How to go ahead: cultural institutions

The last decade has been a dire time for cultural institutions like HMK. One the one hand there have been serious cuts in funding and on the other higher pressures on institutional performance and organisational efficiency – which, in turn, has resulted in overproducing and overworking across the cultural sphere. With Slow Burn, our year programme, we are taking time to care: to reflect on all the things we have been doing, to recuperate from the things we did wrong or too much, and to ask ourselves what HMK could do and be in the future – for the institution, its artists, its employees and its community.

Recently, these questions seem even more pressing and urgent, albeit in ways none of us had ever imagined. How can cultural institutions adjust and learn in these new and precarious times, even when the doors are closed? We would really appreciate your thoughts! Afterall, we run this place for you. In our third and final forum we would like you to share your thoughts by answering the following question:

What challenges do cultural institutions like HMK need to overcome now, and what can they do and be, now and in the future?

2 Comments

  • Tjeerd de Vries says:

    I find this difficult to answer, though I’d focus on virtual and augmented reality. Perhaps, building life-size, transparent umbrellas for visitors, to keep safe from any contamination while visiting?

  • Rik Dijkhuizen says:

    This is possibly the hardest question of the three in this FORUM. And that comes as no surprise. Already for years cultural institutions are facing challenging times, and the link between art and society has always been somewhat strained, or not so obvious to say the least. We all agree that culture is part of society but to what extent should cultural institutions be self-sufficient? Or to what extend do they need support from the community. Things become even more complicated when we consider the dichotomy between art as ‘l’art pour l’art’ or ‘engagement’, and to make matters worse: What is art?

    Right now, that situation is getting amplified. Many cultural institutions are facing a substantial loss of income (a.o. ticket sales) and they lack monetary reserves to balance this out. Keeping the doors open would cost even more money, because there are too few visitors to have the full machine running. In previous years cultural institutions managed to be creative with costs, mainly by providing freelance contracts to employees, overworking, overproducing, low fees for artists and entire armies of interns, more than willing to do a paid job for free. This while exhibitions become more expensive (depending on other, commercial industries for materials, logistics, professional support etc.) The consensus here is: “at least I do something I like”, but what is the cost? An overall consensus of feeling less valued than worth. And here things get tricky: an entire industry has lost all its resilience to fight any setback, a precariat of creative professionals, forced to ‘run around screaming’.

    How do we move forward? What quality comes from this situation? And what is quality? But also: to what extend should art institutions abide to the wishes of the public; in case these institutions need to generate extra income asap, when they are allowed to open their doors again? If we take out extra emergency funding altogether (#neoliberalism), these places of reflection, open thinking and creative experiment are forced to fully go for the pricey blockbuster approach, with even more cuts in HR and fees. Recipe for disaster, if you ask me. Personally, I don’t think this is a sensible or even humane solution.

    Maybe a better solution is for institutions to reflect the reality of the situation in their programming – fewer exhibitions, less pricey productions, stopping overworking and overproducing, success that is not measured by visitor numbers but by quality and relevance, reorganising money distribution (why pay thousands of euro’s on outdoor campaigns while the staff is seriously underpaid, or not paid at all?) – and being totally transparent about it. This would also mean redetermining the requirements to receive funding, because up until this point, funding depends mainly on visitor numbers and generated income, putting even more pressure on an industry that is close to collapsing. This is somewhat of a radical idea (and not without flaws), but why keep pretending things are functioning while things should absolutely change?

    It’s worth contemplating that the creative industry is remotely similar to the public health industry. I don’t make claims that the creative industry is vital, but it’s of great importance to keep us engaged, sane, inspired, relaxed. It’s the industry that thinks of how to move forward in life, to reflect, to speculate etc. In public health (for a large part state funded) it’s not about giving what is desired, but what is required. It’s about taking care, not about providing a hotel experience. That could be lesson for institutions: on one hand we need more funding to work, on the other we have a responsibility to offer what is required, not desired. Maybe institutions were forced to give what is desired (blockbusters), or moved into an opposite direction (going full overintellectualised, hermetic exclusivity). Somewhat of an awkward situation… All fine, but the question remains: how do we justify receiving more funding then, to ‘heal’ the industry?

    I think for the future cultural institutions (the ones that depend on funding) should engage more (not in quantity but in quality), move away from the two formats mentioned above and make things more accessible. I really can’t see a Picasso anymore, but I also don’t like to look at things that make me feel stupid or left out. Aim for quality, engagement, relevance, insights, not entertainment or overintellectualisation. And in return, these institutions should receive more and structural funding to actively and structurally take care of the institution, its employees, its artists and creatives. Taking care, and take care in return.