Responses to the Recent Cuts to Arts Funding in the Netherlands
Letters and Responses
On June 10, 2011, Halbe Zijlstra, the Dutch State Secretary for Culture, distributed a letter to arts and culture organizations throughout the Netherlands. Entitled “Meer dan kwaliteit: een nieuwe visie op cultuurbeleid” (“More than Quality: A New Vision on Cultural Policy”), the letter announced a €200 million cut, which would slash state support for the operating and programming activities of these organizations as early as January 2013.
In concrete terms, this new policy will lead to the following:
– A 50% cut in the budget for stipends and working grants for artists
– A 50% cut in the budget of the Mondriaan Foundation, the body responsible for supporting international projects
– A total withdrawal of all support for art magazines
Concerned citizens joined arts and culture organizations the weekend of June 25, 2011 to condemn the cutbacks in a series of protests known as the Mars der Beschaving (March for Culture), which took place in a number of cities throughout the Netherlands. Thousands convened at The Hague in peaceful demonstrations, although Olof van Winden, the director of NiMK (Netherlands Media Art Institute) and TodaysArt Festival, was beaten and arrested by the police when he attempted to prevent a colleague from being dragged away. State support of Dutch culture within and outside of the Netherlands has generously and actively contributed to the vital development of global artistic practice, presentation, and discourse. Given the Netherlands’ role as an exemplar of cultural cultivation, we believe that this series of events signals a dramatic turn and sets an unfortunate precedent in the international cultural landscape. While a tidal wave of cuts in funding for culture has swept across many national contexts, including our own, in Canada, the Dutch example represents a worst case scenario in one of the best case cultural milieus. Compelled by the significance of the Dutch situation, we have asked various arts and culture organizations in the Netherlands to make statements in response. The following series of letters is what we received.
Kristina Lee Podesva, Editor
I have an oddly ambiguous reaction to the cuts in public funding currently proposed in the Netherlands. On the one hand, I deplore the shortsighted stupidity of a neo-liberal government that wants to keep its racist, populist partner happy by cutting what it refers to as “left-wing hobby” culture. One the other hand, I can’t help seeing the cuts as part of the necessary retreat of Europe and eventually the United States and NATO from their dominant world position. The cuts, which I think will be mirrored in many other western European countries, are targeted at contemporary cultural production, discourse and international exchange. The big museums remain fully funded but some 50% is taken from the smaller R&D sector in the so-called visual and performing arts (the government still sticks to these archaic divisions). The new thus makes space for the familiar. Without being able to prove it, I feel that there is majority support for such cuts in the Dutch population. Many see it as a way to hit the media and culture elites who promote their “emperor’s new clothes” as art is often described here. “Let them survive in the real world” is the cry, as though the richly subsidised mortgages, health and social security allowances of the Dutch middle-class are somehow natural phenomena. Yet, this attitude is indicative of the anxiety about change and challenge to the post-1945 “natural” order that infuses all social and political debate here. Native Europeans are scared. They see their patterns of life disrupted and blame the elites of various kinds for imposing globalisation and immigration on “hard working” Caucasians. This is the emotional foundation upon which these cuts are built and my ambiguous sense stems from another way of looking at the same ground. It goes without saying that I feel an urgent call to oppose the cuts, to try to make Dutch people aware of what they are doing to themselves by destroying their future culture and (as a foreigner) offer them an alternative. That’s no more than should be expected of me and it’s a role I am happy to fulfil. On the other hand, isn’t it about time Europe learnt to be a region again, calmed down and stopped pestering the world with its ideas, became poorer and weaker and hopefully more roundedly human in the process? Aren’t such cuts as these a necessary part of beginning just that process? Yet this latter argument could sound much too self-indulgent; a recipe of inertia that asks Europe to “go gentle in that good night.” So, in the end, I refuse it and I will, like Dylan Thomas, “rage, rage against the dying of the light” that is all around us. The cuts will dismantle all the good international support that the Mondriaan Foundation and its like have distributed around the world. The Netherlands will cease to be a place where art is produced in any measure and the future Van Goghs, Mondriaans, Marlene Dumas and Yael Bartanas will find themselves walking the highway to the border again. Therefore, in closing, may I commit myself to fighting the cuts will every fibre of my being and angrily wish the Dutch cultural minister, Halbe Zijlstra, a short career and long, irrelevant and miserable retirement.
Charles Esche, Van Abbemuseum
In spite of the current attacks on arts funding in the Netherlands, I believe that our survival is not threatened, as it is we who should and can decide our shared future. In Utrecht, the city council, led by GroenLinks, has decided not to follow the national governmental policy to a full extent. This is the moment to realize that the local scale can be meaningful politically against the nation-state, and imagine how this sort of localism can be extended to “place-based globalism” (J.K. Gibson-Graham).
One could even say that we have finally reached a moment when we must confront the “austerity” of the Dutch national neoliberal government and take collective action with the long-term view of defeating the current ideological power, not merely their budget cuts in the Dutch art world. A place like Casco has given a great emphasis on collaboration, heterotopia, exploratory subjectivities and practice, rather than on the politics of representation. If there’s a threat, it is from ourselves and myself, the threat of our own limits. However, I remain optimistic. As long as we remain stubborn in claiming our coexistence, we will find a way of dealing with differences among ourselves, learn from them and get through. If we are serious about not supporting the system that brought us here, be it in the art world and outside, then we have now a few years to work against it, form unprecedented alliances and counter-publics, and imagine a different world.
Binna Choi, Casco Office for Art,
Design and Theory
Can the choice of the Dutch right-wing government to drastically cut public funding of the arts be considered as an ideological turn? It is certainly presented as such by the government itself, who keeps on repeating that art should take care of itself and better start looking at the market instead of the state for any kind of financial support. There is also a populist element to the decision because it is mainly young, experimental and critical art that is cut. The established museums like the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt) and the Van Gogh Museum (Vincent van Gogh) are saved and have to face only minor budget cuts. It was also the populist party of Geert Wilders who is responsible for the currently widespread opinion among politicians to consider art as a left wing hobby.
The dramatic cuts of today are the conclusion of a development that had already started in the early eighties. At that time it was a similar center-right government that decided to cut the budgets for the individual support of artists (the so called BKR that had been introduced in the sixties). It was also the minister of culture in the eighties who began to present art as a PR-tool in the corporate promotion of The Netherlands inc. He talked about art as a “lubricant in economic relations.” Instead of the BKR this minister gave artists their own exhibition spaces—
so-called artists initiatives. These artists initiatives were considered to be a kind of show rooms that should stimulate the sales of art and provide the artists some income after the BKR. That these centers changed into a new professionalized layer—into the publicly funded art world of the nineties (for example BAK in Utrecht was originally a small artist space) was not foreseen.
Today’s art cuts, which are amongst many other things that are thinning the layer of artist institutions, can be seen as a correction of the failure of this older neoliberal endeavor from the eighties to move art away from public funding. Today’s rightwing government is only much bolder in its choices than the center-right government from the early eighties. It does not care about the future of art at all. There is no transition time, no alternative, no new initiatives, all funding simply stops for many artists and institutions—amongst which also art magazines like the one I work for. The government simply does not care that half of the Dutch art world will disappear. It only states that if there is no market for the arts it does not have a right to exist.
Domeniek Ruyters, Metropolis M
With great disappointment and indignation we have read the policy plan “Meer dan kwaliteit: een nieuwe visie op cultuurbeleid” (“More than Quality: A New Vision on Cultural Policy”) in which State Secretary Zijlstra presents a series of budgets cuts, which in our opinion are unreasonable, unnecessary, and out of proportion. The scale of the proposed budget cuts is without precedent in any public sector in The Netherlands. We fear these measures will inflict long lasting damage to the internationally acclaimed cultural climate of The Netherlands.
The policy proposed by Zijlsta and the means by which this policy is to be effectuated are naive and outright offensive. Naive because the proposed measures do not show a clear and good understanding of how the culture sector works, they are outright offensive because the policy and its argumentation in no way reflects the factual achievement and strong international position of the Dutch culture sector. The value of culture cannot be expressed with statistics alone. Audience figures and the degree to which art institutions are able to generate income give a poor picture of the value of culture for society. We would appeal to everyone who—like us—does not agree to the proposed policy to make their voices heard. The proposed budget cuts are too severe.
The Manifesta Team
A number of weeks ago Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he is concerned about the support of “radicalization” in Dutch politics. Erdogan’s warning might seem absurd in the light of a general concern for the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Turkey but his claim is indirectly supported by a plethora of similar concerns voiced within the EU and the UN. Euro-Commissioners Malmstrom, Redding and Andor—responsible for Home Affairs, Justice, Fundamental rights and Citizenship and Employment, Social affairs and Inclusion—have warned the Netherlands repeatedly that the new immigration laws foster discrimination and transgress the European Law. The UN has announced that it is greatly concerned about the change in Dutch international policy. The head of its environmental programme Achim Steiner says that the Netherlands is withdrawing from the international arena.
Nevertheless the Dutch cabinet—a minority government of liberals and Christian Democrats supported by the anti-Islam Party PVV of Geert Wilders—is intent on continuing something that constitutes an “isolationist” policy. Referencing a watered down version of Cameron’s “Big Society,” prime minister Rutte continuously and insidiously refers to ‘strengthening the responsibility and resilience of citizens’ and letting “the market take its natural course.” The Netherlands which has for the past decades been perceived as one of the most progressive social democracies—next to nations in the Scandinavian realm—is rapidly allowing the civil rights and social infrastructure which it prided itself upon to erode and even to be eliminated. Squatting has become illegal. The Christian party SGP, which does not allow women as eligible politicians on its party list, is the official alliance partner of the government in the Senate. Rules to expel Polish EU citizens after three months of joblessness and a refusal to grant work permits to Romanians and Bulgarians are being introduced. A law proposal, which forbids non-Dutch citizens to buy marijuana in coffee shops, is under discussion and the parliament debates a law adjustment that would render Kosher and Halal slaughtering illegal. In addition to announcing major cuts in both social and health care, education and science the government has last week announced humongous cuts in the budgets for art and culture that will take immediate effect in 2013. Art critic Sven Lütticken describes this policy as “scorched earth politics,” collectors talk about a new wave of “Iconoclasm.” This comparison is striking and appropriate. The field of the “visual arts” is crippled with fatal consequences for the audience on both a national and international level and a potential “braindrain” as one of its most obvious results. It is difficult to assess which country we, inhabitants of the Netherlands, live in right now. Could it be comparable to W.H. Auden’s “this country of ours where nobody is well?” Can a revolution happen in reverse? Is there such thing as a retrograde revolution? Dutch Autumn—a precursor of European Winter—in contrast to the Arab Spring? (If so,) this might be just what is happening. In the past decade we have witnessed—like the majority of countries in the Northern hemisphere—a slow and steady uprising of ultra-neo-conservative ideas. Since August 2010 this steady advancement was turned into a floodwave due to the “Danification of Dutch government.” The anti-progressive ideas that up until now existed on the fringe, in the margins, as a subcutaneous movement or even rumour spread and increased by mainstream media are now center stage, and are transformed from ideas into actions. Actions that cause a sharp divide between “we” and “they.” Rudyard Kipling would generally be thought of as a racist or at least a British subject advocating Imperialism. His writing however is not just “chaps in pith helmets keeping the wogs at bay on the Northwest Frontier,” as the quote below demonstrates:
All good people agree
And all good people say
That all nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of just over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!
For now we do not really know how to respond to this fostering of the rift between “We” and “They.” We venerate the “Provo-revolts” of the sixties and set up “A Museum of Resistance” but remain paralysed and pacified in the light of current developments. We have not yet been able to think of strategies of “efficient resistance,” of reinventing an alternative form of “solidarity.” Those terms sound bombastic and inappropriate, for perhaps we had no immediate need to think about them in the past decades. We have just been “1” in isolated sectors, with a minimum of contact between societal domains that have a shared concern for the preservation of social democracy as we know it—domains such as health care, science, education and culture. In the past 40 years politics was the realm of the factual and the rational, the arts the domain of the speculative and the irrational. Roles have been reversed now. We should get ready for that future. A future in which “all nice people, like Us” should get into an alliance with “They.”
Ann Demeester, de Appel Arts Centre
The problem is not one of numbers. The amount of 200 million makes zero sense, as it is a drop in the giant bucket of state finance. However, its consequence on an (until now) envied cultural millieu that brought international artists, students, intellectuals and curious visitors to The Netherlands will be enormous. This is a deeply ideological move meant to wage war on the very idea of a pluralistic, cultured society.
Halbe Ziljstra’s underhanded logic is shockingly buoyed by the Raad voor Cultuur, which blindly accepted his directive and went about figuring out how to cut. The solution posed—to cut-off certain institutions (especially non-exhibiting ones where the measure of cultural value is not in property but in processes that build culture) and to close academies is unacceptable. Witte de With will not breathe a sigh of relief if it is spared as we exist in an entire network of activity and cannot do our job alone. The situation reflects a perverse notion of democracy. In his forthcoming essay “On Superdiversity,” Tariq Ramadan recalls Nelson Mandela’s point that democracies must be judged by the way they treat their minorities. Of course, art, cultural experiment, the spirit of internationalism are all, somehow in the minority. And this seems the basis of the attack, but the cultural milieu is not the only minority under threat in The Netherlands. Perhaps the best we can expect from colleagues abroad are strong signs to the Dutch government that its international reputation—and that of The Netherlands as a cultural mecca and a place to study and find a future—is in ruins.
Witte de With Team