Gunay Uslu has been in office for exactly one year on Tuesday as Foreign Minister for Culture and Media; in itself a reason to look back and forth. But this foreign minister had a special start. With no political experience or interest – she was not a member of a political party when asked by D66 – she became responsible for a sector that had been knocked out by the corona pandemic. Who has a labor market full of underpaid ‘self-employed without employees’ (zzp’ers), who, despite years of plans and promises, were not intervened due to lack of money – the culture had been drastically cut down by a previous Rutte cabinet. And where her media portfolio exploded with #MeToo allegations at the TV show Holland’s voice when she was less than a week old.
Her first two budgets have now been adopted by the House, it is clear what she wants to spend the extra 170 million on for culture and the first pilots are underway to help the self-employed in the sector with, for example, insurance costs. She always mentions supporting creators in the cultural sector as her first priority.
When we speak to her, she is at the airport in Curaçao – after a family holiday, she is starting a work visit to the Caribbean part of the kingdom.
What will you do during this working visit?
“This visit is about cultural cooperation. The relationship has intensified, and rightly so. I really think we are late with it, we could have done it sooner. There is investment in the Caribbean’s cultural infrastructure, so that’s what we need to talk about. The libraries need attention, the archives need to be opened, we need to talk about heritage, about the past of slavery – actually a lot of material for discussion. We also talk to artists. Since last year, investments have been made in the visibility and accessibility of the national cultural foundations throughout the Caribbean. ”
Was it not so?
“No, not all rules could be applied, or they were not visible and accessible enough. There was a pilot last year, and now a film from Curacao has received a subsidy from the Film Foundation, and it is now possible to submit applications in Papiamento in connection with the commemorative year. I noticed that there was also a striking number of applications from the creative industry – architecture, designers, design: there is a lot of potential here on the islands. It makes me really happy.”
When you started you said you didn’t want to be a politician and only accepted the appointment for art. Have you become a bit of a politician after a year?
“I have tried to understand and analyze all processes and patterns, so that I understand it a little better.
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But I remain an observer, and I want to keep it that way. This means that I continue to maintain the expertise I have built up and knowledge as a creator and from the business world. So I’ve gotten better at understanding politics, but I don’t think that made me a politician.”
Which cultural policy goals do you think you can achieve now that you have worked for a year?
“For me, the most important priority is the maker. A disproportionate number of self-employed workers in the cultural sector, they are often uninsured, do not earn a pension, the remuneration is lower, more than 20,000 jobs have disappeared in the sector in the last ten years: it is vulnerable. now labor market agreements for each sub-sector together with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment (SZW). From 2025 there will be a structural extra budget for this fair salary. Granted institutions then have a budget to pay freelancers better. I can’t say yet whether I’m going to make it a hard grant condition that institutions are already going crazy with all the boxes they have to tick, but that’s what the extra money is meant for.
“This is a difficult matter, national regulations from the SZW are also needed to strengthen the general position of the self-employed without employees.
“Less difficult, but which I am very happy about: We are going to invest heavily in libraries. There I can reach the young people, it is the most accessible and low-threshold way to get in touch with art and culture. Not only with books, in a full-fledged library you can also organize exhibitions and theater.
“We are also reviewing the basic infrastructure [voor rijkssubsidies] : should we stick to all disciplines, should we start thinking much more in crossovers, how do we involve young people? The request for advice comes to the Cultural Council in the first quarter, but for me everything is open. “
As a self-confessed analytical outsider with no experience of the political ‘craft’, can you be effective in achieving your goals?
“These are two different things. I wonder about that. How the processes work, the questions that are sometimes asked that are not really about politics but are very political: that is something that is quite strange to me. So yes , sometimes it rubs off, but when I look at the committee members; we get along really well. I’m learning too.
“But how to work with departments, with other ministers, that is very clear to me. You also do that in business. For me, it’s about strengthening the position of culture and the media, and that requires collaboration. The collaboration with SWZ to strengthen the labor market position of the self-employed is going very well. There are also various collaborations with the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS), for example how culture can contribute to mental health: culture budget and VWS budget, which means more budget and more opportunities. And I started a working group with Finance Minister Marnix van Rij to see how we can make donations, investments and donations in the cultural sector more attractive.”
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Are you actually saying you don’t need Parliament for these issues?
“Of course, because it keeps you sharp, and I’m responsible for it. Parliament criticizes, points out things that you hadn’t actually thought of. But maybe it’s a bit out of shape for me anyway: Can’t we just talk about it with each other, instead of through the chairman. It is not always effective. Martin Bosma (PVV) recently said to me; you are also a lateral participant. I found that striking; that is me and that is what I will remain. I sometimes think when I look at the room; I think it would be very good if you just ran a business somewhere, or ran a department. Then you feel how different things can be in society. It seems to me very refreshing if that happens: if there is much more exchange between Parliament and society and vice versa.
Culture as ‘chefsache’
State Secretary Uslu has often wondered aloud, most recently in the Huizinga lecture, that the culture of Dutch politics has no boss case and that the relationship between politics and culture is rather loveless. In the lecture, she quotes Victor de Stuers, one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the ‘truly patriotic’ Rijksmuseum in 1885. He argued for a more dominant role for the government in the field of culture. According to him, the Netherlands was the only country in Europe that applied the ‘doctrine of indifference’ and we were unique in our belief that ‘art was not a matter of government’. As a result, according to him, ‘the love and respect for art had almost entirely died out in most of our governments’. In his discussion of Dutch cultural policy, Uslu also quotes Thorbecke’s legendary statement from 1862 about the relationship between government and art: ‘Art is not a matter of government’.
“Different interpretations of that statement have colored the Dutch debate on cultural policy ever since,” she notes. According to her, Thorbecke only meant by the statement that the government should not pass substantive judgments on science and art. Thorbecke later said himself in a debate that the government should support the arts through collection building and presentation of national art collections and through education. In the lecture, Uslu emphasizes that culture is a broad concept and belongs to everyone. She advocates a warmer interest in politics for culture. “I like to quote Prince. He might say… dear cultural sector: ‘you need a love that lasts’.”
What did Mark Rutte think of your analysis of Thorbecke’s statement?
“Unfortunately, he couldn’t be there, but he read the book and I got a compliment. He thought it was a very powerful read. We’re going to another show soon.”
How do you approach the fact that culture is becoming more central, and is a political term sufficient time?
“I don’t know if it’s enough, but I can get something rolling. I give lectures, speak at openings, give speeches. But it goes deeper. The attractive schemes, which have been developed together with the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, make e.g. the politicians also very excited. Also at customs, where they raise racism using drama. And there are all kinds of fun exhibitions and performances on the program with ministers. It is tailor-made: I find out what is fun for whom – in consultation.
“I deliberately never mention how large a percentage of the national product comes from culture and how many people work in that sector – while these are impressive numbers. It’s about me; are you aware of everything we do, make, invent, everything we mean to each other; It’s culture!”
You are also a good example. For example, you recently sang a few lines from Kurt Weil’s The Threepenny Opera on Radio 4. Are you doing this deliberately to normalize cultural references?
“Yes, I know it can have an effect, but I’m also just wired that way. I really believe that too. I said recently about cuts: ‘I can’t imagine we have to cut the culture, because then you erode society.’ It’s hard to say something like that, in other departments they might think; why not and we do. Such a statement is not very wise, but it is who I am, what I want, and I go after it.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 11 January 2023