are the halls ever full?

It was supposed to be a ‘sizzling start to the national cultural season’ but the Uitmarkt had a poor turnout this year with 75,000 visitors. An event? Or does Amsterdam culture have a structural problem?

Jan Pieter Ekker and Lorianne van Gelder

“I see beautiful performances, concerts and exhibitions in front of the screens. Organizations and artists are eager to make things, to meet their audience,” says Laurien Saraber, director of the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK), one of the largest grant providers in the city. But behind the scenes, she sees something else: one big burnout. “Organizations have run out of reserves, they are struggling with disappointing audience numbers, staffing problems, fewer international collaborations, a lot of delays, downsizing.”

There was hope: Corona seemed to be over, the new cultural season was just around the corner. In September, audiences would return to the theatre, concert hall and museum, after which tickets would again be ordered months in advance.

It seems to work differently. Where the Uitmarkt was usually the festive kick-off for all the beauty that Amsterdam has to offer, this time it was a poor show, with fewer performances, no stalls and above all a maze of fences with QR codes on them. 75,000 people came to Museumplein, compared to more than 400,000 three years ago.

No matter how much theater makers, musicians and artists wanted to start again after the shutdowns, the public did not succeed. The halls were open, but they weren’t full yet. ‘After summer!’ cried many. But then it was not expected that energy prices would go through the roof, inflation would rise to unprecedented levels and a national workforce crisis would ensue. And then the question is whether covid will throw a wrench in the works again this autumn.

Unpredictable audience

Not so long ago, when theater brochures started arriving, much of the DeLaMar audience traditionally booked months in advance. Tickets were already booked until the spring of the following calendar year. But that trend is over. “Everything is now at the last minute,” says Andreas Fleischmann, director of the DeLaMar theater in Marnixstraat. It is difficult: because will those halls be full? Or will some performances be canceled due to lack of interest? It’s as if the public still has to rediscover ‘walk to culture’, but for the time being turns on Netflix or Videoland at home.

And the walk, it’s just so important. Councilor for culture Touria Meliani himself went to see a lot. “It’s only when you’re back that you notice: Phew, I’ve been missing this all along. Only then do you feel the importance of art again, and then you want to keep going.” A visit to the theater or cinema triggers the following: you see the posters from another performance or the trailer for an exciting film.

But what is happening now does not say anything about the future. The large middle class is also starting to feel the inflation, but doesn’t know what bills are coming in. So culture is one of the first things to be cut.

“The public has become more unpredictable and risk-averse,” said Rutger Gernandt, business manager of theater group De Warme Winkel. “What goes well runs extremely well, but it comes at the expense of all other performance.”

Less with more

The big productions of well-known names and classics do well. Carmen of the Dutch opera is sold out, Brigitte Kaandorp performs to full houses, ticket sales for Harry Styles and Coldplay generate huge online queues.

It is not the so-called blockbusters that she is worried about, says Annet Lekkerkerker, president of ACI (consultation of Amsterdam’s cultural institutions) and vice-president of the executive board of the Amsterdam University of the Arts, which is responsible for the Amsterdam cultural center monitors life.

It is the new crop, the experiment, that she fears. The public is conservative and chooses the less adventurous. “Young decision-makers are still unknown, so they are often seen as a risk, so they get fewer rounds, so they are seen by fewer people, and they may have subsidies on the roof because they do not meet the subsidy conditions. In this way, innovation is put at risk, and you end up with an impoverishment of art.” While everyone has to start somewhere, in the margin, with trial and error. “Ivo van Hove also once started in moderately occupied premises.”

dismiss staff

Lekkerkerker talks about a ‘negative flywheel effect’: an organization that has less money will do less, reach a smaller audience and therefore make less money. “It may have happened at Uitmarkt. Limiting programming is therefore definitely not the solution. The consequence of all crises is that we can do less and that more money is actually needed. In any case, we must get rid of the idea of , that every cent added also generates more activity. Everything is more expensive, it’s simply not possible anymore.”

It’s not just staying away from the public eye that’s a big concern. Behind the scenes, theaters and concert halls are seeing energy prices rise – sometimes by as much as 400 per cent – with staff being asked to work from home again more often. Should the costs rise even higher, scrapping entire productions or firing staff is on the table.

And that staff is already having a hard time. The corona period has demanded so much from the employees that there appears to be a collective exhaustion, Lekkerkerker sees. “Take, for example, cashiers: When they had to cancel ticket buyers during the first lockdown, they could still count on understanding, but later the public’s patience ran out. There has been a very nasty response. It takes a toll on you.” Staff shortages also play a role. Find another theater technician: Many switched to other technical work during the shutdowns, such as installing solar panels, which pay much better and have more regular hours.

More subsidies

It concerns a multitude of problems which do not make the solution easy. More subsidies, energy supplements, compensation or extra money for the higher staff costs are already being called for, but according to Councilor Meliani, the chance of that is not particularly great. “Energy poverty affects everyone, not only cultural institutions, but also sports clubs, families, individuals. It is a problem that we see across the board.”

“But we can’t do it alone,” emphasizes Meliani. “We really need the national government and the province for that. Although this college has a big heart for culture and we have provided as much support as possible during the corona era, I don’t think we can keep everything up by ourselves. Because we now have all kinds of crises at the same time: an energy crisis, a refugee crisis, collapsing docks… I have to be honest: I think it will be a tough one. So we hope that with compensation from the government we can absorb a part of it.”

But let there be a bright spot, says Lekkerkerker. “The whole city craves creativity, and that is precisely what the cultural sector is good at. To get out of all these crises you need creative brain power and imagination. Let’s work together on it.”

TikTok

In addition, there is still a whole new audience to pick up. “At Summer Dance Forever, a hip-hop dance festival, the hall was completely packed,” says AFK director Saraber. “There is still room to adapt the programming more to the city’s versatility.” DeLaMar discovered TikTok to recruit new visitors; the musical six, about the six wives of Henry VIII (a hit in New York and London), which will not be shown until 2023, is already almost sold out thanks to a campaign on social media. And the ticket buyers seem younger than ever.

“We have to be patient,” emphasizes Felix Rottenberg, chairman of the Amsterdam Art Council, which advises the city council. “I think that the large groups of art and culture lovers are saving up to go to concerts, shows, museums, etc. The public will come back, but it may take two or three years. You really have to look at the long term or you will all be singing today’s lament.”

Lekkerkerker appeals to the public: “Give yourself that night right now. And then occasionally choose something you don’t know yet. Enjoy it. You remember it much better than an evening with familiar territory. Such a new experience is good for you.”

the blockbuster

Carmen, the Dutch National Opera

The Dutch National Opera is not the cheapest outing, with prices starting at 31 euros rising to more than 150 euros per ticket, but the opening performance Carmen (a revival of a much-loved classic) is selling insanely well. The series of eight performances is completely sold out. Major operas by well-known composers are easier to sell than new compositions by as yet unknown creators, which the Dutch National Opera also performs, but they could not have foreseen that the excitement would be so great. “Today, nothing sells by itself, so it’s good that a performance catches on,” says a spokesman for the opera.

The talent

Elke Vierveijzer, cabaret artist, won De . in 2021 Poelifinario, the cabaret award for cabaret.

“After a price like that, you usually feel a season later that your tour is going well. It is the same for me, but I notice that it is really difficult for lesser-known talents to find an audience. I have a pretty loyal audience myself, but it’s very unpredictable how ticket sales go. Sometimes you play for a small group, then it fills up again. I played in Leeuwarden last year, and then I think like a Brabander: That hall is written off, but it went surprisingly well there. I trust that the public will eventually come around. I have to, otherwise I can’t do what I do’.

Elke Vierveijzer performs her show Lucht on 24/9 in Purmerend and on 11/11 in Diemen.

The niche

Veem House, house for mime, performance and dance (temporarily closed in autumn due to lack of funds)

Marga Kroodsma, director of Veem House: “We have creators who already serve a niche, movement theatre, mime, dance and performance. But I notice that more and more producers are finding it even more difficult to book the theaters. Programmers tell them I want to see it before I order it. But if it’s not booked anywhere, it’s hard to see. Collective Rotor, that too Erosion It was also difficult to sell a show at Veem House, but thanks to a few adventurous programmers it was possible. It has since won an important award, the BNG award. Now it is downloaded and can play more often. Although it is usually in halls of around a hundred people, it finds its audience.”

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