Dutch Arts Scene Is Under Siege
New York Times
January 29, 2013
By NINA SIEGAL
AMSTERDAM — The Netherlands’ national theater museum here contains about half a million costumes, masks, annotated scripts, photographs, puppets, props and other objects that tell the story of more than 300 years of theater in the Dutch language.
Founded in 1924 and refreshed with regular acquisitions, the museum is the primary repository of the nation’s performing arts heritage, and until now has always been financed by the state.
But on Jan. 1, the Theatre Institute Netherlands, or TIN, which houses and maintains the collection, was one of the first victims of sweeping new cultural budget cuts initiated by the conservative-led Parliament in 2011 and finalized last year. The TIN’s federal financing plummeted from €4 million a year, about $5 million, to zero, forcing it to fire about 70 full- and part-time staff, halt operations and close the museum indefinitely.
“It’s incredible that this decision has been made,” said TIN’s director, Pim Luiten, still reeling from the cuts as he and one staff member tied up the loose ends in their nearly empty offices last week. He will leave on March 1, too, when his salary evaporates.
“All theater makers start with what their predecessors have done, and it will be very difficult for them now to study what has been done in the past,” Mr. Luiten said. “The other thing is that there will be no possibility to keep the collection up to date.”
All over the Netherlands this month, other leaders of cultural organizations have been saying emotional farewells, packing up boxes and trying to secure precious keepsakes of history before they turn off the stage lights.
Because of budget cuts and financial reorganization of the country’s cultural sector, about 40 of the 120 cultural arts organizations in the country became ineligible for federal grants this year. Some of them have been able to secure financing from other sources, but at least two dozen had to fold at the beginning of the year, according to the Raad voor Cultuur, or Dutch Culture Council. The first affected included about 10 dance and theater companies, four orchestras, two musical heritage foundations and a handful of nonprofit art galleries.
“It’s quite a massacre,” said Jeroen Bartelse, secretary general of the Culture Council. “Many of these groups are either dead or are now in a near-death struggle. What’s striking is the number of institutions stopping at one time, which we haven’t seen before, and these are institutions that have existed for 20, 30 or 50 years, institutions with a stature that makes this quite exceptional.”
The financial crisis has forced countries across Europe to slash government spending, but the culture sector has been an early target. The most profound impact of the cuts, paradoxically, has been felt in countries that have been the most generous to the arts, like Britain, Austria and the Netherlands.
Since the 1970s, and particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, artists and cultural organizations across the Netherlands were supported almost exclusively by the state. There is almost no culture of private sponsorship and corporate financing for the arts is limited.
From 2012 to 2013, federal financing for the arts dropped by 22 percent, or €238 million, while local, regional and provincial governments account for an additional €232 million decline in subsidies. Although many organizations large and small are making do with less financial support, some received none at all.
“The most general effect across different disciplines is that it will really become much more difficult for young artists — whether they’re theater makers or visual artists — to work professionally,” said Ann Demeester, the director of De Appel art center who is a critic of the cuts. “What is disappearing are the intermediary institutions. The big institutions will survive and the very small organizations are there, but the talent development or post-graduate institutions are disappearing, and those organizations are the bridge for artists into the professional world.
“It’s not like they cleaned up a diseased part of the cultural sector,” she continued. “They cleaned up a vital part of the sector, which was actually a connecting node. When you attack culture in this way, you actually de-professionalize the sector.”
The Netherlands Broadcast Music Center in Hilversum, which was established just after World War II and is home to three orchestras, a choir and a music library, was specifically targeted in the federal cuts. Although it was first scheduled for abolition, its members and the public fought in Parliament, the newspapers and with street protests to maintain part of its financing. In the end its €32 million annual budget was more than halved, to €14.6 million.
The budget of the contemporary Metropole Orchestra has been cut in half and the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Radio Chamber Philharmonic will be folded into a single orchestra. To do that, they will fire about 80 of 200 musicians.
“It’s a horror story because we have to sack so many good talented people,” said Kees Dijk, manager of the two orchestras, “and they continue playing now every week until the last concert in the middle of July. Maybe you can imagine how emotional that is. Some people have been working here their whole professional lives.”
Dansgroep Amsterdam is a contemporary dance company created in the 1970s by the choreographer Krisztina de Châtel and run since 2009 as a showcase for a diverse group of choreographers. The company’s office staff and 11 dancers have been fired because its annual federal subsidy of €1.8 million was eliminated.
Under the new budgetary rules, said its business manager, Quinten Bunschoten, the state will now pay for one dance company per city. He said he and the company knew it couldn’t compete with the Netherlands Dance Theater, the national ballet. “I am, right now, letting everyone go,” Mr. Bunschoten said. “This month we are finishing two last projects but our last performance with the company as a whole was Dec. 18 and so we’re really closing down the company. I’m now sitting in our studio and it’s really been heavy. As of March 1 the studio will be empty. Our employees are all gone. The company won’t have any activities anymore. It’s really a sad situation.”
The cuts were authorized in 2011 and 2012 during Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s first term. The conservative coalition government took a hard line, using aggressive anti-arts rhetoric to justify deep slicing.
“The Rutte government painted artists as elitist, parasitic, sophisticated beggars, living off state subsidies, basically procrastinating,” said Mrs. Demeester. “It’s hard to say why they felt a need to use this very vile, very poisonous kind of critique. If you introduce such sweeping budget cuts, there’s no reason to also rhetorically demoralize the sector.”
At the time, the Dutch Culture Council, which advises the government on cultural matters, strongly advocated phasing in any budget cuts to give arts organizations and artists an opportunity to find other means of support. That recommendation was ignored as a culture war was ignited in Parliament and society.
“I still don’t see the reason why it was chosen to do it all at once,” said Mr. Bartlese of the Culture Council. “If you have a couple of years you give these institutions an opportunity to look at the artistic product, to try to find partnerships or other cooperative agreements, or to find a new or larger audience. The way it was done was just too big and too quick, which may have led to the disappearance, and the end, of some institutions. More than was necessary, if it had been phased in properly.”
Since the plan was forged, a more liberal government was elected in September and a new culture minister joined the Rutte cabinet, Jet Bussemaker of the Labor Party. But the budget cuts have not been rolled back. Ms. Bussemaker declined to be interviewed.
“The atmosphere has improved because the current government has at least stopped the rhetorical war against culture,” said Mrs. Demeester. “We can’t get the money restored but people are feeling like it’s a better atmosphere, because the new government mainly keeps silent on art and culture.”
Even if the mood has improved quite a bit, it’s hard to say yet what the lasting impact of the cuts will be.
“I’m still quite angry,” Mr. Luiten, TIN’s director, said over the phone as he was making final arrangements for the theater museum. “A discussion about budget cuts would’ve been okay. And in the end, I even said I could work with a 90 percent reduction of the budget, because with that at least I could maintain the collection. But they had to go down to zero, and that’s just not responsible.”
Elsewhere, cultural artists are trying to put on a brave face. “Of course it’s an ending but it’s a new beginning, and that has been our mantra,” said Beppie Blankert, director of Dansgroep Amsterdam. “Let’s cry for a while — not too long — and let’s think about the future for everyone.”
Comment by JB:
BUT WHICH ART SHOULD FUNDED?
In this discussion, a distinction should be made between old art – the ‘museum culture’ and new art. Art that already has stood the test of time is an important educational asset, new art should be supported & stimulated with the aim to have it reaching a comparable artistic level. But most new art is merely hobbyism, exploiting a decadent market where ignorance and cynical primitivism reign. A state funding programme for new art can be, if possible, even worse. Let a telling example suffice: in the Netherlands, new art is generously funded by the state. In the sixties and seventies, state subsidies increased immensily, and of course, new artists were popping-up from every corner – but the majority were not artists at all but incompetent jokers who discovered in the nonsense of ‘concept art’ and ‘concept music’ a way to forge an ‘artistic’ state-funded career so that they did not need to take-on a job. Soon concept artists filled the advisory boards of the state art funding institutions, to protect the flow of money from contamination by the ‘booboisie’ so that it continued to flow into the ‘right artistic direction’: their own. In many other European countries, the same problem has petrified the production of new art into bullwarks of institutionalised nonsense, giving a bad name to art in general – but nowhere as much as in the Netherlands.
There is a cult of ignorance in Holland, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through its political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. As long as the underlying problem: what does ‘meaning’ mean in art, and which art is meaningful? is not solved, state funding of new art will suffer from a lack of credibility.