Taxpayer support for artists: too much of a good thing?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Chip Bray came to Amsterdam on a two-week trip and ended up staying 20 years. An actor from Pittsburgh, Mr. Bray has seen the rise and fall of the Netherlands' generous art subsidy system, and is now adjusting to more entrepreneurial times.

In its heyday in the 1970s, the Netherlands arts scene was the place to be. Visual artists, actors, dancers, and musicians of all kinds were eligible for a host of grants, subsidies, pensions, and payouts. There was even a group known as the Pink People, Bray recalls, that was paid by the government simply to dress up in outrageous pink costumes and walk around Amsterdam entertaining passers-by.

Since the '70s, however, budget cuts have led to a dramatic change in the country's arts landscape. Artists like Bray have encountered a new reality: earning a living is a bigger concern, and marketing and other business skills matter.

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The Netherlands is an intriguing case study in the debate over how much public funding should go to the arts. Though the infusion of government spending on the arts in the 1970s and '80s created an arts mecca hailed around the world, it also attracted hangers-on and yielded warehouses full of artworks of dubious merit and zero value on the commercial art market.

Ultimately, the Netherlands found there can, in fact, be too much of a good thing. The government-backed support structure for artists created a talent glut, and it collapsed under its own weight.

The country, like many others, is now wrestling anew with the perennial question: How much public financial support is good for the arts?

"Times have changed," says Bray, during an interview on the terrace of Amsterdam's Vertigo cafe. Indeed, his time on the cafe terrace is work, not leisure. Every Friday, he and his colleagues meet for a "creative jam session" to devise new ideas for making money as artists.

They are currently at work on their third "open screen" festival, a showcase of locally made short films. Bray has also started up an English- language casting agency to promote actors who, like himself, "came for two weeks and stayed for 20 years." Both plans serve a dual purpose: publicity and hard cash.

Twenty miles away, in the city of Haarlem, Jennifer Hoes is accustomed to tackling monetary obstacles. Ms. Hoes is one of the younger generation of Dutch artists who grew up with none of the state-supplied privileges afforded Bray's generation. At her studio in a converted school on the industrial outskirts of the city, she fills out applications for funding, creates business plans, and writes proposals to try to win awards from private foundations, for which competition is steep.

"It was a true Valhalla for artists," she says of the faded glory days. "Still, I'm glad it's not like that any more."

Hoes, a visual artist, uses diverse media such as ceramics, textiles, silver-smithing, video installation, and photography. Having worked in "serious management jobs" until age 25, she decided to follow her heart and apply to art school. She did not, however, have the luxury of unlimited public funds into which to dip.

"I worked hard," she says simply. "I made sacrifices." When she left art school two years ago, she plunged into a world where the need to make money is just as pressing as the need to create art.

"We're part of a new artistic era," she says. "I work on design assignments to fund my visual-arts pursuits." She has recently created concepts for corporate parties and events; made a video installation for a flower trade fair; and designed lobbies, bathrooms, and other public spaces for companies.

Hoes works 70 hours a week or more to stay afloat, and is frustrated that she has neither the time nor the resources to concentrate fully on the artwork that she sees as her "calling." She is, however, convinced that this is better than handouts.

"In the '70s," she says, "people graduating from art school received big sums of government money.... But I feel it would be embarrassing if it were still that easy."

The most famous such program - unique in the world - was known as the BKR. From its founding in 1949, the BKR ensured that no artist working in the Netherlands - of any nationality - lived below the poverty line. The artist's only duty, in return for funding, was to regularly provide the local government with artworks, which the government was obliged to accept - regardless of the quality or content of the works.

This led, however, to abuse. Legend has it that flocks of artists would swarm back from the beaches of Goa in time to throw together a few works and secure their next payment. Hoes recalls seeing one such work. "I vividly remember a little Christmas tree sprayed pink, with small pieces of garbage hanging on it. It made me feel sick to think that this was what they were investing in."

By and large, the government took little interest in exhibiting these works, and much of the art purchased through the BKR program perished in damp storage cellars. Some artwork that was created by artists who have since become well known simply vanished from storage, only to re-appear on the free market, commanding high prices. The BKR subsidy was phased out between 1983 and 1986.

Despite cuts in public arts financing, the Netherlands remains leaps ahead of its European neighbors, having recently introduced several programs that encourage creativity and financial independence.

One is a plan for professional artists, whereby government loans are available to those whose income is less than the nation pays in the form of unemployment benefits. The amount loaned to eligible artists is set at 70 percent of the welfare level. The program provides this aid for as many as four years, after which artists are expected to be able to earn a living alone.

"It's no laid-back living," says Hoes of the program's $1,318 monthly stipend, "unless you are satisfied with living in your studio in worn-out shoes."

But it's enough to get young artists up and running.

In January, eligibility for the program tightened, to prevent it from becoming a free ride for artists. During a complex approval process, candidates are judged on their artistic education, previous artistic endeavors, and their saleability. Hoes is applying for the loan in the hope that, for a while at least, she'll be able to spend more time concentrating on making art.

Back in Amsterdam, Chip Bray may have fond memories of the old days, but he has nonetheless made the adjustment. He appears in commercials, and plays small movie roles. Last year, he was at a Chicago trade fair putting on an act to sell the Effective Flexo-Press, a new machine for printing labels and packaging.

It's a far cry from treading the boards as the Prince of the Danes, but it pays the bills.

"Today you need to be business- oriented to survive. But," he adds with a note of regret, "a lot of us come from a background where we didn't need business sense to be an actor.... It's no longer the wild, free world where you could just have an idea and away you'd go. Now you've just got to sit down, write a good business plan, and try your best to make it happen."

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