PRINT March 2005



To the Editor:

As an art critic for the weekly Amsterdam news magazine Elsevier, I was stunned by Jennifer Allen’s international news item “Trouble Dutch” [January 2005], in which she characterizes recent cuts to the budgets of several Dutch art institutions as a change of policy linked to the murder of Theo van Gogh. In doing so, Allen casually endorses a highly controversial view of this event as having being provoked by the ideas of another recently murdered Dutchman, conservative politician Pim Fortuyn, and by the supposed adoption of an increasingly xenophobic worldview in a country known for its tolerance and multiculturalism.

It must be reassuring for a Berlin-based critic to feel able to link so many complicated problems, but to those with direct, factual knowledge of current Dutch art policy, things look very different. To somebody from a country which has for many years offered generous support to foreign art institutions, artists, curators, and commercial and noncommercial art enterprises (many of which have been from, or based in, countries as rich as or richer than the Netherlands) without asking for anything in return, Allen’s accusations really hurt.

The Netherlands has supported exhibitions of the work of Dutch artists like Marlene Dumas at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as at wealthy private foundations throughout the United States and Europe. It has supported shows in New York, Paris, Germany, Zurich, London, and Antwerp, at galleries far more internationally successful than its own. And it has contributed toward the expense of both Dutch and foreign galleries’ participation in the best international art fairs. It still does most of these things—funding foreign artists, working in various countries—with tax money from a small nation. No other country has ever exercised the same kind of official generosity toward foreign artists or art institutions (or, for that matter, toward its own). So it is painful, now that the Netherlands itself has serious arts-funding problems, to find it immediately accused of being “highly reductive” and “inward looking.”

Unfortunately, the steady decrease in the numbers of visitors to Dutch museums of modern and contemporary art (as well as an increase in the average age of their shrinking audiences) has been going on for many years and cannot be explained by the ideas of Fortuyn or any other single worldview. Dutch museums increasingly lack the funds to originate the kind of shows that attract wider interest or to make desired acquisitions. Their collections thus increasingly lack international luster. Allen’s article emphasizes the “international reputation” of some Dutch art institutions that, in fact, very few people, especially foreigners, actually bother to visit. Recently, in the progressive national newspaper de Volkskrant, the eminent international curator Harald Szeemann accused Dutch art institutions of being backward and lazy. The Rijksakademie, whose generous accommodations and subsidies for foreign artists are well-known, recently listed the artists who supported its protest against its budget cuts. Of the international alumni of this academy Allen mentions, not one is to be found on that list.

Art policy in the Netherlands has been changing amid much criticism since 1989. The country’s general lack of corporate and private interest in art, and therefore of private art funding and sponsorship, puts it at a serious disadvantage compared to other countries, especially at a time when private money dominates the art market and increasingly determines the fate of art institutions. This has been going on since the end of the Second World War—since a time, that is, when Islamic immigrantion was hardly an issue in the country, and the murderers of Fortuyn and van Gogh had not yet been born. The Dutch nation does not deserve such uninformed accusations or “explanations” at the first sign of a rethinking of its international funding.

Riki Simons, Amsterdam

Jennifer Allen responds:

I agree that the Netherlands has generously supported international contemporary art and artists—all the more reason to inform readers (especially those living outside the Netherlands) about a change in policy. International exchange is vital to contemporary art, yet the support offered by individual countries usually amounts to an unspoken agreement that is rarely monitored and cannot be enforced. All too often, countries exploit differences of language to pursue isolationist, if not nationalistic, cultural agendas. And unfortunately, there is no UNESCO to protect the interests of contemporary art.

It was not my intention to make a direct connection between cultural budget cuts and the murders of Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn. Rather, I stated that Fortuyn succeeded in shifting the emphasis of Dutch politics from economics to culture, a move that was aggravated by van Gogh’s murder. Of course, the Dutch ministry of culture was never the platform for Fortuyn or van Gogh, yet when culture becomes a tool of populist nationalism one may question the wisdom of enforcing budget cuts that curb international exchange and limit foreigners’ participation in cultural activities—especially in a year when twenty-six thousand asylum seekers have been refused refugee status by the Netherlands and are therefore threatened with deportation.

Finally, I live in Berlin, but we both live in the European Union. For European critics and artists, the Schengen Treaty makes Berlin interchangeable with Rotterdam, Stockholm, or even Warsaw as a place of residence. Since many Dutch artists come to live in Berlin, much Dutch art is being made and shown in the city, along with art from German, other European, and non-European artists. Innovative institutions like BüroFriedrich, which lost its funding from the Netherlands’ government, attempted to respond to this unique situation. Since the EU has focused on annual support for different “cultural capitals” each year, contemporary art still relies largely upon the national cultural budgets of individual member states. One wishes Schengen would have made funding more international, not less, since European artists increasingly travel and collaborate across borders. Regrettably, in terms of funding for culture, European barriers have not fallen but are steadily on the rise, often in response to nationalist and populist agendas. When a traditionally progressive country like the Netherlands restricts international funding for contemporary art, it is a sad day for all of us.