Art Subsidies Under Pressure


VOC Uitgevers, 5 July 2010




Julia Friederike Pank


Research Project “(Re)positioning Modern Concert Music in Contemporary Society”

Research Traineeship Program 2017

Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University, the Netherlands



I. Ensemble Culture and Cultural Policies in the Netherlands

What makes the musical scene of the Netherlands a particularly intriguing site for the exploration of contemporary performance practices is its bustling ensemble culture of about 1000 highly diverse groups, ranging from small chamber music ensembles to symphony orchestras (; Cobussen 2000). The development of this ensemble culture can be traced back to the long-held policies of cultuurspreiding, which favored the development of a vast and diversified cultural infrastructure, including festivals, educational institutions, committees, orchestras and ensembles, based on the conviction that art counts as a basic need and, as such, should be a universally accessible public good (Rusch 2011: 134). Many writers agree that the golden age of the ensemble culture took place during the 1970s and 80s (Rubinoff 2011: 5). Before that time, a disproportionate percentage of the national budget was allocated to large established arts institutions, such as symphony orchestras, which in 1966 received 81% of all government funds (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science 2006: 134), in sharp contrast to the small share available to (new music) ensembles. These policies seemed to disregard the fact that the public was actually more interested in ensemble music at that time (Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science 2006: 134).


This incoherence was addressed in multiple protest actions, the most famous being the “Notenkrakersactie” of 1969. These were organized with the general purpose of shaking established arts institutions and democratizing the music world (Rubinoff 2011: 4). However, rather than aiming for a radical break between old and new, subsequent developments and practices displayed increased collaboration across genres and scenes and wider participation of musicians in decision-making bodies. For instance, parallel to helping foster a dynamic new music culture, the Notenkrakersactie also benefited the Early Music Movement that accompanied the “new” protestors, striving for a more socially engaged music-making with an appeal to the youth through its orientation towards amateurs and youth counterculture (Rubinoff 2011: 3). Both branches engaged in experimental collaborations and held joint events, often in unconventional locations. A special role - pioneering flexible and specialized ensemble formations as an alternative to the orchestral setup - was played by the young contemporary composers Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Micha Mengelberg, Peter Schat and Jan van Vlijmen, who became known as “The Five” (Rubinoff 2011: 5). Furthermore, in 1970 the Movement for the Renewal of Music Practice, BEVEM, was founded with the purpose of pursuing the “democratization of musical life” (Rusch 2011: 136). As with the Notenkrakersactie, the symbolism of the act of squatting formed an important part of its foundation. In practice, the developments after this period of “musical activism” resulted in performing musicians joining decision-making organs and establishing new institutions – and structural funding increased and became more institutionalized (Rusch 2011: 136ff.).


Besides the innovative activism of performers themselves, the role of various subsequent governments in enabling artistic practice and innovation through subsidization must not be underestimated in the facilitation of a vibrant music world. The two tend to go hand in hand and mutually stimulate one another. In the 70s, under Joop den Uyl's Labour Party government, the enjoyment and practice of arts was seen as a fundamental component of public welfare; thus, during that time, the right to a rich cultural life and educational opportunities aligned with a universal principle of equal access all over the Netherlands, one which transcended the boundaries of the big cities (Rubinoff 2011: 10). In 1983, after a liberal-confessional coalition of VVD and CDA took power, a resolution to restructure the music sector was passed that replaced full-time employment in orchestras with the payment of the shifts worked, and forced orchestras to downsize (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science 2006: 134). While this opened the possibility for more flexible setups, it also precluded the performance of particular repertoire, a problem that was swiftly solved by reducing the total number of orchestras in the Netherlands, allowing the few that remained to revert to a larger number of musicians. The reduction of orchestras resulted in increased funding for non-symphonic music, which had formerly relied solely on project-bound funding (Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science 2006: 135).


While this restructuring was aimed at increasing flexibility as well as more efficient allocation of funds, it also implied a higher degree of uncertainty in terms of employment and financing for musicians. This was exacerbated by an economic downturn in the 1980s that manifested itself in a trimming of welfare and public spending towards austerity, which affected arts and culture tremendously. Subsequently, decentralization redirected the focus from government subsidies to (private) cultural funds, commercial sponsoring, and local subsidization (Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science 2006: 40-1).


A year frequently cited as the most recent onset of a cultural “crisis” is 2013, when the Dutch conservative neoliberal government decided to cut the cultural budget by 200 million euros and decrease its Performing Arts Fund from 64 to 27 million euros (Taylor 2011). Thus, the promising time of cultural shifts and growth at the end of the twentieth century was short-lived in terms of governmental support, as subsequent governments revealed a tendency to regard arts as a luxury rather than a basic societal need, incorporating the arts sector into the economic logic of a market relationship, guided by the dynamics of supply and demand. In 2010, the national government still provided 63% of the income funding for productions and projects, with 37% attained of budgetary needs achieved through ticket sales and sponsoring. It sounds like a lot, but it is actually merely 0.56% of the entire national budget and, in per capita terms, 55€ per Dutch citizen per year (Marlet 2010). Governmental responsibility for the arts has been further reduced to a minimum, ensuring a basic cultural infrastructure of a few large production houses – specifically, seven orchestras and three large opera production houses - for the period of 2017- 2020 (Bussemaker 2015: 23-24), a decision that is likely to decimate “the fertile fields of small and midsize companies” that had been driving the cultural diversification and innovation of the preceding decades (Van den Berg 2011).

These challenging political-economic conditions stand in sharp contrast to the still wide-held image of the Netherlands as a thriving innovative environment for the performing arts. While the past forty years of development in the arts sector have yielded a large increase in the number of ensembles of every kind, these must now compete for a share in a severely reduced budget. Another problematic aspect of the decrease of national funds is that local governments are expected to compensate for the lack of funds while at the same time maintaining public institutions such as libraries, music schools, theaters, museums, and associations (Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science2006: 15, 41, 45). Despite - or perhaps due to - these constraints, independent performance groups are required to find ever-shifting and innovative ways to present their music in order to appeal to funds and extend their public.


II: A Crisis of Classical Music? Scholarly Perceptions of the Status Quo

Many Western scholars situate the questioning of the relevance of classical music today within a broader paradigm shift, including a transformation in the way society produces meaning and knowledge. Literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht dedicated his book Production of Presence – What Meaning Cannot Convey (2003) to the theorization of this paradigm shift. According to him, societal thinking patterns are moving away from a culture of representation towards a culture of presence. Until now, the production of knowledge and meaning has been based upon the interpretation of the material world: extracting meaning from or attributing meaning to the world around us (Gumbrecht 2003: 52-54). We have arrived at a point where many are realizing that the ever-repeated interpretations have led us to forget about a possible presence-based approach to the world, one that is more concerned with the performance, or presence, of substance and reality, than with the interpretation thereof (53-54, xiv). For Gumbrecht, the still prevalent culture of representation clashes with a contemporary “longing for presence” in the (post)modern reality in which we live – which is why we are in need of a new approach to understanding the world, an approach that includes noninterpretive concepts and complexifies meaning by basing it on presence (11, 52f.). 


This change in thinking patterns in turn impacts the ways in which society experiences art, something which composer Micha Hamel and musicologist Joep Christenhusz thematize in relation to Gumbrecht's ideas (Hamel 2016: 15, 58, 61; Christenhusz 2016: 12, 14-15). They concur with one another that enjoying music increasingly comes to mean an all-encompassing, multisensorial experience instead of an act of contemplative listening only. Listening thus attains a shift in focus; the conscious act of seeking to understand musical forms or structure has become a subpart of a broader, immersive experience (Christenhusz 2016: 13). In line with Gumbrecht's call for the complexification of meaning, Christenhusz argues that it is time for a different kind of terminology that does justice to the complexity and interwovenness of contemporary musical practices, with meaning “spread across the surface” instead of “hidden in the depth” (10, 14). That is to say that in the 20th century, understanding and grasping meaning was still pursued through immersion and dedication for the sake of literally “getting to the bottom of things” [doorgronden], whereas now, the essential substance is constituted by scattered points that need to be connected (14). Hamel writes that a societal awareness of the destructive nature of the contemporary human lifestyle generates a pessimism which removes any optimism regarding future human existence. Applied to art, this means that “no art is eternal, because humanity is not. What happens is what counts” (Hamel 2016: 266, emphasis added). However, this is not simply an affirmation of complete resignation and surrender, but instead a motivation for the creation of meaning based not on existence in general, but on present action (265). 


Besides a conceptualization of music based on (individual) presence and perception, experiencing music can also be framed in social terms. Musicologist Christopher Small situates the construction of meaning in its social nature, conceptualizing the concert as an encounter determined by physical and social settings (Small 1998: 10). The “concert industry” can consequently be seen a social construction embodying values of an industrialized society and middle class, elevated through its conveyed contrast with the proletariat and popular culture (Small 1998: 37). The general thread of his argument is that because these values increasingly lose appeal and relevance in contemporary societies, it should not be surprising that concert halls attract a very specific group of people while repelling an ever-larger part of society. Classical music has come to be connected to big concert halls, although it is worth noting that it does not always require such spaces. These halls impose not only particular social relations and codes of conduct but also a one-way direction of attention, which clashes with contemporary multidimensional approaches to performance in a field of split attention (Small 1998: 25; Hamel 2016: 340, 337). Since the elite no longer guides cultural conscience, the public's choices have become more individualized; they are increasingly a question of taste and possible identification rather than of doctrine (Hamel 2016: 33). With the never-ending array of possibilities, present-day consumers are continuously under pressure to distribute their attention across the “force field of the attention economy” (10). Thus, an expensive classical concert is yet another thing one can, but is not required to, spend one's money on (38). A rather traditional standpoint on this issue is offered by music philosopher Lawrence Kramer, who argues that it is the contemporary sociocultural context that has deprived us of the ability to listen – declining interest is more a matter of capability than will (Kramer 2007: 12). For him, the problem is more cultural than economic or demographic: people do not take classical music seriously anymore, and it has ceased to occupy an integral spot in cultural life (3). Through its trivialization as background noise, music is losing its special standing that used to demand and enforce conscious and devoted listening. With the development of recording technology and online platforms, music has become instantly and widely available, whereas formerly, those who desired to listen to music had no choice but to attend a concert (Kramer 2007: 2).


In summary, the relevance of classical music to society is understood to be decreasing because it is widely associated with the values and conventions of a past culture materialized in traditional performance spaces. Scholars not only offer analyses of the current situation but also explore present and possible strategies for change. In practice, a tendency toward expanding the concert experience has become prevalent throughout the classical music world. Turning the concert into a “total experience” results, among other strategies, in augmenting the event by means of preliminary talks, coffee and tea provision, aftershows, etc., in order to increase the audience’s involvement as well as the depth of their experience (Hamel 2016: 200). This almost develops into an obsession with filling and emancipating the “inbetween spaces” that the music itself leaves (208). Furthermore, the interdisciplinarization of the performance itself is designed to meet the contemporary desire for multi-sensorial experiences and spectacle (264, 339). The desired effect of this is an intensification of the conveyed information through the addition of layers of meaning by the technique of juxtaposition, but it can also result in a possible undermining of the music by directing attention away from it (177). However, Hamel does raise the criticism that, due to this strategy, concerts begin to resemble each other more and more, which actually undermines the contemporary quest for unique experiences and a diverse cultural landscape (273).


Specifically in the Netherlands, the dominant strategies used in order to attract a wider audience to classical music concerts are: increased marketing, commissioning famous artists, inviting pop artists, relocating to alternative locations, researching audiences' preferences by means of questionnaires, and initiating support associations (Hamel 2016: 88). In addition, educational programs in the form of adaptations for children and families play a big role. Another strategy, that of focusing concert programming on the “iron” repertoire, assigns to the concert industry a museum-like function of reiterating a cultural canon (Hamel 2016: 10). In this way a “spiral of success” is created, where more and more prominence is accorded to already established works (274), obstructing the development of new or differing performance practices. In the end, all envisioned solutions seem to center around more audience involvement; everyone seems to be in search of the public. Whether an encompassing experience is offered with the intent of attracting more paying visitors or whether it is deliberately and artistically deployed in order to establish relevance and immediacy through a relational approach, extending thescope of classical music towards a larger and more diverse public that is (ideally) representative of the composition of the current population, is central to the debate concerning the position of classical music in contemporary society.