Keeley Haftner: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today! Let’s dive right in.
As an art historian, your research has focused on the emerging history of institutional critique in the 1980s and 1990s in the “Low Countries” (the Netherlands and Belgium), but many of our conversations have centred around the unique structures for supporting artists in the Netherlands. Could you begin by briefly highlighting some of the unique ways in which the Dutch have provided funding for artists over the years, say, through the no longer operational Artist Subsidy program, for example?
Angela Bartholomew: Okay sure! In the Netherlands there remains proportionately quite generous arts funding, especially for artists coming out the academy. But it pales dramatically in comparison to the type and level of funding that used to be available. Especially if we’re talking about the post-World War II period, when there was a large amount of governmental support for artists and free artistic speech. The frame of thought was that artists were performing the kind of labour that was necessary for a free society, and as such, there were opportunities for receiving what we now see as subsidies. At the time, they didn’t use such terms; they called this support a regeling, which in Dutch translates to more of an agreement. In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and even into the 80s, these agreements were framed as an exchange between the government and artists, rather than a kind of backfilling, whereby the government subsidizes artists’ lifestyles.
The most visual example of this was the Beeldende Kunstenaars Regeling, or BKR, which is translated in different ways, for example the “Visual Artists Agreement” or the “Visual Artists Scheme.” It was a program that the national government and different municipalities set up so that artists could exchange works of art for a monthly salary. The exchange was factored in annually, so you would basically have this once-a-year a moment where you would exchange artworks or give those artworks to collections that would actually be owned by the state, but housed in municipalities, and in return you would receive an annual salary that you needed to actually continue your work and pay your basic needs. This opened up incredible amounts of freedom for artists who could ostensibly make one sculpture a year and have this kind of guaranteed purchase, pending approval by a board or a committee comprised mostly of people from art academies and in the field, who would decide whether or not the work was sufficient. As the profession of artists grew over the years with further enrolment in art academies, more and more artists came to be included, because meeting those basic parameters meant that the purchase was guaranteed. In total, by the time the BKR came to an end, we’re talking about approximately 5,700 artists who made use of the fund, and in the end, they amassed more than 221,000 artworks! This collection is frequently described as the kunstberg, or “art mountain,” and in later years, especially when neoliberal policies took hold, it was really decried as a perversion of capitalism – a waste of money and an excess of social support. But when you look back at what it made possible, this kind of revolutionary hands-off approach that the government took – providing more or less social or welfare support for artists to create whatever they felt was necessary rather than shaping the content of the art that was made – it’s incredibly pioneering in many ways.
Depot and registration area of the State Art Collections Service (forerunner of the Cultural Heritage Agency [RCE]) 1976
Reproduction inVerslag van de Rijksinspecteur over het jaar 1976, ‘s-Gravenhage 1978. Image: RKD Bulletin
Interestingly some of those works are still housed in collections today – primarily in the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (RCE). Museums have taken on what they’ve found valuable, while in other cases those works have been allocated to administrative offices, hospitals, or government buildings.
KH: Wow, what a time to have been a working artist in the Netherlands! I wonder – have they deaccessioned any of those works, and if so, what does that process look like?
AB: Yes, each municipality amassed different quantities of work, because they all had a different number of working artists– for example, places like Amsterdam had a lot more art to deal with. And they were all housed in different ways, often in warehouses, some more or less organized than others. When the costs of that storage became unsustainable, they had to deaccession. Some works were returned to the artists, some works by artists who couldn’t be found were destroyed, and some works were auctioned. I think you can still buy some things that appear in auctions now and then for fundraising purposes. And some of it remains in the national collection. Recently the RCE actually built a whole new huge storage facility in Amersfoort, where about 20,000 works of that collection remain today. You can actually visit the collection, though few people have knowledge of it.
KH: The BKR program has been gone for some time now, so what kind of funding system came to replace it? Is it a shadow of its former self, or would you say there is there still quite a lot of support for artists in the Netherlands?
AB: Yes, the BKR ended in in 1987, so that’s been defunct for quite some time. The funding that was set aside to support artists directly instead became a fund that they used to support art galleries, under the assumption that if you offset their costs the galleries would in turn support artists (laughs). There is also a fund that is still in place that makes it so that buyers of art can buy artworks through a series of payments without interest, rather than a lump sum. But that was a shift in thinking, of course, one that is very typical of neoliberal governments who want to shift the power to the marketplace. So they’re trying to prop up the market in order to then finance art “via via”… a trickle-down hope, which, of course, fails. So that’s where part of the BKR money went, but it’s not the only way in which the government subsidizes artists now. There still are certain pools of money and grants that are only available if you’re involved in an artist collectives or initiatives, for example. By primarily supporting groups over individuals, the government creates a kind of incentive to be involved in these institutions, and in general they tend to fund institutions more generously than individual artists. Still, money continues to be cut as the years progress; especially notable were the major cuts to the cultural fund of the Netherlands in 2012. Compared to the United States there are some pretty generous funding pools available to emerging artists just out of an art academy, to get them started with their careers. But what has really been hit since 2012 and continues to be an issue is definitely funding for an intermediate-level artist, those who’ve already begun their careers but have yet to experience an institutional embrace, where they pour money into you. And that continues to be a really big problem that needs to be addressed.
KH: That resonates deeply… And on the topic of comparing and contrasting Dutch and American art funding systems, I’m reminded of over thirty years ago when the National Endowment for the Arts was gutted in reaction to its support of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibition at The Virginia Museum in 1989, and thinking about how there are still many on the American political right who would like to see the NEA eliminated altogether. So, I’m wondering, as an American and an art historian, what do you see as the best path forward for funding artists in the USA? I know it’s a broad and challenging question to tackle. (laughs)
Avignon, France (2011) exhibition of “Immersion (Piss Christ)” (1987) after being vandalized by two catholic activists. The piece has been attacked many times since the “culture wars” of the 80s/90s. Image: The Art Crime Archive
AB: Yes, a challenging question indeed! But from my perspective with my experience in museums, having come from the US, and with my research on the Netherlands, one thing that immediately comes to mind is my memory of aftermath of the mortgage crisis in 2008. This was a time when, once again, the NEA experienced a major gutting, as did cultural funds across Western Europe. I recall that the NEA had this new program where art was really being pressured to serve socio-economic needs in order to be worthwhile – like, art has to do more than just be art. It has to be socially viable and responsible, while performing and achieving a range of palpable goals. I remember there was one fund in particular where then chairman of the NEA, Rocco Landesman, came out and said “art is intrinsically valuable” – in art’s defence, that classic line… Nobody knows what it means (laughs). So he says,”the arts are inherently valuable, but ALSO” (this tends to follow as well) “they’re part of what’s going to get us out of this economic problem we’re in.” It struck me as so absurd that art is expected to do all of these things at the same time, and specifically, apparently, it has solve these financial woes as an economic recovery tool, which of course is pretty impossible.
But those kinds of expectations are here in the Netherlands as well. For instance, there was a fund in the Netherlands called the Art of Impact that started after 2012 that was all about the idea of funding projects that showed “social impact,” which they defined in different ways. This ultimately boiled down to the government using art as a social welfare system that aesthetically smooths over major problems that neoliberal policies have created. So, while I see the kind of beauty and possibilities that are created by generous governmental support of art and how much can be gained when artists are freed from the expectations of a marketplace, it can also come with all these other tethers, like the government expecting a certain type of art, or shaping the content of art in line with its own agenda. You’re kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, in that sense.
Modes of funding have to be creative in order to allow the greatest degree of freedom possible to artists, so that they can create the artwork they find the most important for the times, while also living an acceptable quality of life. Funding that sees art as labour, and compensates fairly for it. So I guess my hope for the United States is that they can create policies to allow for that kind of freedom. I’m for a kunstberg, in other words, but one where we decide where that collection should end up, rather than letting it pile it up in some warehouse facility (laughs).
KH: Fair, but I also think that the kunstberg requires a level of curation, without which leads to a similar problem in the end anyway. Because the BKR sort of became a project where everybody and their dog seemed to be involved, and therefore questions of quality and calibre and commitment come to the fore – and whenever that happens, the public has a heyday over whether or not there is in fact some sort of use value, or call it what you will, to the program.
“The psychopath. First the welfare mother and now art” in de Volkskrant on 24 June 1986, the day on which it was announced that the BKR would be dismantled on 1 January 1987. Image: Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE)
KH: So, that’s always a question. And naturally, I compare it in my mind to my Canadian context, where we have CARFAC (Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens), which is a fee-based structure that is related to funding provided by the Canada Council for the Arts (our NEA). That fee structure is set in stone for the year, changing only annually in response to increasing wages by a committee who sets the value what each item is worth, from an installation or artist talk, all the way up to a fee for the Venice Biennale. Seriously! There’s a fee for everything; it’s very clear. And if an institution receives Canada Council money, they are obligated to pay those fees, or have their funding pulled. Now, that doesn’t account for who does or does not receive said funding, and it’s constantly evolving. But thinking of it in comparison to say, W.A.G.E., or the Fair Practice Code in Europe, which are completely voluntary (and therefore rarely honoured), it feels like a much more responsible and viable system to me. But I know there are those who would take issue with this structure, as supportive as it is. I guess there really isn’t a question there… But perhaps it’s an alternative to the sort of all or nothing, go capitalist or go utopian socialist, or go home? (Laughs) Maybe it’s a happy medium…
AB: That does get closer to that BKR model, because it’s compensating artists for labour as opposed to compensating a product, which is the artwork. And that’s been the shift here, where the government expects a direct return on investments, and therefore starts to resemble a private entity more than a public one.
KH: True, though institutionally the former is also counting heads in a similar way, as in, how many people have seen this exhibition, and describing impact in final reports, and so on. But I’ve witnessed this shift – to product over labour – which I think is a larger societal problematic in the twenty-first century that is in turn being echoed in the arts.
So, I’m thinking about 2022. This year large-scale art institutions worldwide have had to continue to reconcile contemporary politics as they collide with art, whether through the recent resurgence of using art as a symbolic tool for protest, through continued demands for the return stolen of art and artifacts, or through the ongoing tug-of-war between freedom of expression and freedom from oppression. I’m wondering what you see as the role of the institution in relation to these cultural upheavals, as considered through your expertise in art as institutional critique?
AB: It’s a question that comes up at the forefront now with the use of art in climate protests you alluded to, and all protest that engages with artworks more directly. And then you have museum directors also taking very clear stances in opposition to the type of protest that puts artworks in potential danger, and it does definitely raise the question – when is protest embraced by art institutions? Is it only possible when it’s coming from those institutions themselves, or is it possible for them to be platforms that are also providing support to those voices, even if not part of their program? This is actually something I’m going to focus a course on in the spring. In my experience, larger institutions are not quite as open minded as you might expect them to be. They are absolutely willing to perform a kind of critique, so long as they’re also the originators of that critique (laughs).
Climate “action” on Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” (c. 1665) at the Hague’s Mauritshuis Museum in the Netherlands. Screencap: Twitter
KH: Right! (laughs)
AB: But then again you also can’t speak of all institutions in one breath. A lot of spaces, like Framer Framed in Amsterdam for instance, are receiving a lot of accolades for their work reaching out to previously ignored populations, and taking art and discourse into places that are outside the beaten path, while not feeding into the gentrification agenda. They’re really informed about all these criticisms that one might have about institutions, and they’re trying to find ways to navigate around that and have, I think, experienced some success there. This has also translated into government funding. That being said, there are other institutions where you could be very critical of how they’re using critique as window dressing, or diversity policy as a way to generate more revenue, or put it in their program but not their policies.
I can offer another positive example in that line of thought. The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam is repatriating works through a generously funded project of the consortium the Museum of World Cultures, which also includes the Volkenkunde Museum in Leiden and the World Museum in Rotterdam, among others. It is led by Dr. Wayne Modest, and among other things, it involves several post-doc and PhD positions created for researching the provenance of the collections of these anthropological or ethnographic museums, which have a colonial history. They are working together to try to find out not only what the history of those objects are and where they best should go, but also how to present them and show that history to the public. They’ve come up with really creative ways to deal with a lot of different publics, as well as problematic objects, and I think it’s definitely an impressive effort. It’s called the Pressing Matter Project. So that’s another good example of what’s possible in the Netherlands in terms of progressive institutional projects.
KH: Excited to look into it! Just one last question for you. Where is your research leading you next?
AB: So, I mentioned that in my next seminar we’re discussing political protests in a museum context, and looking at the potential of what art and the symbolic power of art also can mean for those protests. I’m also thinking about the history of where that’s come from, like with Act Up and other very successful political protests using art in the past. I’m writing a paper now about ethics in art criticism – specifically to what degree does (and perhaps should) ethics play a role in evaluating artworks, and in what cases does it go too far in making ethical demands of artistic practice.
KH: I’ll be interested to read more about that! Sounds juicy (laughs)
AB: (laughs) It’s in an early phase, but I’m working on it.
KH: Thanks again for taking the time to meet with me today!
AB: My pleasure!
Angela Bartholomew is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She received her PhD in May 2021 following the defence of her dissertation entitled, Disruptive Attitudes: Artists Counter the Art of Exhibiting in the Low Countries (1985-1991). After completing her studies at the University of California, San Diego and several years of experience working at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Angela relocated to Amsterdam where she took up further study alongside research positions at the Stedelijk Museum and the University of Amsterdam. She has been published in books and exhibition catalogues on topics that reflect upon the consequences of art’s presentation, and in journals such as OnCurating, Metropolis M, and Stedelijk Studies. Angela currently sits on the board of Kunstlicht, an academic journal for art, visual culture, and architecture, and Billytown, an artist- run initiative based in The Hague.
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