Amsterdam's Theatre Frascati is on the verge of collapse. Despite all the extra millions culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven offered to the troubled culture sector on Budget Day 2020. Many people don't get that. They especially don't understand how subsidy policy can work in such a way that, over a period of years, the heart can be taken out of an entire theatre street. After all, after the previously forced departure of Cosmic and the Angel Box, the disappearance of Frascati would almost certainly mean the end of the Nes, and that is quite unimaginable. How is that possible?
On Wednesday 16 September, I was a guest in a recording of Radio Futura. The online radio programme is Frascati's way of keeping life in the business. It takes place in Room 3, a space that is in no way profitable in times of corona. So why not record a live podcast? They do it for three months and the Wednesday after Budget Day was about subsidy politics. I have shared the link to the broadcast below, setting the instart to 15 minutes, because otherwise you have to listen to the intro music for a very long time.
Difficult to explain
Together with presenter Gian van Grunsven, former Danstheater director Janine Dijkmeijer (also chair of the Council for Culture's festivals advisory committee) and Theaterkrant editor-in-chief Simon van den Berg, who called in due to quarantine obligations, I tried to explain the subsidy system in the Netherlands. Pretty tricky, because from the way the Culture Council has operated in recent years, even that highest advisory body no longer knows how it works.
Simon van den Berg explains that once upon a time, which is not that long ago, the Council for Culture decided every four years on all applications from all art institutions in the Netherlands. In doing so, all institutions were equal, although some, such as the Rijksmuseum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, were more equal than others. To put an end to this four-yearly tombola, the Chamber introduced a Basic Cultural Infrastructure, or BIS for short, in 2007.
The BIS laid down, and everyone has forgotten by now, which 'functions' had to be filled where in the Netherlands. So there were eight 'functions' 'symphonic orchestra', four large and four small city companies, four visual arts presentation institutions, 21 'production houses' and a system of funds, such as the Fonds Podiumkunsten, where art that could be linked to individuals and ensembles would find shelter, and so on. This thus laid down how the subsidised arts would be distributed fairly across the country. The Council only had to judge from a distance, and independent artists would remain out of the hands of politicians through production houses and funds. Functions would not be tampered with.
Everyone happy, because the introduction of the BIS indeed seemed to end the quadrennial turmoil. So that went right exactly once, because halfway through the first arts plan with the BIS, a cabinet took office in which traditional power parties like CDA and VVD had surrendered to a tolerance construction with revanchist Geert Wilders aka PVV. In that tolerance agreement, they laid down a cut of at least 30 per cent on all art subsidies, with the prospect of more cuts.
How it went wrong after that is history. We have reported on this in detail over the past decade, such as via the hashtags ´1TP5Calculation' and '#rutteleaks'. Eventually, successive repair actions completely undermined the BIS. We are back to a system that is more chaotic than it was before 2008.
That is also what the broadcast is about. In the last half hour, I strongly defend the thesis that we cannot go back to the BIS as it was intended. The world has changed too radically for that. I advocate abolishing the idiotic three-way division in the Dutch subsidy system. That three-way division was instituted in the 1980s and boils down to the fact that the national government subsidises the supply of art, while local governments are concerned with the presentation of that supply. The provincial government should then focus on education.
This three-way division has meant, for instance, that urban theatres cannot develop their own face, because they have to conform to a national offer. There is now no link between those who make the offer and those who present it. By also putting the subsidising of the offer in the hands of local government, thus opting for a model of urban theatres, you can bridge the gap between public and subsidised art. After all: a theatre gets a permanent ensemble, actors no longer have to enter into a new contract every four months as precarious self-employed workers and go on yet another depressing tour of uninterested venues.
What has been outlined above is the German model, where big cities and federal states determine art policy. This also has all sorts of nastiness attached to it, such as ossification, but no one can deny that the link between supply and demand is a lot more intense in Germany. The national supply, and the distribution of subsidies, could also be kept out of the hands of the Lower House by entrusting it to an independent Arts Council, thus adopting the English Arts Council model.
The hybrid German-English model combines the best of three worlds. And it involves big changes.
Theatre-makers then no longer all live in Amsterdam, but in one of the eight or 10 urban cultural regions. That is where they go out, that is where their children go to school, that is where they meet their audiences at dog walking. That is also where the power of supreme managements is broken, because they now have permanent staff, and no longer decide every four months on the fate of their freelancing creatives could decide. It would enforce fair practice a lot easier.
The solution to everything? Listen to Radio Futura and think along.