The most recent bulk of cultural rescue money was distributed to municipal councils without the obligation to actually spend that money on culture. Indeed, that so-called 'earmarking' was too cumbersome and time-consuming, according to now outgoing culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven. (Malicious people suggest that in this way Rutte and Wiebes were willing to come over, because the money would not go to culture anyway. But that is, of course, vicious gossip).
Research by Berenschot, however, has since shown that the time savings are likely to result in some of the 150 million not ending up with distressed artists, but in park benches, a street lamp, or a few wastebaskets. Or into the big pot.
Is that bad? Yes, it is bad and it just goes to show once again that municipal politicians and policymakers cannot be trusted for a second when it comes to culture (money). This makes sense, as they haven't had to worry about it for the past 35 years either. Substantive cultural policy, with the money, had been a matter for central government since 1985. The municipalities only had to make sure that all that government-funded offerings were available somewhere.
So it is to this political obscenity that we owe the current cultural landscape. A landscape in which megalomaniac art buildings stand right down to the smallest village centre, once erected by a municipal council that wanted something nice for the local real estate market. Rent and content they did not have to worry about: both were largely paid for by cultural subsidies from the state. And then it doesn't have to be small villages. Nijmegen, for instance, is one such town where - apart from the 4-day event - virtually all culture has disappeared from the hearts of administrators.
So a fine win-win situation, except for those who make subsidised art, because they hover everywhere in between. They make plans that a committee of government experts approves, and have to bring them into buildings where people don't particularly care about them. This is well enough known and also amply admitted by concerned funds, but they have nevertheless fought tooth and nail against further regionalisation of art subsidies.
The current situation once again highlights how unfortunate that is. Berenschot now felt compelled to a special teaching package put together for municipal administrators to teach them what culture is and why it needs their heartfelt support.
Because it is a one-off event, it will not stick. Unless artists and local institutions demand control of every euro of the extra money that was 'gladly, but not compulsorily' handed out to the municipality for culture, most will disappear. Local libraries, amateur societies, arts initiatives and potteries are going to have a very tough time. Not out of unwillingness, but out of ignorance of their own city.
Thus, we continue to maintain the distance between art and place. Artists, theatre-makers and musicians remain half civil servants of a government department, making obligatory rounds of local venues. Local administrators continue to focus their interest on things other than culture, insofar as it does not fall under the well earmarked budget for 'welfare'.
With the penny gone
Perhaps it is an idea to take Berenschot's endearing curriculum as a starting point. Maybe it is an idea to actually bring arts funding and production closer to the people for once. Perhaps we should accept that this will create many more embarrassing situations with local politicians from parties, obscure or otherwise, running off with the dough. Like in Brabant.
It will be exciting in the municipalities because for once, artists will have to negotiate not with The Hague, but with the local government. Those artists have friends in the city, with whom the alderman might be in the Lion's Club. The theatre company will be able to realise its international ambitions because the city council will get through that it is good for the city. The debate on culture will take on a local character. Cronyism and under-the-table hand-wringing by aldermen, as happened in Brabant, is more likely to come to light. The local press again has a bit more to write about.
Cities are becoming less similar again. Living becomes a choice, when going out matters.