Greg Shapiro: no subsidy for you

The bankruptcy of Time Out Amsterdam, Buckler beer, arts subsidies, slums and round circles all have a role in this week’s column.

“We’ve become a nasty little right-wing country” – Youp van ‘t Hek

The New York Times recently wrote that the Amsterdam arts scene is ‘under siege.’ And – as a member of the Amsterdam arts scene – I agree it’s certainly had its ups and downs. Literally. In 2010, the Dutch government decided that – instead of 6% sales tax for our services – they would instead charge 19%. And they dropped it down again. The government wanted to make a statement about the arts, and – if the statement was ‘we have no idea what we’re doing’ – they succeeded. I also noticed the statement they made by declaring what would be exempt from the tax hike: the cinema. Apparently, ‘normal’ Dutch people don’t need whiny high-art; they just want to go to the movies. In practice, it’s mostly the American movies. Effectively, it was a subsidy for Hollywood. On behalf of Hollywood, thank you! That’s just what they needed.

As it happens, The New York Times article was written by Nina Siegal, who was my former editor at Time Out Amsterdam. She explained to me how she took a maternity leave and was subsequently laid off. I asked, ‘isn’t that illegal?’ Yes, it is. Apparently they also wanted to make a statement: that they are recklessly cruel bastards. I told her that – at times like these – it’s important to look on the bright side. Specifically: Time Out Amsterdam is now bankrupt, and Nina is writing for the New York Times.

Nina’s article for The New York Times focused less on the random tax changes and more on the other nasty bit of arts reform: slashing subsidies. At issue was the Theater Institute Netherlands, which is being forced to close down. Over the years, they’ve amassed a fairly large representation of Dutch theater history, which is now up for grabs. If only the subsidy had been slashed by 90%, they could have at least kept the lights on. But no – 100% cut. The same thing happened to the Dutch Slavery Institute NiNsee, Dansgroep Amsterdam, and Theater Engelenbak.

And here we get to the quote from above. Youp van ‘t Hek is one of Nederland’s foremost cabaretiers and one of my Dutch theatrical heroes. Remember Buckler beer? No one does. Buckler was a non-alcoholic beer, which was around before I got here. The story goes that they were shamed into pulling their product from the shelves, thanks to one comedian who kept ridiculing them, mercilessly. His name: Youp van ‘t Hek. His last name is hard to pronounce, but it sounds a lot like ‘Fanatic.’ And he fanatically hated Buckler beer.

It’s nice to think that a comedian can affect social change. (But where is he now that Bavaria 0.0% is assaulting the airwaves?) More importantly – so the story goes – Youp van ‘t Hek used his influence to save the Kleine Komedie theater from closing down. But where was he when Theater Engelenbak was under attack?

To be fair, Youp did join a number of artists in a group effort to save Theater Engelenbak. ‘We all started in Engelenbak’ was the ad campaign. And a lot of well-known artists did start there. There was a lot of sympathy. There was an attempt to get them some sponsoring from the private sector. But in the end, they shut down, putting the blame firmly on the shoulders of Amsterdam city council. I even contacted the organizer of their famous open podium and offered them a space for them to continue. ‘No,’ was the answer. ‘We’re still busy trying to tie up all the loose ends the city left us…’

So – is the arts scene in Amsterdam in fact under siege? Yes. But that doesn’t have to mean it’s dead. In my neighborhood, there are pop-up ateliers and galleries growing in new, unused spaces. While the big money is being thrown at the big projects (Stedelijk, Van Gogh, and Rijksmuseum), the true artists are rejecting the handouts and setting up shop in squats. Forget the crumbs; freedom’s in the slums. That’s how Amsterdam was when I got here in the 90’s. As the Dutch like to say: the circle is round.

Greg Shapiro Presents UK comedian Pete Johansson, April NL Tour.

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