grants applications. The big institutions needed to hand in their applications on February 1st, the applications of the small groups are due on March 1st. Some plans are still shrouded in secrecy, but most of the new projects and intentions are now becoming public.

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Dutch arts cuts explained

beschouwingen,cultuurbeleid,english — simber op 24 juni 2011 om 01:42 uur
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(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.

Anglo-Saxon model

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.

Consequences

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.

Dutch theatre in words and pictures

beschouwingen,english — simber op 10 juni 2009 om 01:56 uur
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German theatre website Nachtkritik asked me to write an article on the ‘Theatrical Landscape of the Netherlands’, for their bilingual event website for the Spieltriebe Festival in Osnabrück. I wrote it in English, a German translation is available under the magnificent title Wo kein Drama ist, ist auch kein Zynismus. Many thanks to Terry Ezra for proofreading.

If you want to get to know Dutch theatre, where would you start? You would probably have a natural inclination – especially if you are from a German-speaking region – to ask about writers and plays. Texts, after all, transcend the fleeting nature of theatre, can easily be read and translated and in that way bridge cultures and eras. However, if you try that approach with Dutch theatre, you would find yourself stuck with a very limited supply and worse, miss most of what is characteristic and exciting about the contemporary Dutch theatre scene.

The Dutch have never been great playwrights. We have Vondel (17th century, classic drama) and Heijermans (early 20th century, social realism) who are both acknowledged as national treasures (albeit reluctantly – the Dutch tend not to dwell on their cultural past), but their plays are rarely performed. Most of the time we have picked up the best of French, German and English developments because of our international orientation. Racine, Schiller, Shakespeare, Euripides, Ibsen and Chekhov are far more popular than any Dutch playwright could ever be.

Continue reading “Dutch theatre in words and pictures” »

English

english,overig — simber op 22 april 2008 om 14:49 uur

Some English language info on my mostly Dutch language activities:
I’m a theatre critic for Amsterdam based daily newspaper Het Parool. Besides that I’m founding editor of theatre website Moose, and one of the editors of monthly magazine for theatre professionals TM.

I sometimes write articles in English, usually about the current state of affairs in The Netherlands in general:

  • Interview Gavin Kroeber and Ant Hampton 31/10/2013
    [Voor de krant van DasArts] In architecture it is an honorable tradition: the design of imaginary or even unrealizable buildings. How would this translate to the performing arts? Block mentors Ant Ham …
  • Arts Holland Magazine: Expat perspective 31/8/2013
    [Geschreven voor de tweede editie van het Arts Holland Magazine] Like many expats living in The Netherlands, Nigel Bagley (director of industry affairs at Unilever) after a few rather painful initial …
  • Production Houses in The Netherlands 15/9/2012
    [Oude meuk van voor de zomer. Dit schreef ik voor het Jahrbuch des Bundesverband Freier Theater 2011/12 als uitleg van het (bedreigde) productiehuissysteem in Nederland.] For a long time the system of …
  • Silent planning; A letter from The Netherlands 13/3/2012
    (I wrote a follow-up to my first ‘Theaterbrief’ from The Netherlands for the wonderful people from TeaterTanken in Oslo, who last november invited me (along with Eric de Vroedt and Manja Topper) to ex …
  • Dutch arts cuts explained 23/6/2011
    (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 receive …
  • Dutch theatre in words and pictures 9/6/2009
    German theatre website Nachtkritik asked me to write an article on the ‘Theatrical Landscape of the Netherlands’, for their bilingual event website for the Spieltriebe Festival in Osnabrück. I wrote i …
  • English 22/4/2008
    Some English language info on my mostly Dutch language activities: I’m a theatre critic for Amsterdam based daily newspaper Het Parool. Besides that I’m founding editor of theatre website Moose, and o …

A few of my reviews have been translated in English by the companies they’re about. You can imagine that those are the more positive ones. This is a (very slowly growing) list with links to those versions on external websites.

You can contact me via email: info [at] simber.nl

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