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Cutting culture

July 20, 2011

Dutch artists are fearing a loss in cultural diversity as the government prepares to ax some 200 million euros in culture subsidies. Those feeling the pinch the most are in the performing arts in Amsterdam.

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance
Cutting subsidies could affect quality, artists fearImage: Hans van der Woerd

When you stroll along the streets and canals of Amsterdam, you're bound to pass a street musician or two, busking for a few coins. But beyond the streets, the Dutch capital is also home to half a dozen concert halls, featuring everything from Schubert to samba, four top international art museums, and numerous dance and theater companies.

This cultural richness could be about to change in 2013, as the current government in planning to cut 200 million euros ($283 million) in subsidies.

"They are cutting trees from the root instead of taking out the dead wood," said Beppie Blankert, director of Dans Groep Amsterdam, a contemporary and modern dance company comprised of eight dancers. The troupe performs some 90 shows around the world each year.

Until now, dance companies have received their state subsidies for four-year periods. But starting in 2013, they will have to apply per project for grants from a fund that will have far less money. For Blankert, that is devastating news.

"It means that a whole area of mainly contemporary dance is going to be cut away," said Blankert. "The problem is that the choices that the government has made now are for a certain group of top companies with a top international name, but they do not recognize that in the middle sector there's a lot of companies, not only in dance but also in music and in theater, that do top art but on a different level and also are very international."

Big institutions have the advantage

A man places an artwork on the wall
Museums are affected by the hefty cuts as wellImage: picture-alliance /dpa

As part of this policy, only four national dance companies will get direct subsidies from the state. Although the amount they will receive is slightly lower than current subsidies, they are better able to absorb the impact than smaller institutions. For the remaining institutions which have to apply for project money, the future is unclear.

"The smaller companies, not only dance but also music and theater, are ambassadors of Dutch culture abroad. We tour a lot because we are small and flexible and we can move quickly, whereas the bigger companies are more expensive," Blankert said.

This view is echoed by other Dutch performing artists. The Amsterdam Sinfonietta, a 22-musician ensemble and the only professional string group in the Netherlands, could see their funding axed as well. Last season, they performed to 40,000 people in 50 concerts held both in the Netherlands and abroad.

The group's director, Joost Westerveld, says the government does not understand the important position these groups play in the Dutch music scene.

"The ensembles have a very broad repertoire that can't be done by symphony orchestras," Westerveld said. The ensemble performs both modern and classical works without a conductor, which sets it apart. "And we do it on a national and international scale, which means we can perform in all sorts of venues," added the director.

More institutions competing for less money

Seven orchestras are to receive funding directly from the state; dozens more ensembles across the country will have to compete for subsidies. Not only has the total subsidy budget been reduced, but the pot is to be divided amongst more institution. This could mean that 60 percent of Dutch cultural institutions would disappear in 2013.

Westerveld says it is not possible for the institutions to adjust to this new policy in such a short period.

"The government always said, 'Look at the American situation; you can also organize [yourselves] by private donations and sponsorships,'" he commented. "But they forget to mention that in the Netherlands we pay 52 percent income tax and in the US it's around 30 percent. So I'm happy to have an American system, but also an American tax level, because then people are much more interested in donations for the arts."

Large letters in front of a museum reading 'I amsterdam'
Amsterdam will lose more than half of its culture fundsImage: SANDEMANs NEWEurope GmbH www.newamsterdamtours.com

Around 12.5 million visitors come to Amsterdam each year; more than 70 percent of them come to sample the city's rich cultural life.

But, as Machteld Liegvoet from the city's tourism board explains, tourists might not notice the changes. Rather, it's the residents who will be affected most, since they visit the smaller cultural events. Tourists, on the other hand, "go for the well-known ones, and the well-known ones will stay the way they are," said Liegvoet.

Museums will be obliged to raise 17.5 percent of their income themselves, which could put an end to their research activities. And the National History Museum won't receive any money at all from the state.

But the cuts don't stop there. At the municipal level there will also be less money available. The city of Amsterdam will lose more than half of its funds for cultural activities. The cuts follow an increase of value-added tax from six to 19 percent in ticket prices for performing arts.

Arts survive, quality may not

"I'm convinced that the art will survive, but what we will see is that the whole organization, the whole infrastructure that we have now will get lost and choreographers will have to become waiters again and make productions in their free time, which brings you back to an amateur level of producing," said Beppie Blankert from Dans Groep Amsterdam.

With the future looking uncertain for hundreds of cultural organizations, the race for private sponsorship has begun.

The government's decision has already seen the head of the Dutch Culture Board resign in protest against the 200-million-euro cuts. Nevertheless, a recent poll showed that six in 10 Dutch voters support the government's move.

Author: Cintia Taylor, Amsterdam / sst

Editor: Kate Bowen