Silent planning; A letter from The Netherlands

beschouwingen,cultuurbeleid,english — simber op 13 maart 2012 om 22:33 uur
tags: , ,

(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.

Four year plans

First, a little bit of context. Dutch arts funding has been organised in grand four-year cycles. Every four years the government, the major funds and the cities work out a Kunstenplan (‘arts plan’) for the next few years in which the large majority of spending is laid out and nailed down.


So when the new right wing government decided to cut arts spending –in september 2010-  the art world was in the middle of the Kunstenplan 2009-2012. So most austerity measures could not be effected until 2013: funding until then had already been secured. What followed was a number of smaller measures (main among which was the raising of the VAT for theatre tickets) and announcements of policy adjustments starting in 2013, when the Kunstenplan 2013-2016 kicks off.

Even the cities follow this stringent cycle. They have their own four-year arts plans, with their own accents and responsabilities, but the timetable is the same. And since June most of the cities announced they would have to cut back too, and in most cities the arts aren’t exempted. Amsterdam and The Hague cut eight percent of the arts budget, Rotterdam seventeen percent. Even though these cuts aren’t as severe as the national ones and local administrations clearly express the value of the arts for their city, quite a lot of cultural institutions that receive grants from both national and local governments are hurt twice.

At the same time both the Culture Ministry and the arts funds started to work out new criteria and arrangements for subsidies that reflected the shrunken budgets and the new priorities: artistic quality is no longer paramount, entrepeneurship and audience numbers count as well. All this is not new, but criticism of the peer-review system has put the whole concept of artistic quality in an problematic light. Politicians feel that artistic judgement is a black box: unmeasurable and thus untenable.

This is the situation in which all the theatre and dance companies, after having vented their anger in the protests in June, started to work on their applications. Confronted with a lack of public support and hampered by the aforementioned inclination to compromise, they displayed common sense and pragmatism. Sometimes this leads to interesting solutions, but many companies with much to lose show blunt opportunistism.

Creative thinking

The concept of ‘production houses’ (typically Dutch institutions where talented young theatre artists can work in relative freedom and develop their work) had been deemed unnecessary by the ministry and all support from the national level is canceled per 2013. But on the local level the cities and other theater institutions find these houses so important that they’re working out ways to keep them afloat.

This leads to intriguing forms of cooperation: in Groningen the production house Grand Theatre plans to merge with the avant-garde theatre festival Noorderzon and the local companies for drama, dance and youth theatre are arranging extended collaboration. In Rotterdam the large Ro Theater company will merge with the smaller acting collective Wunderbaum (which mainly plays in black box theatres and on location) and with the local production house.

In their announced projects most companies seem to have caught on surprisingly quickly to the Anglo-Saxon ideas of fundraising, supporter networks, crowdfunding and sponsorship. Yet artistically more interesting are the ideas for co-creation. Most big companies and festivals show innovative and sometimes exciting plans for collaboration with healthcare, education, environmental or social institutions. This follows a trend among younger theatre artists to move away from the arts ‘asylum’ and look for meaningful attachments to the world at large.

Ironically, the pressure of the cuts seems to generate a lot of creativity in the arts sector and already this has been cynically abused by right wing publicists to claim success for the government policy. The truth is that all of these new plans require money. Only in the summer, after the committees have congregated and decided on how to spread the poverty can we begin to assess what the damage to the arts has been done and which companies can survive to make the new plans come to life.

Meanwhile, the bigger picture is that the arts are still crippled from the corrosive debate on the merits of arts subsidies last year. Theatre and museum attendance is down compared to a few years ago. Ignorance on why art matters or how the art world functions is up. And that’s why after all the plan-writing it’s high time that artists start speaking out anew.


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