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Cultural merger fever could have serious consequences

In Amsterdam, Holland Festival, Theaterfestival, Toneelgroep Amsterdam and a few more clubs will 'work closely together'. In The Hague, this applies to Het Nationale Toneel and youth theatre house Stella Den Haag, while in Rotterdam Schouwburg, Ro Theater and production house are intimately intertwined. Utrecht celebrates the merger of the Springdance and Festival aan de Werf festivals, and since today it has another new merger club: all literary organisations and festivals join forces. Meanwhile, in the southern Netherlands, Brabants Orkest and Limburg Symphony Orchestra are bickering over who gets to lobby the CDA and PVV to stop the impending merger, while in the eastern Netherlands the Orkest van het Oosten renamed itself Nederlands Symfonie Orkest to be stronger against forced merger partner Gelders Orkest. In the enthusiasm, the Enschede music club also submitted a takeover plan for the Nationale Reisopera.

All creative plans to survive in a country that sometimes wants to spend up to half as much on art that until now has been supported as vital by its inhabitants. Less money, therefore fewer staff and fewer buildings needed to ensure continued supply. Sounds nice, but is it?

Looking briefly at past arts mergers, the answer is a bit double. A year or so ago, we had a merger between Theatre Group The Trust and Art&Pro, which merged into the Theatre Company. That merger ultimately came to nothing. First, it turned out that there were financial corpses in various cupboards, and then the two artistic directors went to blows with each other, after which the business was also rejuvenated artistically. Arguments, overworked actors, and eventually an audience that was increasingly less amused, until a negative advice from the Raad voor Cultuur and Fonds Podiumkunsten followed.

Amsterdam lost two unique companies and had to deal with a few empty theatres, a hole that has not actually been filled, even though both artistic bosses have since found new jobs that continue to enrich the Netherlands culturally.

In 1986, there was an arts reorganisation that led to a merger between Toneelgroep Centrum, specialising in Dutch repertoire, Het Publiekstheater as a large company and Toneelgroep Baal as guardian of specific musical theatre. There too, within two years, the constituent parts had either disappeared or merged so unrecognisably into the constituent whole of Toneelgroep Amsterdam that, despite the enrichment that company brought to Dutch art life, we can still speak of a loss in the unique position that Baal and Centrum occupied.

Even now, we have to fear the loss of mainly small identities in the arts on offer, because parties that do not merge, such as the Onafhankelijk Toneel in Rotterdam and the Festival Oude Muziek in Utrecht, are also likely to perish. In addition, many mergers could lead to artistic and business conflicts within two or three years, again resulting in the loss of artistic leadership talent. Not to mention the looming vacancy of art buildings.

We don't necessarily have to look black, but past experiences offer no guarantee that things will be better in the near future. Although, in a decade or so, there won't be a rooster crowing about it.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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