They knew it was coming. A succession of governments in the Netherlands had warned over the years that the country’s arts subsidies are not sustainable. But the recent economic crisis gave Holland’s right-wing political leaders an excuse to do the unthinkable. They will ax $200 million of the $900 million federal arts budget. Factor in 20-40 percent cuts in local funding, and the Dutch system may lose $1 billion in support by 2013. Europe’s most generous arts funding regime is about to turn into a laboratory for transitioning to, well, no one knows what exactly…
Many arts officials are blindsided. In discussions with artists, museum directors, and art dealers this week, on a study tour with the Sotheby’s Institute, we heard complaints about the sudden cessation of public largesse, but little in the way of solutions. Hopeful arts managers spoke of how “the market” and “companies” will need to share the burden. But there are few incentives for the private sector to do it.
In fact, Holland’s usually circumspect and methodical policymakers are being less than consistent. Appeals for philanthropy and sponsorship are not being counterbalanced with tax breaks. Even while the government seeks to shift arts promotion to the private sector, it has raised the gallery sales tax by 13 percent.
Arts institutions find themselves in a fix. They lack tools to function in a more “American” system. Museum directors are looking for expertise in fundraising and marketing. Endowments, private patrons, and boards of directors with fiduciary responsibilities are still largely unknown here. Cultural groups have little access to credit facilities. Experiments with bonds, subsidized loans, and art landing are in their infancy. Institutions are being asked to act independently, yet they don’t control their own assets and destinies. And as government representatives, they can hardly raise their voice in protest.
Where will it all lead? Some believe the current government is simply anti-art, seeing culture as a left-wing “hobby.” Others are more realistic. They acknowledge that Dutch arts leaders have refined the craft of lobbying government, but they don’t quite know how to court the public and the commercial sphere.
Whatever the case, look to Holland in the next few years as a test case for what happens when a great welfare state’s cultural machinery is pushed into a closer alliance with the market.