What’s Happening to Culture in Europe?

by Jillian Steinhauer on February 1, 2013

Dansgroep Amsterdam performing at the Van Gogh Museum (image via Flickr/Van Gogh Museum)

Dansgroep Amsterdam performing at the Van Gogh Museum (image via Flickr/Van Gogh Museum)

The latest news from Europe this week is that everything is falling apart — at least in terms of arts and culture. And it’s depressing.

We start in the Netherlands, where huge budget cuts planned in 2011 and 2012 are taking effect and killing off arts organizations across the country. Thanks to a conservative coalition government, federal arts funding dropped by €238 million this year (22 percent), while another €232 million was lost in local, regional, and provincial government financing. In addition, because of financial restructuring, 40 of 120 cultural organizations are now ineligible for federal money. The New York Times explains the significance of all this:

Since the 1970s, and particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, artists and cultural organizations across the Netherlands were supported almost exclusively by the state. There is almost no culture of private sponsorship and corporate financing for the arts is limited.

The paper also has a striking quote from Jeroen Bartelse, secretary general of the Culture Council, which makes clear the extent of the damage:

It’s quite a massacre. … Many of these groups are either dead or are now in a near-death struggle. What’s striking is the number of institutions stopping at one time, which we haven’t seen before, and these are institutions that have existed for 20, 30 or 50 years, institutions with a stature that makes this quite exceptional.

Among the organizations majorly affected are the national theater museum, Theatre Institute Netherlands; the Netherlands Broadcast Music Center; the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Radio Chamber Philharmonic, which will be merged into one entity; Dansgroep Amsterdam;  and more organizations, including a number of nonprofit art galleries.

The church of Santa Maria in ruins (image via The Art Newspaper)

The church of Santa Maria in ruins (image via The Art Newspaper)

Meanwhile, over in Italy, Naples’s churches are a crumbling, ruined mess. The Art Newspaper reports that some 200 churches are closed and lying in states of disrepair (the images are heartbreaking):

Some have been stripped of all their furnishings including works of art, some never received the funds they had been promised, while others received them but never embarked on the agreed conservation projects. Others still were closed down, restored and then never opened again.

The Art Newspaper write-up is based on an article in the Italian paper Corriere della Serra, which quotes a former art dealer as saying (translation mine), “In Naples’s churches, there’s nothing, because they were abandoned and it was easy to take everything.” The city’s historic center has been a UNESCO world heritage site for years, but clearly it should be on the endangered list now, too.

According to the papers, the situation seems to be a bit of everyone’s fault: local and national governments, the Church, and the regional arm of the ministry of culture. That sounds about right, given the incredible inefficacy of Italian bureaucracy, but I also can’t help but wonder if the Camorra, the pervasive and incredibly powerful Neapolitan mafia, also has something to do with it, as they did with the city’s infamous trash crisis of 2008.

Finally, The Art Newspaper also has a dismaying conservation report about Moscow, where two early-19th-century buildings designed by architect Joseph Bové were demolished “under the cover of darkness in the early hours of new year’s day.” The buildings were part of a complex on Strastnoy Boulevard that Bové created after a large fire in the city in 1812. Apparently Moscow’s former mayor had a penchant for destroying landmark buildings as well, but preservationists say this secret move was even worse.

“The demolition on Strastnoy Boulevard was the final, shameful ‘blitzkrieg’ of city authorities against historic Moscow,” said watchdog group Archnadzor and the Moscow branch of Russia’s Society for the Preservation of Historical and Cultural Monuments in a statement.

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  • Alan Longino

    What’s really disheartening is how much more is to come. Germany raising their VAT % on art sales last year, the state of Italian museums — Manfredi’s just being an early example — and the austerity measures that Krugman warned against just hurting Europe totally. It won’t be the end of the world, but it’s going to hurt artists terribly. All the more reason for them to try and make it over here, though!

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I know, it’s disheartening. I feel like I don’t know enough about the economics over there and the fiscal situations that most of these countries are in, but reading about this stuff makes me so upset. Especially Italy, which I have a special attachment to. It’s one of the most amazing places on earth because of its cultural heritage, and it pains me to see that fall into disrepair.

  • Bob Schatz

    On analysis, one might say that European government funding of the arts is based on several factors: the prestige that the arts would bring to the nation; the role of arts patron that
    democratic governments inherited or assumed from former aristocratic regimes; and also the humanist perception that artistic endeavor and experimentation was intrinsically valuable and needed to be as free as possible from commercial concerns. Given the current state of the
    European economy, it’s not surprising that conservative governments, such as in the Netherlands, are now slashing arts funding. But the fact that the Netherlands groups are not surviving this cut leads one to also wonder about the ultimate cause: is it that the middle-class/private capital will not or cannot support them, or is it that these groups, not having
    had the need to approach private capital in the past, have absolutely no skill-set for doing so in their time of need?

    As an artist, I’ve always been ever-so-slightly envious that my European comrades had options for government stipends and subsidies that I could never even dream of as an American. I remember a time when the Netherlands would purchase one artwork from every Dutch artist each year, and Irish artists were exempt from taxation. I also seem to remember (please correct me if I’ve got my facts wrong) that the Netherlands also ran a kind of grant program for Dutch artists to live and work in New York. A European cousin of mine receives a small government subsidy as a published writer. Such programs are now being called into question because of tighter economic necessities. I certainly don’t wish a harsh reality on any of my European colleagues (god knows it’s terribly difficult to function as a creative person under such a strictly market-driven system as American capitalism). But I do wonder whether the funding system that was meant to help support European artists can possibly survive when the nations of the EU are faced with difficult economic choices.

  • Attila Kiss

    Having read the Netherlands bit, I can’t help but relate it to what’s currently happening in my beloved (?) home country, Hungary. The similarities are uncanny: artists over here also have to make do with state funding, and the conservative government is on a true killing spree, what with the cutting (or complete elimination) of budgets for independent theaters, museums, orchestras, you name it.

    All in the name of “reinstating pride in our national heritage and emphasizing core Hungarian values (read: spending obscene amounts of money on spreading backward, xenophobic, insular and even racist ideologies).

    Goulash culture, here we come.

  • Alice Dubiel

    Austerity mindsets and fiscal economies oppose the creative solutions available when artistic activities are acknowledged as real wealth producers. Rick Lowe has detailed the critical importance of artistic practice in addressing poverty. Artists can engage politically and creatively to challenge the kleptocracies of the plutocrats. Why prefer a theme park to New Orleans?

  • Pedro Filipe

    Portugal: 0,7% to Culture… :(

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