Forget America
Conference on private or public funding in NY

Issue no4
Aug - Sept 2020

Which funding model serves the arts best? On June 10th, the same day the Dutch art world received the devastating news on the extent of the culture cuts, art professionals gathered in New York City for a conference comparing different models of private and public funding in the United States and the Netherlands.

That the left in the Netherlands is in turmoil and disarray was made clear to me at a very stimulating and engaging conference that I had the privilege to attend at the Cooper Union, in New York. Sponsored by the New York Chapter of the Dutch Social Democratic Party, the event brought together leaders from the arts and art funding world from both the United States and the Netherlands for the purpose of discussing the relative merits of each system. The Dutch arts system, on the one hand, is famous for the major role that state patronage plays in subsidizing culture. The American system, on the one hand, is known (or infamous I would rather say) for the fact that it relies almost exclusively on private sources of funding – admission costs, private donors, retail sales, and foundational and corporate support – to sustain itself.

Which is the better of the two? Leaders of the most elite American institutions, the Museum of Modern Art and Carnegie Hall, seem quite satisfied with the systems that they have in place: Glenn Lowry of MoMA stated that the idea of the museum as a civic institution – one that bears the torch of the Enlightenment – was over and done with, and that one had to contend with the hegemony of shopping and the marketplace. Many Dutch participants, by contrast, seemed uncomfortable with their own system – and the benefits that have gone with it. While many of the participants – the director of the Van Gogh Museum, for instance - lamented the dramatic cut-backs in cultural spending in the Netherlands, and while they seem to still recognize a civic role for culture and the arts in their country, they also seemed to be resigned to the inevitability of further cuts, as though privatization (which is also linked, in the American case, to militarization) has already won, and one just had to adjust to it.

The Dutch participants also seemed hesitant to acknowledge or confront the egregious failures of American cultural policy (which, as Glenn Lowry pointed out, exists by the virtue of the fact that it doesn’t exist). In New York City, which has a strong culture of private patronage, this is manifestly in evidence: here, art is taken to be a form of leisure at best, one that has taken its place alongside other consumer past-times: shopping or going to the gym, for instance. It is not framed as a social or political medium, or as instrument for transforming the ‘production of space,’ to use the language of Henri Lefebvre, but rather as good, clean – and irrelevant – fun.

The Dutch participants also failed to take the initiative in dispelling the myth of the ‘lazy and mediocre artist living under socialism.’ First of all, social democracy produced some of the most inspired art of the 20th century (and MoMA’s collection proves that.) Second, many smaller Dutch institutions, from Stroom Den Haag to the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht for instance, have done more over the past decade to help shape and nurture young talent than countless more renowned institutions in the United States (in fact, many such brilliant young artists have gone on to exhibit work at a number of prestigious institutions and galleries here in the United States.) It is hardly possible, moreover, to imagine them thriving in a place like the United States, where 'stars,' so to speak, are constantly in need to carry the show.

It is a cliché nowadays to say that capitalism fosters entrepreneurialism. Experience demonstrates, however, that the reverse is closer to the truth: if you are constantly spending your time just trying to muster together a living, pay the bills and secure health insurance for yourself, how can you be expected or allowed to take risks as an artist? And how do you take chances with your life, or your career, if you are also perpetually concerned about debt (another hallmark of the American experience)? (This was a point made quite brilliantly and forcefully by the Dean of the School of the Arts at Cooper Union, Saskia Bos, by the way. I cannot take credit for it.)

What would my advice to the Dutch be? Simple: forget America. Look at your own past and that of your neighbours, not to imitate it, but to draw encouragement and inspiration. There is a lot there. All you need is the imagination, conviction, and courage to reinvent it.

Conference Comparing the Different Models of Private and Public Funding in the United States and the Netherlands. Who Serves the Arts Best?
Friday, June 10 2011
Frederick Rose Auditorium
The Cooper Union

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 4 — 2020