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Public support

The Netherlands has a long history of scepticism about the wisdom of spending government money on art and culture – scepticism which, in my estimation, runs deeper than in many other countries. This is peculiar, considering that culture makes up less than one percent of the national budget. Nevertheless, a situation has emerged in which one private initiative after another ends up under government control. Government authorities (national, municipal or provincial) rarely seem pleased about this, but because they are unwilling or unable to take radical decisions, they keep accumulating new responsibilities. The cultural institutions in question have gained a high degree of autonomy – thanks to their private origins, the absence of centralized management and the relative lack of interest among the administrative and political elite. In combination with their drive and inventiveness, this has led to outstanding results. In the 1960s and 70s, for instance, a relatively large number of Dutch museums became trailblazers in the contemporary art world. That feat is a good deal more difficult now that this type of art is fashionable and expensive and numerous museums all over the world are devoting their energies to it. At this stage, only political will and serious financial support will allow Dutch museums to maintain their lead, and in the Dutch climate of opinion, there is no real prospect of that. Fortunately, there are still private patrons who put money into culture; in the museum sector alone, we are indebted to such benefactors for the Scheringa Museum, De Pont and Beelden aan Zee. There are also large private foundations and sponsors, such as the VSB Fonds and the BankGiro Lottery, two major players in the cultural sector.

Without strong guarantees and solid arguments, government authorities are reluctant to continue spending the money that they manage on culture. In our economic society arguments about content and substance, of the kind I presented in my earlier column, have less power to convince than figures and lists. In his efforts to redistribute some of his grant money in a more balanced way, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science has found an ally in a commission that claims, to put it briefly, that a cultural institution’s degree of self-financing is an indicator of support for it among the general public, and that there are many possible ways of obtaining more funds for culture from the market. The commission also contends that these institutions, especially the ones financed from the national budget, should work on increasing their revenues by means of a generally applicable system. Many of those institutions, such as the Kröller-Müller Museum, have been taking advantage of market opportunities for years and by now consider it perfectly normal to do so, but they are also aware that their market is extremely limited and so the competition is fierce. It is the larger institutions in the Randstad (the metropolitan area in the west of the country) that are most successful, while the smaller and more peripheral ones show a much less predictable pattern. We could all use some help with our entrepreneurial skills, but our specific needs vary enormously. It makes more sense to advocate individually tailored solutions, and to abandon the commission’s plans for new information desks.

It is my firm belief that the attitude of government authorities is in fact the main obstacle that cultural institutions face in their efforts to gain more public support. Above all, these authorities are afraid to let go. They feel a deep compulsion to remain strongly tied to cultural institutions, and they satisfy this compulsion by constantly making new rules and regulations. A former State museum, like this one, is formally accountable to the public in many ways: through its administrative agreement with the state, its lease agreement with the Government Buildings Agency, the statutes adopted by the State, the State-appointed members of its Board of Supervisors, the State rules requiring it to publish an annual report, the State auditing of its annual accounts and report, its supervision by the State Inspectorate for Cultural Heritage, the rules governing its grant applications, the advisory reports issued by the Council for Culture, the four-year targets negotiated with the State, the criteria for museum registration, the museum code of conduct, the cultural governance code and (coming soon) self-evaluation and inspection. In financial terms, government authorities still have autonomous State museums on a very short leash; for example, there are severe constraints on building capital.

The problem of public support also arises because government wants too much for too little money. It feels a tremendous urge to exercise influence but does not always provide the concomitant resources. Quantity seems to matter more to it than quality. Government will not or cannot focus on quality, and so it loses sight of when it must take action. By focusing on quantity instead and, at the same time, trying to reduce spending on operating grants, it creates a need for choices. When culture is used for political ends, cultural creations are coloured by ideology. It is my firm conviction that any colouring of this kind should come from the public and from cultural institutions themselves, rather than being imposed by the financing authorities. On all fronts, government has become a key player in the cultural sector, but the paradox is that it does not actually seem to want to be active there. This paradox has painful repercussions for Dutch society.

We need our government to develop a new perspective on the fundamental significance of culture in society and to apply this perspective to practical issues of financial support in a realistic way. Over the past years, national policy papers on culture have been textbook examples of overreaching government documents, which had little impact because their ambitions were unrealistic and underfunded. Again and again, all cultural institutions were told to share the burden, to tighten their belts in roughly equal measure, and whenever a new round of budgeting begins, they are expected to make up for their losses by showing still more entrepreneurial spirit. Cultural policy in the Netherlands should return to first principles, with renewed realism and a fundamental rethink of the current system. It is delusional to keep so many institutions operating – ‘vegetating’ is a better word – while simultaneously trying to take the cultural sector in a new direction and to push aspects of one's political agenda. This simply will not work. Public support grows out of realism, of tolerating and trusting in a diversity of opinions and approaches. Burden-sharing must make way for clear choices, even if they are painful ones.

Evert van Straaten
May 2008