In perspective #13 – GOOD ADVICE FOR ROTTERDAM? (II) – Good in appearance or in essence?

The municipality of Groningen (councilor for education and councilor for culture) wanted to investigate a merger between the municipal music school and the art center (private but subsidized). The goal was clear (a strong local institute for art education), but the path to it was not. There were many barriers, such as differences in collective bargaining, differences in corporate culture, opposition to a merger.

I was allowed to do the exploration and was advised to proceed with the fusion, but in a very gradual way, step by step1. If you wanted to go too fast, the chance of failure was high. Conversely, starting the process slowly would gradually build impatience and be the flywheel for acceleration in the next phase. The dynamic aldermen did not like that; this process was to be completed in one or two years. So they forced it into action and then the fusion process went wrong. It was only ten years later that a merger took place: the current VRIJDAG in Groningen.

I could easily suppress a “see you” feeling. Of course I turned out to be right and it was nice, but I had not managed to convince the client of this in advance. So was it good advice? Is someone a good advisor if he advises the right things? Or only if his advice is adopted? And what if his advice is not good, but is well received? Is the doctor who prescribes the right thing a good doctor even if he cannot convince his patient? And is a politician with the right views, but with few voters, a good politician?

Throw away the old shoes

The Rotterdam Council for Art and Culture (RRKC) was disbanded on January 1, 2023. I wrote about this in June of this year2 and the editor-in-chief did before3. At that time, formal decision-making in Rotterdam was still to follow. Based on the question marks in the city council, it is safe to say that the college eventually pushed through the dissolution. The municipality has not yet made new provisions on cultural advice. It is still being thought about, while the old shoes have already been thrown out.

The Rotterdam Art Foundation, which acted as a support agency for the RRKC, remains bravely standing, but without tasks, budget or staff. It looks like a strategic move, since before you had to make sure that you already have two toes on the territory to be conquered in the children’s game ‘conquer a country’. But it also seems to be a consistent tribute to what Rotterdam once had: the Rotterdam Art Foundation as an engine for the development of sustainable initiatives such as the International Film Festival, Dunya Festival and Poetry International.

Was the Rotterdam Arts and Culture Council a good advisor, but was it not seen as such? And could you call him good if he apparently lacked authority and persuasiveness among important stakeholders?

I haven’t followed it closely enough to be able to interpret it, but RRKC apparently no longer had an obvious position. This is something that an advisory board should first of all work on themselves. But it is not easy. You must advise wisely, expertly and with a long-term perspective, even – and perhaps especially – if it is not well received in advance. But you also need to do everything you can to keep the soil receptive. You must go ahead of the troops, but not so far that you are out of sight. You have to dare to stand in the way of the drivers, but don’t let them trip. You must be able to position yourself independently of the field, but not alienate that field from you.

This requires a huge balancing act, usually in a politically unbalanced context, faced with bureaucratic sensitivities and with too few resources to do your job optimally. And if you know that you are the balance artist, then the question is whether you will not be knocked over by the circus management or the public. That remains the task: to give good advice and to keep relations warm within the limits of what is possible.

what is “obsolete”

Apparently, the councilor and his officials were not happy with the RRKC. Instead of discussing it openly, questioning its function and naming where the tree grew crooked, the tree was felled with a blunt axe. The councilor’s statement that the advisory board was “outdated” speaks volumes.

Why “no longer of this time”? Is the fire department also “obsolete” or the police or the civil service just because you criticize it? Apparently, people were not in the mood for discussion, or there were no convincing arguments. And above all: there was apparently no vision of what the infrastructure for debate and advice should look like. While many different visions are possible, especially for a city like Rotterdam.

The Zoutman memo

By chance this week, while cleaning out my archive, I came across a note written in June 1994 on behalf of the Rotterdamse Kunststichting4. It was about the task for RKS in the newly formed city-province of Rotterdam. (The fact that the city-province never materialized is irrelevant now.) The report was written by Rento Zoutman, former employee of the RKS and later (and last) director of the Rotterdam Council for Art and Culture, but at the currently independent consultant. He sought answers to the question of how the city-province of Rotterdam could best be served in relation to culture and, in addition to the politics of the various Rijnmond municipalities, also focused on the tasks of the Culture Council of North Holland (CRNH) and the Culture Council of South Holland, Netherlands (CRZH).

The CRZH had an advisory function, an initiating function and what was called a ‘support function’ in the jargon of the time. CRZH advised the province in a more formal context, the municipalities in an open relationship and the field mainly in a supportive and collaborative sense. The initiating function led to projects such as: theater during the day, a video art fair, a cultural tourism Uitkrant, a jazz festival or a project to stimulate amateur dance in the province. In addition, there were numerous art education projects. The support function was translated into service for umbrella organizations in amateur arts, professional arts, local history practice, music schools/creativity centers and so on.

As a former director of CRZH, I was also interviewed by Zoutman for this report. Apparently, I gave the people of Rotterdam the motto: “Service creates power”. In other words: don’t put your energy into acquiring power and skills, but make yourself indispensable through the concreteness of your projects and the quality of your advice. Moreover, I drew attention not only to the non-organized part of the amateur art world, but also, as it says: “On the to-do list, he misses the immigration policy, which should receive a lot of attention in the city-province of Rotterdam.”

tools for a big city

From then to now. A big city with a “mature” cultural policy must arrange its instruments for urban culture, regardless of whether it is gathered under one umbrella or not:

  1. advice on policy and on a basic infrastructure
  2. (advice on) grant allocations outside the basic infrastructure
  3. cultural engine/initiator
  4. platform for consultation, collaboration and debate.

Political advice does not come from a tall tower of know-it-alls. Perhaps from a high tower of brainpower, but after this the above-mentioned balance artist must still see the outside world on a leash and make contact.

Subsidy advice comes on the wings of Thorbecke5. But the Thorbecke doctrine alone is too thin and carries the risk of keeping politics too far away. Here, too, the dialogue with the uninitiated is really important.

You cannot simply define the initiative role in advance. There must be a place where things can arise, which may fail, but which also turn out to be the seeds of successful multi-year manifestations. It is also possible without such an engine, but it will be slower and it will require much more energy and persistence from the initiators.

Finally, the platform function. The local, regional and provincial cultural councils that arose in the 1950s were mainly aimed at private initiative, cooperation and consultation.6 But already now the government needs an interlocutor from the cultural field, the private initiative must also be given opportunities, already now cooperation and consultation can contribute to a city’s cultural profile. The fact that the major cultural institutions in Rotterdam have found each other more and more, also as a discussion partner for the councilor, has led to the marginalization of RRKC’s role. But if you want to give the field a voice, you have to take the whole field, including the smaller institutions and the world of amateur art.

a retest

Rotterdam’s culture councilor Kasmi gets a fantastic new chance. It is “obsolete” to exclusively determine, initiate and implement cultural policy from the town hall. So the board must give its vision of how these functions for advice, collaboration and debate will take shape. And if the councilor seeks advice on this, he must before long carefully examine whether he thinks it is good advice or whether it is good advice.

Erik Akermans

Director, consultant and publicist. Until recently he was chairman of the platform for the cultural and creative sector of the labor market Platform ACCT and previously for various other organisations. He was director of the South Holland Cultural Council, chairman of the Groningen Art Council and chairman of various advisory committees, including the visitation committee of the Drenthe Museums.

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