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Right to rooting in the city

The view of art has changed in the last ten years: the scope for liberal arts has become limited. The arts and the 'creative industry' fulfill a more functional role. As an artist, can you still take root and let your feelers move over the city? Amsterdam duo councilor Lene Grooten and artist Bart Stuart discuss the 'sustainability' of art policy.

Conversation between Lene Grooten
and Bart Stuart

Lene Grooten has lived in Amsterdam since 1999 and works at the Kunstenbond. She is a duo councilor for GroenLinks with a portfolio of care and youth care. She first worked in the theater and became politically active as a result. Bart Stuart is a visual artist. He has lived in the city since 1995, has a former shipyard in Noord as home base of the NDSM and is chairman of the board of artists' initiative W139 in Amsterdam. We start our conversation with the statement that the past ten years have not been good for the development of the liberal arts. The far-reaching cutbacks and the frame as a 'left-wing hobby' have not done the cultural climate in the country particularly well.

 

Lene: “My involvement in the arts starts from my work at the theatre, in the former Bellevue theater on Leidseplein in the heart of Amsterdam. A nice workplace where I also experienced the changing city up close: the Bellevue theater transformed into the current DeLaMar theater. One day Joop van de Ende comes to tell us that he bought the theater for one euro. Bellevue employees lose their jobs. But it is also an opportunity for a new development: this will give commercial musicals and theater a permanent place in the middle of the city. Then in 2011 comes the cutbacks in culture by State Secretary Zijlstra (VVD) and the protest actions 'March of civilization' and the 'Scream for culture. That was exactly when I became politically active.

I don't believe in just letting you know what you're up against. I want to look ahead and work on new cultural awareness. Convince the outside world that there must be and remain room for the arts. That space does not come by itself.”
 

Bart: “The city is never an easy and comfortable place where everything goes by itself. It is always a kind of battle between people, interests, functions and use of space. There has always been pressure on the city, especially for the space for vulnerable or non-commercial initiatives. Also think of the squatters' movement that has preserved many cultural places in the city, such as the Melkweg, Paradiso and OT301 in Amsterdam. They still form a lively (sub)culture today.”
 

Lene: “How do you see that, was there more activism in the past?”
 

Bart: “Yes, I think. People had more time and involvement to help shape the city and the urgency was felt more strongly.
Squatting was a healthy antidote to speculation and soaring real estate prices. This leaves room in the city where the city reinvents itself. This manifests itself in involvement by active people in and influence on the developments of the city. There, artists and citizens enforce influence to help determine what is important. Where are we going? What kind of city do we want to be?”

 

 

Free places
What do we think is a sanctuary? We are thinking of a place not regulated by the government where making your own rules is also part of the process. A place that focuses on collectivity and self-motivation. You can also fully immerse yourself in experiments and work in seclusion on or in your own world. It is often a workplace combined with social, cultural and public functions.

 

Bart: “What makes a good sanctuary?”
 

Lene: “A situation of being connected with each other and with the environment; being open to the neighborhood and involved in society. But that is of course not a verifiable condition: you cannot force artists to be involved, it arises or grows out of mutual curiosity. That takes time. You now see that a kind of 'mandatory commitment' is laid down in the policy; regulations that require regular interaction. I think that making that involvement transparent and measurable is about mistrust.”
 

Bart: “I recognize a search for space and time to live and work together in and on the city. A lot of people are just too
busy surviving, but there should also be time to relax and feel at home and take a good look around you. People must be able to take root in space and time.”

 

Lene: “Now in Amsterdam you have an incubator policy in which you as an artist are entitled to a workplace for 5 + 5 years; after that you have to make way for another generation. So you have a limited perspective and short time to root. After that you have to work or stop in line with the market. What should you do after that time? I don't know anyone who can buy their own studio after ten years. The cultural policy also focuses on young 'hip' people, while older artists have to figure it out themselves.”
 

 

Sanding or comforting
 

Bart: “What is the added value of artists in society and why should they also live and work in the middle of the city?”
 

Lene: “Artists are at the heart of society. They work on their free work in their studio, but they also look around: they
relate to the city and ask questions about the important issues. Often artists are at the forefront and have good feelers for things that are going on. But what you also see happening in the past ten years is the instrumental deployment of artists in deprived areas. Creating an upward pressure through place making so that new people with bigger wallets come into the neighborhood.”


Bart: “Sometimes that is very instrumental from the perspective of policy, which leaves me with a sour taste. A neglected area with cheap space where you let some artists exploit the place for two years. Then some public functions and a hip coffee place. Just wait a little longer and if it works, house prices will rise. After those two years, serious entrepreneurs will come
who take over from the pioneers and the interim is over. That instrumental approach produces a monoculture and that
must be different.”

 

Lene: “The public space in the city can also be an opportunity to 'program' art in society. Last summer, the photo exhibition Urban Capture with an African photographer was held on Mercatorplein in Amsterdam-West, which worked very well. The meaning of a work of art in the context of such an urban space can be enhanced. It can chafe or comfort. If all goes well, connections will arise between art and society that go beyond just the moment of exhibition. Local residents who do not enter a museum of their own accord are confronted with art in their outdoor space. That is why I proposed to the city council that Amsterdam should appoint a city curator: a patron or lady who takes care of art in the public space. As a society, we have often invested a lot in public works of art. What happens to those works of art if they have been there for 30 years, or if they have to make way for a new building, for example? The city curator contributes to awareness about art in the city and can emphasize or defend the value of this art with solicited or unsolicited advice. The city is also a collection of public works of art, which we must cherish but also update.
For example, there is a 12 meter high Keith Haring from 1986 on the facade of the Foodcentre. At the moment, this graffiti is still hidden behind facade panels. What are we going to do with it? You can revive the works and have the management partly shaped by the neighbourhood. That way you can create engagement. In Rotterdam they are serious about it: they have a city curator with ample support, a total of 4 FTEs.”

 

 

Trend versus experiment
 

Bart: “You see all kinds of terms being developed in the policy of recent years, such as art education, diversity or social innovation. Those trends are also passing. Not everyone can do that, education. We shouldn't ask all artists that either."
 

Lene: “And how do we improve the income position of the visual artist? We spend a hundred million in Amsterdam on
art per year. The cliché looms that the catering, the party lighting at the opening, the DJ, the tent rental company and the cleaners all come by, in short: everyone is paid. But who makes the work? How is the content better valued? The artist must also be paid.”

 

Bart: “Yes, that is still not self-evident.”
 

Lene: “How does an artist earn his money? How do you earn
your money, Bart?”


Bart: “I have a thriving art practice with exhibitions and commissions. I am also supported by the Mondriaan Fund, but I mainly earn my income through welding. It continues to invest and have a long breath.”
 

Lene: “If you zoom out a bit more, you will see that large international art fairs have increasingly become the place for sales. Art Basel, Fiac, the Frieze, that's where the money is. Galleries in the city are declining in numbers and serving a lower segment. They have shifted more to the margins and trade the cheaper art. Concepts also shift: an artist became part of a 'creative industry'. The number of artists has decreased considerably – there are about 15,000 artists nationwide – but there are 250,000 'creatives'. To what extent do you need to realize affordable office space for those 250,000 people?”
 

Bart. “And meanwhile, even more concepts of meaning have shifted. I myself was trained as a visual artist at the St. Joost Academy in Breda. In the 1990s there was a free Sculpture/Monumental department. The autonomous department at the art academy has since disappeared. Autonomous has now become more of a taste. I think that really shows a change in mentality.”
 

Lene: “The selection of many things now involves a kind of market forces. Making strong what is already strong. Top places need to be even more top notch.”
 

Bart: “I think that's the beauty of a cultural sanctuary: the low threshold. In principle, these are places that are open to everyone. Also for the experiment. I am also thinking of the ADM terrain that is in danger of disappearing. You are not only clearing a terrain but also an alternative way of life. Vital space for experimentation will also disappear as a result.”
 

Lene: “Yes, that is important: there must be room for experimentation and subculture. Studios do have an income test so that there is some control. For the rest, we have to trust that the low threshold and experimentation will also help the arts and the city further. Now it is very much about the appearance of success and confirming what has already proven itself.”
 

Bart: “Finally, Lene: what should cities do in the next four years?”
 

Lene: “The liberal arts are now being controlled based on a certain mistrust. What we need is to re-appreciate the arts and approach them with trust. We must allocate the available public resources as evenly as possible, but also leave space and give people confidence that people will use them properly. I am looking for new forms of collectivity to involve citizens and artists in the city. Not only the day-to-day management, but also get more say about, for example, balloting and program. Making municipal real estate more sustainable that contains studios and cultural institutions. To give people and artists in particular the feeling that they are an integral part of the city and that they are not the garnish. That artists can take root seriously even if they have a low income. But also working in multidisciplinary teams in which artists contribute ideas and work on the development of the future city. As I stated before, they are the feelers in society. In the further development of the city, there must be more room for trust and imagination. We need to invest in that now!"

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