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Investing in culture is pointless if you can't think ten years ahead. (Lessons from Manchester, episode 3)

When a Dutchman thinks about art, he thinks of buildings that cannot support themselves, played by, or hung with work by, people who cannot sustain themselves. So money must be added, and we call this subsidy. In this way, art subsidy becomes a suspect form of welfare, even more suspect than the billions in income support that wealthy protest farmers in shrinking areas receive.

With such a negative framing art in the Netherlands will never amount to anything again. While the answer is so simple.


But then let's call it 'investment', artists now say. That seems to be the answer to all problems. Investing is fine, it exudes entrepreneurship and belief in the future. The petition, which was launched on Monday, 2 March, thus only talks about investing, not subsidising. A step in the right direction, but not far enough. After all, there are also strange notions about investing.

Dutch people think of investment as a preferably one-off injection that gives a company enough momentum to be able to manage on its own over time without the need for new money. Art subsidies do not fit that picture, because artists cry out every four years that they get too little. That creates the image of a bottomless pit and investors don't like that, especially if they are investing with their expensive taxpayers' money. What citizens do.

After five days in February, during which I met with a delegation of graduates from Leadership in Culture toured Manchester and Liverpool, the penny dropped for me. These cities too hand out hefty subsidies to culture creators and cultural institutions; they too prefer to speak of investment. But they think about it completely differently from here.

10 years ahead

Whereas the entrepreneurial VVD party keeps shouting things at us about cultural entrepreneurship, it is Labour's British socialists who take a realistic approach to entrepreneurship. They understand that investing is something you have to keep doing. Investing is subsidising with a higher purpose, for the long term: the city government sets a vision for at least 10 years, not four, as with us. That vision is solid enough to survive the delusion of the day and broad enough to allow for new insights as they arise.

The city, has a long-term culture in mind. Then you show, and demand ambition. So then you don't see whining artists in expensive buildings, but envision an investment that beautifies the city, makes nightlife safer and livelier, has a positive effect on housing prices and attracts tourists. Then you don't build a theatre, for which you then demand money in return, but that building is the investment that makes your whole city worth more. That delivers a lot more than a building that has no money left for exciting programming because the rent is too high.


So you invest permanently in your culture because you also invest permanently in maintaining roads, public transport, and urban renewal. All in conjunction. In Manchester, where really not everything is better regulated than here, but a lot is, the government, along with the culture community, is establishing that art plays a role in people's well-being, and even health. So you invest in that role, because that is an investment in the future of your city. An investment you have to keep making, year after year, because people, like flyovers, wear out.


When the crisis hit England, Manchester launched an ambitious investment programme. In arts and culture. That led to a lot of great things, now. On an abandoned car park between a couple of smelly canals and old railway lines, the council built a theatre-cum-film house, bringing together two existing, languishing institutions. Now, 10 years later, that complex, called Home, turns out to be the draw for the new residents of the area: flats and offices derive their value from the complex, which runs like a proverbial train.

Only when a Dutch government dares to think in the long term and has a vision of what the country should look like, how happy its people should be, and how safe, only then does it pay to talk about investing in culture.

Good to know Good to know
More information on Home Manchester: here.

This is episode 3 in a series of stories about a trip to Liverpool and Manchester.

Previous episodes:

That's how you give your city a real vision. (How Manchester became a leader in international arts in just a few years)

Hide the books, if you want people in the library. (Lessons from Manchester, episode 2)

Next episodes:

Anfield's best pasties work against degradation. (Lessons from Manchester, episode 4, the Liverpool edition)

That's how you give your city a real vision. (How Manchester became a leader in international arts in just a few years)

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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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