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Many theatres became rich because of the pandemic. But their future is darker than ever.

Nobody understands yet why the theatres, museums and concert halls have to stay closed, while shops and contact professions are back in full swing. And rightly so: we all want a normal life again, going to the movies together, dancing at a cool concert, and strolling past art in a museum. We need relaxation.

However, there is also a downside to all this, as the financial impact of a quick reopening could well be very bad for the arts sector. Indeed, the chances of the buildings filling up again are slim, as reopenings in the past year have shown. Not all spectators are keen on QR access tickets, the elderly in particular (the bulk of the audience) are reluctant, and the one-and-a-half metres makes the full hall a distant mirage anyway.


Audience revenues will therefore lag behind and at the same time a huge shortage of experienced staff has emerged. The big elephant in the room is the huge supply of performances that will have to be eliminated first before new creators come into the picture. People are looking for certainty just now and will not be able to choose from a huge range of performances and concerts that will hardly have a chance to catch on in the public eye.

So much supply, so little demand. Right now, moreover, there is a striking dichotomy. Theatres and concert halls, thanks to the generous Corona subsidy, are practically swimming in money, while self-employed actors and musicians, but especially self-employed people in technology, ´hospitality´ and logistics, are condemned to begging. Many are looking for work elsewhere, or have already left.


Initial support for the sector was released in March 2020 after a motion by D66 MP Jetten ('support the cultural sector, especially as 60% of it is made up of freelancers.'). It was thus expected that support for institutions would trickle down ('trickle down') to this huge group of self-employed arts workers, but that has hardly happened. There are positive exceptions, such as TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht. There, it invested in new projects, its own streaming studio, a podcasting space and one-and-a-half-meter concerts in the Walk The Line series. This allowed a large part of the 'flexible shell' of staff to remain at work.

Other halls have used the support mainly to build up a buffer. That buffer, calculated over the sector, runs into millions. Money that was originally meant to alleviate acute distress is therefore now lying ready as 'resilience'.

Perfect storm

The question now is whether that reserve is big enough for the 'perfect storm' that awaits after the lockdown. Above all, there is also the question of what the consequences would have been if that support did actively trickle down to the self-employed who are now (threatening to) leave the sector.

We examined it for 15 leading institutions, based on pre-corona (2018 and 2019) and the first corona year 2020 financial statements. These are publicly available, so it was a matter of putting the numbers together. That produces the following overall picture:

Results 2018 Equity 2018 Result 2019 Equity 2019 Result 2020 Equity 2020
€ 1.807.364,00 € 15.557.021,00 € 1.624.935,00 € 17.572.754,00 € 7.728.719,00 € 25.231.709,00

The assets of these institutions grew by almost €8 million in 2020. The combined result for 2020 was more than 4x the result for 2019 and 2018.

For the 15 individual institutions, the picture is as follows:


The pop sector seems to be more negatively affected by corona measures than theatres. One explanation may be that pop venues get more revenue and results from programming and the extra spending by audiences on catering. 'Positive' exception is Nijmegen pop centre Doornroosje, which achieved the best operating result in its recent history.

In contrast, the theatre sector made 'profits' across the board in 2020. Programming for theatres generally costs mostly money. For that reason alone, the forced suspension of programming had a positive impact on the operating result. The coronagraph support from the government added to this.

Behind the scenes

For the venues, the coronasteun ran mainly through the Performing Arts Fund. That fund supported creators in the sector through the scheme called 'Balcony Scenes', where a maximum of 7,000 euros per project was available. Some of the ZZP'ers were helped by this, but a very large number were not. Especially in the behind-the-scenes support, big gaps have appeared.

This was previously shown by research by Boekman, and is now also a task for the Creative Sector Taskforce. In December, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science announced that solutions are being sought. Could tapping the accumulated reserves of corona funding be one such solution?

Not compulsory

According to Berend Schans, chairman of the VNPF, allowing coronasteun to trickle down to ZZP'ers is not possible. 'The subsidy received was explicitly not meant to support self-employed people. While this was shouted in the House of Representatives and in the media by ministers and other stakeholders, politicians do more to get a good picture, it was not listed as such in the Gazette. The policy instruments were (and are) simply lacking for that as well.'

'Nor did the decision of, for example, the Podia COVID-19 scheme (which only became clear in July 2020), which ran through the Performing Arts Fund, state that the funds had to be used for zzp'ers or other chain parties. When asked, this was confirmed by the grantor on more than one occasion.'

Joint and several liability

Schans also points to the lack of prospects for the pop venues: ´In case of a possible upcoming bankruptcy, caution does need to be exercised when making (selective) payments to third parties. Indeed, in the event of a foundation's bankruptcy, the director may be jointly and severally liable.´

According to the VNPF, the positive result has been put on the balance sheet as a reserve in proper consultation with the subsidisers: 'The coronavirus does not care about calendar years. The positive result that has arisen among some can therefore be interpreted as an interim situation, because the consequences of the pandemic for business operations in the medium term are totally incalculable at the moment. The resources are mainly deployed for organisational continuity. It is far from clear whether repayments are due yes or no. Many final allocations of the generic support measures are also yet to be finalised.´


Marijke van der Woude, director of Stadsschouwburg De Harmonie, also points to the imminent danger that the economy will not simply return to its former level: 'De Harmonie obviously fully recognises the great importance of independent makers, technicians and other professionals for the cultural sector. Like the permanent staff of cultural institutions, these self-employed people are an indispensable part of the finely tuned cultural infrastructure.´

'For the sector to function well again, a lot of resilience is needed in the coming period. The whole sector benefits from theatres continuing to provide a stable core of employment, including to self-employed people. This requires a sensible, long-term financial policy.'

Cultural capital

´The support we were able to receive in 2020 definitely helped our organisation. As a result, there were no forced redundancies and we were able to show then and now that we are ready to open the theatre to our audience, to creators and to fellow organisations as soon as possible. That among them is a large group of self-employed people goes without saying.´

'The amount of support we received on the basis of the Podia Regeling Covid-19 (and the related municipal matching contribution) was largely determined on the basis of reference year 2018. That year was a peak year for us because of Leeuwarden Cultural Capital. As a result, the support we received under this scheme in 2020 was therefore also relatively high.´


'But above all, we have to realise that the 2020 result is only an intermediate stage in a pandemic of unprecedented consequences, in which we still find ourselves.´

So for the performing arts sector, the future is by no means secure. Opening too soon might turn out much worse than reopening in phases. The accumulated reserves could evaporate before you know it, partly because they were not used to prop up the flexible shell.

That this will only make it harder for the self-employed in the sector should be obvious.

Good to know Good to know

The 15 theatres surveyed with the support they received from the performing arts fund are:

Stage name Amount allocated FPK Result 2020
Paradiso Amsterdam € 1.000.000,00 – € 303.000,00
Popcluster (013 Poppodium) € 1.000.000,00 – € 92.149,00
Tivoli/Vredenburg € 1.000.000,00 – € 193.014,00
Galaxy Foundation € 933.298,00 – € 11.000,00
The Concertgebouw N.V. € 870.331,00 € 95.416,00
The Goals € 802.838,00 € 582.000,00
Stadsschouwburg Nijmegen and Concertgebouw De Vereeniging € 647.514,58 € 882.554,00
Wilminktheatre and Music Centre Enschede € 599.234,00 € 1.043.687,00
Parkstad Limburg Theatres € 581.000,00 € 804.000,00
Sleeping Beauty € 562.378,00 € 903.541,00
Muziekgebouw Eindhoven N.V. € 558.536,06 € 35.958,00
Theatre Orpheus € 545.243,00 € 553.000,00
SPOT Groningen € 500.000,00 unpublished
Stadsschouwburg and Philharmonie Haarlem € 491.090,00 € 890.428,00
De Meervaart theatre € 480.350,00 € 789.000,00
City Theatre De Harmonie € 469.978,81 € 1.311.130,00

This piece is part of a series written in collaboration with Wijbrand Schaap

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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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