[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