I feel slightly foolish commenting on the cuts to Dutch cultural spending when so many words have already been written about the topic by people far more qualified or intimately affected than I. But I’d feel even more foolish not mentioning it at all, carrying on as though the people and institutions on which I rely for inspiration, entertainment, knowledge, beauty, and fodder for this editorial position, were not suffering. So for those of you not living in the Netherlands who missed the ad in the New York Times, the e-flux mailing, or any other number of ways this story could have been brought to your attention, here goes:
On June 30th, the Tweede Kamer (Dutch Lower House) voted for an annual decrease of €200 million in arts and cultural spending. A €200 million cut out of an €800 million budget is more catastrophic than it might sound for the Dutch art community. In a previously state-supported system, the art books can’t simply be balanced with a pinch here, a squeeze there, or a little extra fundraising. For the visual arts alone, this means a decrease from €53.3 to €31 million annually – small numbers compared to an overall operating budget for the Dutch government, with tremendous consequences for a local art world depending on it. When my colleague Nicola wrote in his recent review of Omar Fast’s show at NIMk, that it was worth visiting this institution while you still can, he wasn’t exaggerating: the institute will receive a 100% cut in its structural governmental funding. And it’s not alone. Manifesta and SKOR share NIMk’s fate. Additionally, the number of publicly supported contemporary art institutions will decrease from eleven to six; the Mondriaan Foundation’s funding will be halved, along with working grants and stipends for artists; public financing for post-academic art institutions and studios (e.g. Rijksacademie, Jan Van Eyck Academie) will disappear; and support for all art magazines will be withdrawn.
In the US there is limited and perennially threatened governmental spending on arts and culture. While some organizations do rely on the National Endowment for the Arts, more depend on a culture of philanthropy, including one-off and recurring gifts, plus private and corporate sponsorship and endowments, critically backed by tax incentives. Art organizations survive in this system because they evolved there, but they are still vulnerable. Such a system leaves institutions at the mercy of outside sponsors and the mercurial economic climate, as well as in the position of having to conduct annual fundraisers. The Dutch plan wants the local art world to do a better job supporting itself but does not currently include tax breaks to encourage this sort of giving. Conversely, the gallery sales tax just endured a 13% increase. Critically, some of the most drastic cuts, which could close entire institutions, will not be gradual so as to allow organizations to adapt or search for alternative models of funding, but will instead take immediate effect in January 2013. It will take time to develop support from the private sector, and time is a luxury not granted in this desired overhaul of the cultural support system.
The cuts come from a cultural minister who literally brags about his dislike of art and culture, who cites Metallica as his favorite band and Dan Brown as his favorite novelist (facts widely repeated in nearly every article on the subject)! I suppose self-reported pedestrian tastes are at the service of the shortsighted job he’s just done. But not only has funding suffered a terrible blow, but artists and art institutions have also been slandered as “parasites” and “profiteers” by the political right (and a party faced by the infamous Geert Wilders). This mudslinging comes from a government that has engendered and supported a system in which the arts could thrive and grow. European subsidies for the arts are not throwaways, freebies, or something to be looked down upon. To this American, and to many others I’m certain, a system in which the state supports its artists, and in turn its cultural heritage and future, is the height of civilization. Art is not a commodity but a legacy.
Naturally, protests preceded and followed the announcement, including flash mobs, museum sit-ins, and vandalized Facebook profile pictures obscured with white Xs on a black seal (this X being the emerging symbol of the protest movement). “Do not enter the Netherlands. Cultural meltdown in progress,” warned a quarter-page ad in the New York Times. Some of these protests stayed within the family, but others directed everyone to notice how greatly the arts in the Netherlands enhance their everyday. On my last visit to Rotterdam my partner and I planned our normal stroll down the Westersingel, a central canal lined with classical, modern and contemporary sculptures (from Rodin to Franz West). Instead of being able to enjoy beautiful or thought-provoking artwork, we were greeted by black lumps covered in trash bags with giant white X’s taped to them. As a foreigner in this country I have been consistently impressed by the scope, quality, and accessibility of the arts. I felt privileged to live in a place where art was so clearly viewed as a public good. It turned out this civilized system was subject to political posturing and the whims of a talkative few on the right. Let’s hope the voting public, including Henk and Ingrid (Wilders’ imaginary “average” Dutch couple), realize what they stand to lose and that Dutch artists and institutions can weather this shortsighted plan and move forward in developing new models of sustainability.
~Andrea Alessi, a writer living in the Netherlands.
(Images: Courtesy Andrea Alessi)