Is it possible to choose culture?

The city council will vote next week. Research this week from the consulting firm Berenschot and the research agency I&O forskning shows that art and culture are unlikely to play a role in the election. When asked about topics that matter, the ‘culture, music and events’ collection dangles almost at the bottom, well behind green, which addresses waste and even civic participation. Only five percent of respondents mentioned culture as one of the three important topics and one percent as the most important topic.

Also read this article about Heerlen: ‘Cultural policy is also social policy’

At the same time, there are large differences in the amounts that the municipalities spend on culture. On average, a Dutch municipality gave in 2019 inhabitant EUR 17 net for museums, EUR 5 for cultural heritage and EUR 51 for ‘cultural presentation, production and participation’ – the grant for stages, companies, art education, art purchases and the like.

In the latter category of ‘living art’ there are more and less predictable front-runners such as Amsterdam (142 euros p/i), Rotterdam (150 euros p/i), Assen (159 euros p/i) and ‘winner’ Tiel (167) . euros p/i). On the other hand, there are municipalities that have nothing in the budget for art and culture, such as Oudewater and Hardinxveld-Giessendam, while the ‘artist villages’ Laren and Blaricum also lag far behind with 10 and 11 euros per person.

Culture competes with care

These large differences can arise because municipalities are not obliged to ‘offer culture’, as they are, for example, for youth care, social support and education. And the money for all the (partially compulsory) tasks comes from the same pot, so the culture (swimming halls, libraries, stages, music lessons) has to compete directly with youth care, elderly care and waste.

That pot is the Municipal Fund, the ‘free to use’ budget that municipalities receive from the government (which makes up about half of the total municipal budget). But as Groningen professor of economics in local government Maarten Allers unequivocally stated earlier this week, NRC said: Municipalities do not get enough money from the government to carry out their mandatory tasks, especially after the extensive decentralization in 2015, which was not adequately covered. So although the municipalities are free to spend money on culture, the expenses themselves have been under pressure for years because the municipalities increasingly need money.

“Swimming pools and libraries are the first to die,” says director John Bijl of the Pericles Institute, which aims to improve municipal policy. “It is difficult for the city council members, because these are facilities that are important for the quality of life and the attractiveness of the municipalities.”

The financial need is so great that municipalities even use the corona support for culture for other bottlenecks, the cultural and creative sector task force wrote to the House of Representatives on Wednesday. Municipalities have received corona support from the government to help their cultural sector. But because that money is not earmarked, the municipalities can also use it on other bottlenecks, and this is happening, says the task force. They want State Secretary Gunay Uslu to encourage the municipality to actually spend the money on culture. It could include a new municipal council in the coalition agreement, the task force suggests. The Association of Dutch Municipalities has a list of recommendations for its members to secure cultural expenses.

Weave failure

Some go further. It is “a flaw in our national political system” that culture is a ‘free’ policy for municipalities, writes Quirijn van den Hoogen of the University of Groningen in Boekman #130 (published by the Boekman Foundation) on local cultural policy, published this week. The cultural policy of the municipalities and the national government are inextricably linked, he says. Contrary to popular belief, the municipalities spend much more on culture than the state. Two-thirds of the public budget for culture still comes from the municipalities, the rest from the national government. That municipal money (as long as it hasn’t been cut) goes mainly to infrastructure – the buildings and places where residents absorb culture, such as libraries, theaters and concert halls. Where the central government is more responsible for the production of culture, the question for the municipality is ‘how can that culture be meaningful to the local population’, says Van den Hoogen.

The Cultural Council also announced in a ‘heart attack’ on Thursday that it sees a thriving cultural and media sector ’emphatically as a shared responsibility of the national government, provinces and municipalities’. “The cultural facilities in the Netherlands are thin in many places.”

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