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Why does the world of culture excel at conflict?

Labour disputes in the Netherlands are on the rise. In 2021, the number of labour disputes rose overall by 17%. This increase will continue in 2022 and 2023, writes among others. nu.co.uk, based in part on the increased demand for legal aid in labour disputes.

The arts and culture sector is certainly no exception. The media regularly show conflicts and abuses within the cultural sector. Add to this all the noises we hear from the professional field in the LinC (Leadership in Culture) learning courses at Utrecht University and it is not difficult to estimate that the culture sector even scores high on the number of labour conflicts in the workplace.

A worrying situation. First and foremost, of course, for the (inter)human damage, but also given the tight labour market and the uncertain future of the sector. Why is it that the art world is so prone to conflict? And can anything be done about it?

Art is emotion

Anyone caught up in a labour dispute is rarely able to separate the personal from the functional, despite all well-meaning tips from bystanders who advise doing so. Those who get into conflict with a colleague soon feel personally aggrieved as well.

In the art world, this is even more dominant than elsewhere. Art stems from deep personal motivations. Professionals commit themselves to the sector from a strong inner motivation; they often see their work in the light of a higher purpose. Work is done from the heart and soul. Criticism of your work is then more likely to be criticism of you. As a result, a negatively perceived message quickly leads to personal conflict.

Why is this less pronounced in other sectors? In healthcare and services - where employees are often also extremely driven - the number of conflicts is significantly lower. This probably has everything to do with another dominant motivational factor in the cultural field, namely direct interaction with the public. Apart from a small category that l'art pour l'art makes, most cultural organisations strive for recognition. From the public as well as from the peers. If the applause fails, the artist has failed.

This penchant for success has something addictive and fosters conflict. A single negative utterance can inflame things. And even a lack of expressed appreciation can be enough to turn resentful towards each other.

Working in art is not something you do for the money

People who work in the cultural sector generally do not do so for the money. In fact: professionals in the arts are structurally underpaid, they structurally work on average more hours than they are officially employed, or as self-employed workers they get lower rates than in other sectors. This fosters conflicts.

Money is not the most important job satisfaction. Work content, degree of independence and atmosphere at work score higher. But the combination of little money and a lot of overtime does mean that, when substantive criticism comes in or a lack of freedom is experienced, a feeling of unease can arise that can quickly develop into a high-level conflict. 'I earn a pittance here and I already work so hard and now you're also going to tell me I'm not doing well?'

Arts Education

Although the opposite is regularly claimed, the art world is essentially quite hierarchical in nature. Museum directors, artistic directors, conductors, programmers, choreographers, directors: in addition to being artistically responsible, they are simply in charge. Cultural organisations are judged on their artistic profile, which should preferably be unambiguous, ground-breaking and distinctive at the same time. Leaders have to make their mark and are not afraid to cut corners when doing so.

Even organisations that do not necessarily produce art are challenged on their artistic profile. Interestingly, organisations that challenge the traditional ways and, for instance, bet on versatility are judged sharply. According to assessment committees, they then lack clarity of artistic vision.

Art schools play an important role in this regard. For four years, students there are drilled in developing 'their own signature'. It's all about your voice and your vision. This not only increases the chances of an excessive ego, it also reduces the chances of entering into successful collaborative relationships. Both internally and within existing institutional frameworks.

Excessive egos often prove to be the breeding ground for conflict. Once ascended in the hierarchy, the professional is more likely to act on the idea 'it's my turn now' rather than challenge the system itself.

All about the show

In art, everything has to give way to the result, the final product. All attention naturally goes to the next production, the next performance, exhibition, etc. Everything that gets in the way has to make way. As a result, sounds that are contrary are often not appreciated, especially in the phases of deadlines.

The focus on the final product also ensures that every dime goes there. Rather than spending money on the organisation, we prefer a nicer decor. There is less room for training, less room for professional development and typical organisational skills are trained less than in other sectors. Cultural organisations fail more often due to insufficient professionalisation than due to lack of artistic quality.

We trust only our family

Another well-known phenomenon in the cultural world: many autodidacts work there. A beginning professional who sets himself up as the business leader of a company for a few hours a week, the office worker who starts doing communication on the side. Usually born out of need and heart for the cause. Autodidacts learn their methods themselves and are less inclined to look at other approaches. 'We always do it this way' is a typical statement of an autodidact.

Autodidacts in the world of culture usually work in the same place for a long time and have a high degree of loyalty. Usually from a deep-seated belief in the qualities of the club with which they feel inseparable. Professionals in the arts know a high degree of sacrifice, solidarity and collegiality.

It has similarities to a family culture. Selflessly, a 'family task' is included. A task that is not necessarily wanted but must be done. If then another member of the family 'thinks' (there you go) to think something of it or to know better, this quickly brings conflict.

Fundamental uncertainty.

Fundamental uncertainty about finances is a breeding ground for conflict. The bulk of the cultural sector consists of subsidised institutions spinning in the wheel of the subsidy system. Every four years, they have to prove themselves to a changing jury with varying demands. 'Will we still be there next season?' It often puts things on edge: employees have to hand in hours, contracts are not renewed, etc.

It also paralyses the artistic process. It is difficult to keep creative ideas flowing under a star in which existence is uncertain. The realisation is there among all: if a good plan is not forthcoming now, continuity will be at risk.

Now, there are never any guarantees in entrepreneurship but with arts organisations it is particularly challenging because they are largely dependent on government funding because of their social mission. This often results in an unbalanced revenue model, in which absorbing setbacks from the 'main sponsor' becomes a complex task.

Incidentally, it is not the case that financial stability or commercial success within the cultural world is a recipe for a peaceful Valhalla. For that, there are too many values that could potentially clash. While appreciation from audiences and critics is an ultimate goal of art, it is not about selling the soul for that. Adapting a product to commercially large numbers is quickly seen as 'artistic selling out'. Art then loses its distinctiveness.

Commercial considerations versus artistic quality create a split for artists and cultural institutions that fosters conflict. A programmer who has to choose between a guaranteed full hall with an established artist or the uncertainty of an emerging new group. Rent out the hall to a well-paying external party or book it yourself for a cultural production after all? Not infrequently, these types of dilemmas produce a division of minds that leads to fundamental conflicts about the direction and values in the cultural institution.

Competition

The art world is competitive by definition. Thus, there are always more grant applications than there are the finances for. Honouring your plan means rejection for another. And who are responsible for those honours and rejections? These are often committees made up of peers. In this way, art professionals meet each other again and again in changing roles, where power relations also change all the time.

This encourages caution; after all, you never know when you will meet someone again and which seat they will be sitting in. The effect is that much dissatisfaction keeps simmering and is not voiced early on. Dormant conflicts can thus grow bigger and bigger over time, to problematic proportions.

Also, for example, the battle for audiences is tough. Being able to promote your product with an award, without ignoring the quality rating of each award, is of great value to any marketing department. It gives press and brings audiences.

However, there are numerous awards in which the sector lauds itself. From best pop venue of the year to Golden Calf, the Libris Literature Prize and theatre of the year, these are just a few examples of awards instituted by the sector itself, with judges largely from the same sector with interests that extend beyond the award alone.

In other words: The high level of competition with the industry itself acting as judge, jury and executioner fosters conflict.

Keeps conflicts manageable

Conflict is an inevitable part of human interaction and can be useful in many cases. They can produce creative solutions, improve communication and bring problems to light.

However, industrial disputes can also become ineffective and very costly if they escalate, remain unresolved or consume too many resources. Prolonged dormant conflicts can seriously affect employee well-being, organisational productivity and the quality of output across the industry. It is therefore crucial to address conflicts effectively and prevent them from escalating.

The process starts with developing conflict skills, a crucial set of skills that do not come naturally to most of us, but can be taught. By recognising conflicts, improving communication techniques and understanding our own roles, we can learn to deal with conflicts better, or even prevent them from arising unnecessarily. Collaboration training is also essential, because although collaboration within an organisation and within a creative process are similar, there are important differences.

If a conflict nevertheless escalates, we need to act quickly. The longer they last, the harder they are to resolve. This is where the role of expert external help comes in. It is vital to sit around the table, bring in impartial mediators and reduce the conflict to its core.

Often, conflict starts with a seemingly minor event that triggers negative emotions and leads to estrangement. It takes courage and determination to explore the root causes of the conflict, but this process can lead to enlightening self-insight and perspective.

In essence, conflicts can be both a blessing and a curse. How we approach and manage them is up to us, with the knowledge that they bring both opportunities and pitfalls in our human interactions.

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Birte ten Hoopen and Paul Adriaanse

Paul Adriaanse is affiliated to Utrecht University and, among other things, ultimately responsible for the Leadership in Culture (LinC) programme. As a mediator, he has gained extensive experience with conflicts in the world of culture. Birte ten Hoopen develops and provides training for professionals and works as a mediator in the cultural sector, where she herself worked as an educator for many years.View Author posts

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