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WIPES FOR THE BLOOD? - Municipal choice stress; the case of Leeuwarden (IN PERSPECTIVE #21)

In the series In Perspective, Erik Akkermans looks back and ahead at developments in cultural policy and practice. Today: how can the municipality deal with culture in a businesslike way?

The councillor was delayed. It gave me a brief opportunity to visit the toilet. But in the beautiful historic building where Leeuwarden still housed the mayors and aldermen at the time, the guest toilet was cramped and I banged my head in a clumsy movement. Blood ran down my forehead.  

I reported to the porter for a plaster or bandage. He did not have any and left me to my fate. This fate eventually consisted of me miraculously dressing up - a paper handkerchief on my head, held in place with a headband dug up from my winter coat - reporting to the culture councillor for the scheduled progress meeting. 

She might be from the Green Left, but compassion was not number one in her personal programme. My brief explanation was noted in silence; she did not reach into the municipal first-aid box. To the point then: the dissolution of centre for the arts Parnas and the spending of some of the money cut with it. Where was our opinion on this?

The State of Six

Before the alderman's decision to stop subsidising Parnas, four years earlier, the previous college had presented a very different question. Back then, mayors and aldermen finally wanted to meet the wishes of the six main cultural institutions In Leeuwarden. They wanted to supplement the too tight budget structurally. However, the city council had held up the decision. Was subsidy increase really necessary? Were the institutions delivering value for money? That had to be determined objectively first.

And so my colleagues and I worked on a report, 'The State of Six'. Stadsschouwburg de Harmonie, arts centre Parnas, Leeuwarden Library, the Filmhuis, local broadcaster Mercurius and pop stage Romein ( predecessor of today's stage Neushoorn) were closely scrutinised. And we did a 'benchmark' with similar institutions in similar cities. 

Clear result: compared to peers, they scored well in performance and just low in subsidies received. And their expenses, for example on staff, were relatively low. Housing costs were comparatively high, but the rent went mainly to the municipality, as owner of the (historical) premises. 

The ratio of subsidy to own income worked out favourably on average, especially De Harmonie with 61 per cent own income (benchmark: 48 per cent). The Municipality of Leeuwarden itself scored strikingly low in the comparison of municipal cultural expenditure with 107 euros per inhabitant ( E.g. Deventer 129 euros, Alkmaar 155 euros). 

As you often see: the institutions were given too much money to thank for the grant , but too little to perform as expected. The report was universally welcomed. All's well that ends well. So it seemed for a while.

Not a cheese slicer after all?

While Leeuwarden's art directors felt their hearts beating with anticipation, the results of the municipal elections did not seem unfavourable to them, moreover, the 2008 credit crisis began to affect all municipal finances more and more strongly. Leeuwarden's new college had to make cuts. But how?

There have been plenty of grumbles about the cheese slicing method. We had also been clear about this when the State of Six report was presented: the municipality was putting relatively little money into culture and asking too much of the institutions. This could not continue. So worst case: in order to increase breathing space for the rest, it was better to remove one institution from the scene at the same level of funding instead of cutting everywhere again. 

The new college went along with that idea. There was no more money; in fact, cuts had to be made. Then fewer institutions; Parnas was sacrificed. The municipality would subsidise the remaining parties at the same level. 

In itself a brave choice, were it not for the fact that only a small part of this cut really benefited the cultural sector. The other institutions hardly benefited when Parnas disappeared. Some money was set aside for cultural education. When asked, we sought to find out how this aspect could remain especially for education and also how cooperation could still strengthen the institutions. 

When we had an outline and were still discussing it with the institutions, colleague Cor Wijn and I were unexpectedly thanked as advisers. We had to sit one more time (but mostly in silence) when the alderman presented the story to the local press and then we were allowed to go. The alderman resolved the rest with her officials herself. This was not done delicately. There was no first-aid kit involved. Eventually, after a transitional period, more than ten years later, the Kunstkade foundation came into being, with the aim of developing, stimulating and directing cultural education, inside and outside schools, in the municipality of Leeuwarden. 

Over the hedge

Once the credit crisis was over, the Netherlands was doing well macroeconomically. But municipalities in our country were not getting any healthier financially. With major decentralisations and other policy changes, the government threw responsibilities over the municipal hurdles, without throwing money over the hedge. The municipalities could surely take over all these tasks more cheaply, the government assumed. The pressure on the free budget increased.

In many municipalities, you could be very happy if the culture budget could stay the same. More often that was not the case. Research showed that inflation was 6.5 per cent excluding energy. Energy costs rose, rents likewise, against lagging municipal compensation.

To stay with Leeuwarden: here, in 2023, the inflation correction was 3.7 per cent, the rent increase 4.9 per cent. However, the municipality did grant an energy compensation.The energy bills alone caused headaches. A real throughput of the Fair Practice Code also made it clear what municipalities are facing.

And still, with the national culture budget again at stake in the formation talks, expectations around municipal finances are still not high. All the more reason to rethink the position of municipal subsidised cultural institutions. The Leeuwarden case study is quite relevant then. 

Business approach based on ambition.

To begin with, the Leeuwarden municipality chose to get an objective picture of the state of culture in the city and to have the institutions subjected to a benchmark. Of course, benchmarks are not without risk: what if it turns out that things are very much less elsewhere than in one's own city? Will the city council then sit back contentedly and the drive to action falls away? 

It is therefore better to formulate one's own municipal ambitions well first. You should compare the actual state of affairs mainly with what you have in mind yourself and only then with how other municipalities are doing. (Leeuwarden/ Fryslan Cultural Capital offered a crash course in 'having ambitions and finding the means to match' a decade later).

Second, you will have to strike a balance between what the government gives and what it expects in return. The relationship between subsidy size and outpute requirements must be balanced, but you can also establish objectively: what is the minimum required to operate a theatre, pop venue or library of a certain size? Experience figures abound.  

If the money is not there, make real choices. Choose a smaller scale, expect less and at worst: keep less. Also consider Vinkenburg and Wijn's four alternative scenarios for post-corona municipal art policy.

The Veem for a hundred days

Of course, it is also up to the institutions themselves to be realistic. The example of Veem Theater ( now VEEM House for performance) stands strong. Not enough subsidy for acceptable exploitation, then just open 100 days a year and perform well, said then-director Anne Breure.  

It may have remained mostly a statement. ( VEEM is back in practice all days), it was and remains an exemplary signal. With the increased focus on Fair Practice, this is once again true. It has to come out length or breadth, as the VNG also warned.

Grants to vital cultural facilities such as a stage, arts centre, library or museum are not a gift given out of non-committal kindness. They are businesslike, material transactions around an essential intangible municipal asset that ultimately has to be able to function practically. Check: if an alderman bumps his head in the municipal museum, a first-aid kit is available at reception.

ERIK AKKERMANS is a director, consultant and publicist. He chaired the cultural and creative sector labour market platform Platform ACCT and various other organisations. After management positions in professional arts education, he worked as an advisor and interim manager at the consultancy firm BMC and later set up his own business.

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Erik Akkermans

Director, consultant and publicist.View Author posts

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