Taxpayer support for artists: too much of a good thing?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.