Statement | Artists and freelancers, unite!

Theater halls are filling up again, the media optimistically reported this week. This is at least the case with popular artists and art forms such as musicals and cabaret. It is beautiful and much needed after three years of lockdowns. But this good news does not solve the structural problems in the art sector.

Because the increase in visitors is decreasing for the classical arts, such as opera, and also for the more experimental, less ‘light’ performances and literature. An important reason for this is the cuts in cultural education. Libraries and music schools have been closed or ‘independent’ in recent years, while arts organizations largely have to pay for training for schools and young people out of their own budgets.

This is the ax to the root of the cultural ecosystem. The paradox is that the ‘canon’ actually receives the lion’s share of the subsidies: Eighty percent of all music subsidies go to the classical genres, while pop music attracts a much larger audience.

It is only one of the problems that show the ossification of the cultural system. The Corona pandemic has exacerbated these problems, but they already existed: underpayment of the many freelancers, skewed growth between large organizations and the smaller ones outside the Randstaden, excessive regulation and control by the subsidizing government. And then I leave out the huge ecological footprint of the traveling art world, as well as the lack of diversity in supply and staff and the many reports of transgressive behaviour. We can only conclude that there is an urgent need for a structural change.

Oversupply of shows

The pressing question now is: Will the cultural sector solve its problems at the systemic level? It doesn’t look that way at the moment. Rather, the reflex is to go back to the old normal as quickly as possible. Efficiency thinking is leading the way here, as in other non-profit sectors. Driven by subsidy requirements, the emphasis is placed on production and growth, resulting in mutual competition and an oversupply of performances, concerts and exhibitions.

Institutions are central to cultural policy; The Netherlands has the most museums and venues per inhabitant of the world These institutions were supported during the pandemic and also received money to pass this on to the producers. Far too little has happened. The more than 165,000 freelance professionals and artists were already vulnerable due to job insecurity, and the series of lockdowns left an unknown number unable to keep their heads above water. As a result, many skilled professionals have continued their education. And we will notice this in the range of theatres, concert halls and museums.

The ‘cultural entrepreneurship’ has been taken too far. Innovation, so essential to art, does not get enough chances. Why has the industry let it get this far? This is comprehensive and, by joining together, could provide more counterweight to the excessive return policy. After all, culture is to a large extent the domain where non-economic values ​​must prevail. Where quality and depth are at the center instead of measurable ‘output’.

With so much creative power, it should be possible to implement necessary changes in an inventive way. Because problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them, as Albert Einstein pointed out. Continuing to tinker with the old system is therefore pointless, alternative scenarios are needed. But then the sector must take matters into its own hands and not wait and see if the government will tackle the problems.

Also read: Stop with the stuffy performance requirements in the cultural sector

fair salary

First of all, the very unequal distribution of the budgets must be more balanced. The State Secretary for Culture, Gunay Uslu (D66), reported last week NRC that the Ministry of the so-called fair salary only introduced from 2025. Perhaps this will not even be a subsidy obligation, while in truth it is a hard necessity.

But why wait for the government? Indeed, its influence on substantive policy should decline: from director and controller to facilitator. This means less regulation and more trust in people’s self-organization and skills in the art world itself. Being constantly responsible leads to bureaucratization and management layers, which, by the way, pay themselves a significantly higher salary than the many indispensable freelancers.

It is no wonder that directors hesitate to change: it is often not in their interests. Because an actual transition is going to hurt. Fair wages will mean, for example, that less can be produced. But it will also be possible to make art with more time and attention, leading to more reflection, joy and solidarity.

Museums and venues exist to act as intermediaries between artists and the public. It is up to them to solve that task better and develop a structural contract policy. Through such pre-financing, decision-makers can be offered greater income security. Such a policy also stimulates necessary innovation and experimentation, which is currently increasingly taking place outside the mainstream art institutions: in breeding grounds, artist collectives and online. Redistribution also means that the institutions share the private donations they receive with the creators. After all, donations are made to support the art on display.

Short-term projects

Endowment funds should also better fulfill their facilitating role. Foundations can make a difference by taking more responsibility for the roots of the system. Firstly, by no longer predominantly offering support (via) the institutions, but by taking on individual artists, researchers and other indispensable cultural workers. And foundations honor only short-term projects while maintaining the structure of temporary, underpaid work.

Finally, it is up to the many decision-makers and cultural workers themselves. There are many of them, so together they are certainly not powerless. So, artists and freelancers: unite! Writers, musicians, sculptors, actors, dancers, curators, critics, lighting technicians and many others: do not underestimate your own influence and power to change. Make alliances with each other. It is time for a revolution in art, for a new version of the system reform of the late sixties. It is high time to shake up the cushions by focusing on the creative practice and forcing artists to have more direct access to halls and stages.

A real approach to the problems will only succeed if the art world no longer allows itself to be divided, but jointly ensures that the cultural ecosystem works for everyone involved. Only then can such a necessary system renewal be achieved.

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