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Amersfoort cultural policy filleted: 'Once started, there's no turning back'

In Amersfoort, one art hall is empty and one art hall is full. KAdE, only recently completed and already successful, was dismantled five years after opening and moved to another, even newer building, across the railway line. However, the city council does not appear to have been properly informed about the financial consequences of this move and is now stuck with and noose of at least 10 million euros and an empty building for which rent has to be paid for another 30 years. And a bronze bone that does not belong to them.

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At 'Two false starts, five years of fiddling with art gallery KAdE' investigative journalist Miro Lucassen paints a rather disconcerting picture of municipal politics and administrative messiness surrounding a cultural building project. The smoothly written story, which is akin to the bestseller De Prooi about the ABN AMRO debacle, is about things that are happen very often in municipal politics, and especially when it comes to culture. Miro Lucassen knows about it: 'The trend of a lot of money going to bricks and little to execution, that happens everywhere. You see that at Tivoli Vredenburg too.'

The new music centre in Utrecht did not exactly come about peacefully either. In Utrecht, too, budgets were exceeded and procedures were not always followed entirely correctly. Is Lucassen going to write a book about that too?

'When you are working on these kinds of issues, you see things in the papers all the time out of the corner of your eye that cry out for such a booklet too. But of course it is not that simple. This book contains 500 hours of work and I every other dossier also contains 500 hours of work. If you want to do it so thoroughly. That has to come from somewhere.'

In this case, it was the municipality itself that subsidised this journalistic investigation into its own performance. That is quite unique, Lucassen says: 'I personally do not know of any other municipality that subsidises journalistic research in this way. It is also a temporary arrangement in Amersfoort. I don't know how long they will keep it up. It started in 2012 as a media innovation project and then it was extended. We have another application pending for another project.'

Miro Lucassen - Photo by Marco Hofste
Miro Lucassen - Photo by Marco Hofste

Of course, what that is about, Lucassen can only tell us once the grant is in place. But even then, the question can be asked whether journalistic research with a subsidy is actually a choice. Especially if that research concerns the poor performance of the grantee. Lucassen says he did not feel any pressure: 'The scheme is also very clear about that. There is an advisory committee of external experts that also deals with cultural projects. It assesses the application on the extent to which the project adds something to the existing media landscape. Well, that is demonstrable. No one is looking over your shoulder either. The committee appreciates being invited to the presentation and receiving a copy. That seems only decent. Of course, some noise does arise at the other end. I have been told that the alderman of culture in Amersfoort did receive an email from someone in the municipality wondering why they were subsidising this book. To that he replied that she was subsidising it because this type of research was important. It is a choice of the board to submit to the discipline of journalism. Just as every board also submits to the discipline of the General Audit Office.'

But would there also be a certain guilt involved? They have been messing around quite a bit, after all.

'Everyone who has been active in this dossier has an uneasy feeling about it. A lot has happened that in retrospect you can say could have been smarter, could have been better, should have been handled differently. So the urge to know what's going on is not only with journalism, but also with others.'

The misery - and the book - begins as early as 1993, at the ministry of OCW. The list of people involved only gets longer after that. But there is no main culprit. In the book The Prey, everything points to one villain, ABN AMRO managing director Rijkman Groenink.

[Tweet "Revealing journalism is struggling. You can't sneak around anymore."]

'There is no villain in this story,' Lucassen explains. 'That also made it harder to write. If you can point out one villain you have a much simpler storyline. There wasn't one here, because everyone did their best to make something of it. The decisions were just lousy. Unlike The Prey, the result here is still engaging and interesting. It may be an expensive art hall, but it is a hearty fun art hall. For instance, there is a nice exhibition on 100 years of animation art going on right now. I would say to the readers of Culture Press: go there!

But meanwhile, the original arthaal KAdE stands empty, having only been used for five years, and the municipality still has 30 years of rent to pay. 'That is completely insane. Now if you're talking about big mistakes, this is a really big one: sign a 30-year lease when you're not at all sure you're going to last.'

What is the lesson local politicians can learn from this? In Amersfoort, things went wrong specifically because the council had opted for sharp 'dualism': politicians decide on the main lines, civil servants steer, the market executes. According to Lucassen, this is unique for Amersfoort: 'The control mechanism suffers from an imbalance. Councillors simply know too little, and college and civil servants dismiss a lot of issues as 'you are not in charge of that'. And they have indeed arranged it that way, but that means that if councillors and officials no longer keep a sharp check on each other, things can easily derail. You create room for groupthink, wishful thinking. So insofar as there is anything to teach administrators, it is: take measures so that you stay on top of wishful thinking. If a project manager says to the alderman: it's quite possible to move without extra costs while construction is already underway, an alderman should at least ask: demonstrate this. After all, it's not something that would happen to you at home. If you have a remodelling job, and the contractor is already doing it and you say, do the kitchen on the left anyway? You can, but that will cost you considerably more. Something like that played out here, too, and they didn't pay enough attention to that. Those who prattled a bit about the risks, like the architect, were not heard. More things always go wrong at once."

At the time when all this was going on, Lucassen himself was a journalist with the Amersfoortse Courant. Many cases did not make the newspaper at that time because nobody knew about them. Didn't the regional newspaper fail tremendously there? 'We might have seen it.' Lucassen acknowledges. 'I haven't looked into it to that extent. But it is also difficult for the media to get their hands on the underlying documents. Councillors see the documents, the press does not. You have to request those separately, and if they say no, you have to start a wob procedure and then such a process is already under way. So that requires a lot of perseverance on the part of journalism. When you say that journalism therefore needs more perseverance, I do agree with you in itself. On the other hand, I also know with how few people those newspapers are made, and how they have to do their stinking best to get that newspaper full every day.'

Lucassen also sees a problem with transparency caused by social media: 'It has become more difficult to deliver such news well. Revealing journalism is struggling. You can't sneak in anymore. They know you. You're on Facebook, on Twitter, so they know who you are.'

'On the other hand, when making this book, it was another advantage that I already knew many of those involved. Because it's all behind us, people are much more candid. Of course, I was also able to promise them a degree of confidentiality. And everyone is now also relieved that things ended well after all: there is now a beautiful building. Look at TivoliVredenburg, or the railway tunnel in Delft: everything is geared towards getting the project there no matter what. The market parties know that too. That is one of the weaknesses of government: once you have started, there is no turning back: the North-South line, the HSL, it always goes on until it is finished. And so there is always a nice reconstructive story to write about it too, afterwards.'

[Tweet "That's the weakness of government: once you start, there's no going back"]


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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