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Why the Culture Council's Design Thinking is going wrong

The opinion ''Access to Culture' which the Culture Council presented on Friday 25 January 2024, is causing quite a stir. The newsletter we wrote about it on Substack found an eager audience, even if it did not ask, let alone answer, all the questions raised by the opinion. Since, at 230 pages, it has also become a rather voluminous document, it is logical that everyone spent the first few days poring over the rather extensive text. 

Incidentally, the first criticism of the voluminous opinion did not even concern the report itself, but its timing. The original intention was to issue the opinion in December 2023, but the Council refrained from doing so because of fears that it would not receive enough attention between all the electioneering. 

This is a remarkable reasoning, as the main focus for the opinion would have been there anyway: the sector and the ministry. I suppose the Council did not expect that by the end of January there would already be a new cabinet that would immediately start working on the text decisively.

Own sector wheeled in

With the presentation event on 25 January, the Council is in any case riding roughshod over the sector itself. After all, everyone who wants subsidy in the coming years is in the process of finalising their subsidy applications for the next four years? The deadline is 12 midnight on 31 January. Now I am sure there will be institutions and creators who will still use those five days to put something about plans beyond 2029 in the application, but chic is different. It may have caused extra panic here and there.

However, a very important question is substantive: what has the Council actually done with the Funds' input? I have already picked up here and there - and also reported in that newsletter - that people are not very happy with what the Council says in its opinion on the Funds. 

Indeed, the Council almost completely ignores the way the Funds are already implementing things the Council says it wants to develop. Attention to regional input, new genres like Hiphop and Streetdance, even regional heritage already have a place in the practice of the Funds, and the field is quite happy with that too. 

Council makes classic mistake

It seems the Council has made a classic mistake in introducing Design Thinking. Part of that process consists of a cosy brainstorm, of course, but more important is to ask yourself exactly what problem you are going to solve. Does that problem lie with Fonds Podiumkunsten, Filmfonds, Letterenfonds and Mondriaan Fonds, or does it lie with the Council itself? And what is it then?

In setting up the Design Thinking process, the Council seems to have assumed the current state of Basic Cultural Infrastructure. And that, of course, is disastrous. Everyone agrees on that. Only: nowhere in the piece do I find any real reflection on the cause of that disastrous state. We have those causes here with Culture Press mentioned often enough, and of course we cannot blame the Council for reading the most independent medium on cultural policy on a daily basis, but it would have been nice if they had at least once looked at the original elaboration of the BIS. Quite a lot of people were very happy about that in 2007. Everyone actually, for the first time in at least 50 years of arts policy. 

The BIS was a successful prototype

The 2009-2012 Arts Plan was the first plan that would work according to the BIS. It was to be a period in which (design thinking and fastprototyping, anyone?) practical work would look at where improvement and refinement could be made. 

Unfortunately for the developers of the BIS, the PVV came to power as a supporting partner. One-man party Wilders forced VVD and CDA to take the most draconian measures against artists and culture. Not only a 200-million cut in government spending, an abolition of the WWIK for independent artists and a cut in municipal budgets, but also a revanchist reckoning with supposedly leftist tendencies in the arts. 

The BIS was mortally wounded in its first year of existence and never had a chance to develop after that. What the Chamber has done in the years since is mostly patchwork and cherrypicking. Thus, the fine system of long-term security on 'functions' and not on puppets, in addition to a flexible system of 'puppets' in a variety of roles, degenerated into a 2-class system where tastes and agendas became more important than the system.

So now, 15 years after a good system was not given a chance, the Culture Council is dropping a "new" system similar to the British one, which quite coincidentally was examined and found unsuitable by the ministry back in 2006. 

Which design is hinted at?

And what design thinking is in return. For fun, scroll to the end of the Opinion. Because on page 175, the cat is out of the bag. There the council states: "The period from now until 2029 can be used as a test phase. Our advice for this period is: explore, research, define, concretise, test and validate."

The Council tells the sector that the new advice with a national fund is a 'prototype', where anything can still happen. And so it seems, except that the prototype cannot be rejected if it turns out that it will lead to more bureaucracy and thus more misery. All the steps the Council describes are not about the essence of the advice, namely that national cultural fund, but about working out details afterwards. 

No one dares to look back at the 2007 plan, which was born over decades of deliberation and trial and error. A structure that offered opportunities but never got them itself. Now it is starting again, with no real reflection on what was, only the prospect of many very long years in which very expensive consultants and change managers will pull all the energy out of the art world. 

This is not design thinking, but imposed protocol. 

Why really? 

Cultural press works differently. You decide what this story is worth!

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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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