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Dramatic increase in volunteering in theatres and concert halls.

One of the highlights of the year is always the presentation of 'the figures' by the Association of Theatres and Concert Halls (VSCD). These are, in fact consistently positive. For years. And so for years it has been a challenge to find out why those positive figures are so hard to reconcile with the picture of reality. Which is not so positive at all. In fact, suspicion is beginning to grow here that the club is deliberately cheering, in order to dismiss the press's perception of reality as sourpuss. 

So we won't be doing that. This year, the figures are there earlier than ever, and the organisation of inspired theatre bosses, fire chiefs awaiting retirement and cultural hospitality managers has once again managed to present them even more vaguely than ever. General view: nothing has changed and therefore things are going great. Or, to put it in the words of the press release: 'Podia used more intensively in 2016.'

Hospitality and rental

Of course, no one at all can fault that. Theatres and concert halls are already much more intensively used than your average football stadium. That is always empty and hosts the local FC plus supporters once every fortnight on a Sunday afternoon. But it could always be more intensively used. Well, it has succeeded, mainly thanks to "increased rental and hospitality activities", reports the association. Tops, especially also because the number of programmed performances and concerts has not declined.

How that works out in practice I could experience for myself a while back at my own venue TivoliVredenburg. There, not only the seven concert halls are now fully programmed, you can now also go after your evening of Schönberg or Suzanne Vega in the Biergarten on the central square, three high, in the middle of the building. I love it, but not everyone is keen on it. Local catering operators shout that it is subsidised competition, for example. But given how busy the city centre is, I don't think that's a problem at all. Plenty of space and audience. Next year, the building will probably rent out the toilets along for a poets' night. Cultural entrepreneurship knows no bounds in times of constant cuts to the arts.

Subsidised offer

So now there is really only positive news to report, as the share of subsidised art in Dutch theatres has also not fallen beyond the tiny 14% it has been hovering around for years. Sad, but therefore no cause for extra concern either. It was sad, it is sad, and it will get no less sad. Halls fund the unpopular subsidised offerings by programming lots of audience hit(s). Everyone happy, at least insofar as they think this is Dutch Henk and Danish Ingrid anything at all.

Best of all, all that extra turnover and all those extra activities cost little extra money. Because, the figures show, the 6.5 per cent increase in the total workforce did not cost huge amounts of extra money. Indeed, the number of salaried people did not increase. How do these theatres do it anyway?

The solution: volunteers

Simple, it turns out. Holland's theatres and concert halls finance their growth by employing 'flex workers' (read: zero-hours contractors and self-employed workers) and, yes: volunteers. The number of flex workers (presumably not working on a consultant's fee) rose by 10.5 per cent and the number of volunteers increased even more: 14.1 per cent. In one year.

Of course that is not modern slavery. People do it voluntarily and they probably get a lot of really cool fringe benefits in return (food in the artists' restaurant, for instance). It's just a pity that it is now really starting to become the norm in the sector. The VSCD is not complaining about the deteriorating labour market in the sector. No, they just say it: it is so cool in the arts that you want to work there, even if you put money on it. 

This is just not true for everyone. Nowhere in the figures do I read that executives and members of the middle management have surrendered salary. For instance, to save up wages to continue paying that laid-off cashier, instead of keeping him on board as a volunteer. Would be an unprecedented move, but it is better than the idle cheering now. After all, that leads to cynicism in the workplace. And to further decline in status of the arts sector.

If the growth continues so fantastically, the VSCD halls will soon only be expensively governed volunteer clubs. Or are they anyway suddenly almost bankrupt.

Applause. Bravo.

The press release.

Infographic_VSCD_Theatre_Analysis_System_2016

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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