16 A change of management

In the course of the past decades the Dutch government has changed its tune time after time concerning its arts policy. A column on the subject written in February 1997, when the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage was invented, is here released as Schwartzlist 16, provided with a P.S. on the disbandment of that body.

The Dutch government is utterly convinced that art is a good thing, but it hasn’t got a clue why. Since the Second World War governments of all persuasions have pursued active and not inexpensive policies with regard to art and artists. But their justification for doing so has been subject to a constant shift. In the title of his study of the subject, Warna Oosterbaan brilliantly reduced the successive alibis for arts policy to three one-word concepts: Schoonheid, Welzijn, Kwaliteit. Beauty (1940s-50s), Well-being (1960s-70s) and Quality (1980s).

The shape of art bureaucracy in the central government reflects this state of insecurity. The largest bureau for the arts in the Dutch government has undergone six transformations since the war and is about to experience a seventh. A short history of these metamorphoses might seem dry to the reader, but it makes juicy reading for the connoisseur of officialdom in the arts. With thanks to Fransje Kuyvenhoven, here goes:

1. In 1965 the organization known since 1949 as the Service for Dispersed Government-owned Art Objects (Dienst voor ‘s Rijks Verspreide Kunstvoorwerpen; DRVK) was moved from the Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences (Onderwijs, Kunst en Wetenschap; OKW) to

2. the newly constituted Department of Culture, Recreation and Social Work (Cultuur, Recreatie en Maatschappelijk Werk; CRM).

3. In 1975, as part of a reconceptualization of the bureau, its name was changed to Service for Dispersed Government Collections (Dienst Verspreide Rijkscollecties; DVR),

4. and in 1982 it was transferred to yet another new ministry, Welfare, Public Health and Culture (Welzijn, Volksgezondheid en Cultuur; WVC).

5. 1985 saw the merger of the Service with two other governmental arts bodies, the Bureau for Fine Arts Abroad (Bureau Beeldende Kunst Buitenland; BBKB) and the Netherlands Art Foundation (Nederlandse Kunst Stichting; NKS, primarily responsible for managing art works returned to the Netherlands after the Second World War), into a new organ known as the State Service for Fine Arts (Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst; RBK).

6. In a major re-organization in 1993, the mission of the RBK was redefined and several of its major functions were discontinued. In particular, the Presentation division, which ran an exhibition program of its own, was suppressed in favor of the Management department.

7. 1996 saw the removal of the service to its fourth department since the war, Education, Culture and Science (Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschappen; OCW).

After the thinning-out operation and the not terribly convincing pretence of 1993 that it had identified its own core activity, the bureau is now going into a new phase of expansion.

8. On April 1st it is to merge with the Central Laboratory for Research into Objects of Art and Science (Centraal Laboratorium voor Onderzoek van Voorwerpen van Kunst en Wetenschap) and the Restorers Training Program (Opleiding Restauratoren) and to move from The Hague to Amsterdam. Needless to say, it is going to be renamed once more; it will now be called the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, or more literally translated from the Dutch Institute for the Netherlands Collection (Instituut Collectie Nederland; ICN), a fashionable and misleading denomination that I do not think will last as long as DRVK (16 years), DVR (10 years) or RBK (12 years).

If Oosterbaan’s book were to be updated, a fourth word would have to be added to its title, to cover developments in the 1990s. Following beauty, well-being and quality, the new government motto would seem to be management: a holding operation seemingly lacking an ulterior motive.

The new stage however reveals a fifty-year trend which was not apparent until now: the platform for Dutch government policy in the arts has been shrinking constantly. Beauty was supposed to be forever and for everyone, a universal value accessible to all of humanity. Art as a manifestation of well-being was available only to the minority which availed itself of cultural opportunities. The government wished to increase their numbers through active promotion of participation by newcomers in cultural activities, but this ambition was never really fulfilled. The limitations of participation were tacitly acknowledged in the 1980s, when outreaching was more or less written off. Quality was what mattered, and top quality was by definition the preserve of an elite – the best artists working for the necessarily small audience capable of appreciating them.

As of April 1, through the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, the purview of Dutch government involvement with the arts will collapse inward once more. It will concentrate on artistic issues of concern only to specialists and professionals: the storage, conservation, scientific examination and restoration of art objects. From then on, humanity, society and the art world at large will have to look out for themselves, as the gaze of Dutch art bureaucrats turns inward to their own few thousand objects, their index cards and computer screens.

What is the next step? Retraction toward an even narrower ground would herald complete self-annihilation. Will the trend bend? The first director of the ICN is neither a defeatist nor a typical specialist. Rik Vos is a teacher and museum man with an eye on the field as a whole and its place in society. He weighs things against each other by more normal human standards than those of the manager or super-specialist. He favors inter-personal and interdisciplinary cooperation, he mocks the pretentiousness and recalcitrance of his colleagues openly, and he even does so – most rarely of all – with a good sense of humor. Will he be crushed in the inexorable shrinking reflex of the past half-century, or will he convince the government to create new terms for the next one? By the year 2000 we may know.


© Gary Schwartz 1997. Published in Dutch translation in NRC Handelsblad, Cultureel Supplement, 7 February 1997, p. 5

Postscript, 15 January 2011. My prediction that ICN would not last as long as its predecessors was both right and wrong. The form in which it was constituted in 1997 lasted only for nine years. On 1 January 2006, one of the three sections of ICN, the restorers training program, was transferred to the University of Amsterdam. In 2008 the scientific section of ICN was moved, though still as a branch of ICN, to the conservation and restoration department of the Rijksmuseum. The formal disbandment of ICN took place on 1 January 2011, when the name was retired and the rest of the bureau was incorporated into the recently constituted Cultural Heritage Agency (Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed; RCE) of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap).

The question I asked fourteen years ago – whether ICN would succeed in giving new meaning to the government commitment to art and cultural preservation – has to be reframed now that the bureau has been swept together with formerly separate services for monument preservation, archaeology, landscape management and other functions. The binding principle behind this bureaucratic move, aside from economizing, is the relatively new abstraction "cultural heritage." The phrase is indicative of another trend in the history I sketched in 1997. Each of the succeeding stages has been a further step away from concrete objects and well-defined procedures toward more general, conceptual formulations. From care for the non-museum art objects owned by the state to a state service for "the visual arts" to custodianship of the "Netherlands Collection" – all the art in (or belonging to?) the country – and now on to management of the even more abstract and ill-defined phenomenon "cultural heritage." The first category applied to a countable number of specific objects, the last to a concept so ill-defined that you cannot even know whether it is limited to material culture or whether it also includes the immaterial aspects of culture that have been drawing increasing attention. The first director of the RCE, Cees van ‘t Veen, comes to the job with a background in art history, business management and consultancy as well as prominent positions in more than one government ministry. He will need all this and more to forge a sustainable bureaucratic environment for the historically unstable functions over which he presides.