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Why the magnificent annual figures of the theatre and concert hall managements make it clear that the system must be turned around. 

Things are once again going insane for Dutch theatres and concert halls. Every year, the directors, gathered in the VSCD, manage to come out with truly fantastic figures in the autumn. This year too, the cheers are unrelenting. Everything is growing. The number of jobs, and the number of volunteers, for example. (Both up by 3% in 2018, trend break with previous years where the number of jobs did not grow but the number of volunteers did).

Why am I so cynical? Surely there is some really good news to report? After all, attendance figures are up (+8%), the number of performances is up (+3%). So: what am I moaning about?

Let's say that every year the Association of Theatre and Concert Hall Directors issues a press release with the same structure, and so every year there is bad news hidden in the final paragraphs. This year, too, we find something there that will shock people who like 'vulnerable' art and those who are about subsidies: subsidised theatre and music offerings are falling proportionately again. At least, if we apply higher mathematics to the figures, because the VSCD only mentions percentages and proportions, but thus no absolute figures. Trade secrets, sensitive information, that sort of thing. And without absolute numbers, percentages say nothing at all.

Percentage of what?

What is going on with subsidised supply? Well, that is up by 1 per cent, although the VSCD does not say from what percentage to what percentage that is. The latest estimates from 2017 put it hovering around 13 per cent, so nice that it is now back to 14. Possibly. Too bad, though, that the audience for that offer is not growing with it. Indeed, that's shrinking by 3 per cent. In previous years, the audience did not grow as fast as the supply. So now that trend continues in a negative sense.

What does grow enormously, it really says, is subsidised supply in the 'other' category. What can we count under this, according to the VSCD? 'Other' includes urban arts, theatre lectures, literary readings and more. These performances are 21 per cent more programmed and 18 per cent more attended.' Wonderful, of course, but trying to apply kabbalistic exegesis to the totals for a moment, this is about something totally marginal. After all: the total subsidised offerings increase by 1 per cent, so the contribution of the growth of the 'other' category does not really have any impact. Let's take it as growth from 10 to 12 performances. That's 21 per cent.

Free offer

Why am I now so concerned about these figures, which are only such a small part of the total? Surely 87 per cent of the supply in theatres and concert halls is doing great? The reason why everyone should care about this is simple: the Netherlands subsidises theatres and concert halls, and subsidises art to be shown in those theatres and concert halls. Currently, however, a large part of the subsidy money we all spend on theatres and concert halls goes to 'free', or 'commercial' offerings. So those offerings can exist thanks to those subsidies. In fact: the Dutch theatres and concert halls make that commercial offering possible thanks to subsidies. Also the musicals by Stage, also the seventies tribute bands that tour everywhere.

And while these 'easy' offerings fill up the programmes, offerings you don't have to think too long about, as well as offerings that have nothing to do with the 'bildung' for which those buildings were once put up, principals are increasingly keeping their hands off the offerings that are their raison d'être.

Fifteen rooms

Just last year boards asked for extra money from the government to make that difficult offer more palatable to their members. Given that the 'difficult' offerings have been minimal for years, it seems to me that this is not a question of money, but of will. So that will is lacking in the majority of theatre and concert hall managements. We need to do something about that.

I would say: don't saddle all those theatres and concert halls that now swallow their subsidised cod liver oil with that offer. Give that 'vulnerable' offer, with a bag of money, to theatres and concert halls that do like it. That's about 15 or so. No more. Subsidised art will flourish.

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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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