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Funding Cuts Creep Closer

Last Friday Holland’s cultural community read the grim reality of the Dutch Council of Culture’s “Forced Decisions” report.  Design will be hit.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 05-05-2011

Premsela - Dutch Foundation for Design and Fashion, the sector institute for design in the Netherlands, outdid other cultural sectors in the current governments’ recent audit of performance.  

When that report was published last December, the design community felt positive and Premsela’s vision of broadening the scope of Dutch design looked set to continue.  But the Rutte government won on a platform of promised cultural funding cuts so any optimism remained cautious.

Holland has six funds and nine sector institutes briefed to facilitate cultural programmes and enhance the breadth and content of their particular sector. Funds are mostly responsible for handing out subsidies while sector institutes exist to promote and educate.  Their programmes focus on disseminating information and providing reflection, coordinating events and opening up heritage and documentation.

“These sorts of sector institutes don’t exist in any other country that I know of,” says Frans Vogelaar who sat on the committee responsible for auditing design (Premsela) and architecture (NAi).

In the final audit, Premsela earned the ranking “Good” while the NAi earned the slightly less “More than sufficient”.

But last Friday the prevailing optimism took a blow with the release of an unrelated and new report, which reads as an advice to the government on how to realize cultural budget cuts.  In short, no sector is spared and every funded cultural organization, no matter how good its audit, should expect to have its budget cut by between 20% and 30%.

According to Vogelaar, a lot of debate went into the earlier audits last December. “There were heated discussions and some disagreements,” he says.  “The thing about Dutch design is that it is not just about being commercial and making good economic sense.  It is involved in education, building theory and is increasingly addressing more complex global issues.”

It was a difficult time for the audit committee – members knew what the government had been saying about slashing subsidies, but they had to remain as objective as possible. “I detected absolutely no political pressure or interference,” Vogelaar says.  “Everybody asked questions based on their own expertise and everyone involved acted in a very neutral way … I’d heard about the budget cuts, but not followed it precisely.  Also, we were told that our conclusions would not directly affect funding decisions.  We were just there to evaluate for the purpose of bringing some self-evaluation into the cultural sector.  The institutes are then supposed to use the reports to improve themselves.”    

After studying both institutions in depth, Vogelaar feels that from an international perspective both Premsela and the NAi are excellent institutions.  “Every country with a stake in design and architecture wishes they had such organizations,” he says.  “It would be idiotic to cut funding to design now after all the energy and thought that has gone into expanding the industry. Dutch design is like propaganda for the country.  They can use it.”

Not that he is only about praise.  Vogelaar has always been a harsh critic of Dutch design.  “Neither the design industry nor education is taking advantage of what integrating media discourse and practice can achieve, and I’d even say it seems to have missed the whole e-culture phenomenon,” he says.  “For example, the Design Academy Eindhoven appears to be a ‘media-free’ zone.

“In my opinion,” he continues, “everything to do with media should be firmly embedded in design.  In Holland it is not and design, in particular, is making quite a fragmented impression as a result.”

That criticism seems to have been acted on by the Dutch Council of Culture.  In its report are some vague and difficult to interpret recommendations concerning a merger between the Digital Heritage Netherlands and the Virtual Platform (the sector institute for e-culture).  In a later section of the report it says that it should be investigated as to whether Premsela and the Netherlands Institute for Media Art could play a role in that merger.

What the report does not address is how the Ministry of Culture divides up sectors.  Design has always been packaged with visual arts not, as would make better sense, with architecture or e-culture.

“To me this shows that they are really not sure where to put design,” says Els van der Plas, Director of Premsela.  “Design is mentioned a number of times throughout the report, but sometimes it is connected to e-culture, sometimes to visual arts and even the Netherlands Institute for Media Art.  They do not know where to position it because there are so many facets to design.  It is cultural, it is economic, and it is social.  I don’t think everybody understands that.  At Premsela, we interpret design in the broadest sense, which is exactly what makes Dutch design as good as it is.”

The next piece in this complicated puzzle will be placed on June 10th, when the Ministry of Culture is supposed to announce exactly what it has decided based on the Dutch Council of Culture’s report.

Premsela’s current budget is 2.7 million euros per year.  If the report’s advice is embraced in full, that will be cut back to 1.85 million per year.

Frans Vogelaar is now based in Berlin with the Hybrid Space Lab, and has previously worked with Rem Koolhaas and at Studio Alchmia (Alessandro Mendini).  He is director of the Department of Hybrid Space at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, where he is combining architecture, urbanism and design with media.

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