Foto: Quinda Verheul

Photo: Quinda Verheul

A seat at the table for culture

Joining forces with the neighbours of deBuren, DutchCulture organised a conference in Antwerp about the potential of arts and creatives in the city.
11 februari 2019
By Lisa Grob


The city
The key question to be answered during the conference was to what extent the arts and culture can be a contributing factor to a livable city. Both in the Netherlands and in Flanders, ‘the city’ as a concept of study has become an important focus when it comes to issues such as diversity, social engagement and access to cultural knowledge and institutions. The “Commissie Cultureel Verdrag Vlaanderen-Nederland (CVN)”, a Flemish-Dutch group of civil servants and cultural professionals, took the initiative for this conference.

Bursting bubbles     
DutchCulture and deBuren asked ‘city-makers’ Floor Ziegler (NL) and Reinhard Deman (FL) to do field research in both a Dutch and a Flemish city. A city maker is somebody who connects groups within his local urban environment; connecting citizens to councillors to put it simply. In doing so, he ensures that people with diverging perspectives have the opportunity to hear each other. The goal? Letting people step out of their bubbles. Because if everyone is aware of each other’s ideas, we will be better equipped to create a vital and attractive city.

Arts and culture in society     
The research team went in to ask questions, dividing their attention between three thematic strands: gentrification, inclusion & diversity, and the potential societal role that art and culture can play. They chose to investigate those areas where the process of gentrification is creeping in, in Rotterdam-South (Charlois and Afrikaanderwijk) and in Antwerp (Berchem, Borgerhout and ‘t Eilandje). In these places, they discussed a variety of issues with local residents and artists, with initiators of neighbourhood projects such as the Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie or De Winkelhaak and with city council officials or with staff members of cultural institutions.

The “Interspace”    
From the policy-level down to the grassroots citizen, a great variety of strands within society was represented in this so-called “Interspace” (Tussenruimte). It forms a symbolic and physical space for conversation and discussion where connections are made, albeit sometimes through confrontation and friction. Spaces such as these were created in some of the cities’ grassroots centres; 't O-tje and Paviljoen aan het Water in Rotterdam or Studio Start in Antwerp. The common denominator of these locations is that they are set up and owned by local residents. They proved to be a great incubator for new ideas; drawing from the brainstorms and conversations taking place in those spaces, the research team formulated a document titled “10 signposts for the Interspace” (10 Wegwijzers voor de Tussenruimte). As the name suggests, it features ten guidelines that policymakers, institutions and creatives can follow when aiming to define their own societal role more sharply. 

The interspaces identified in Rotterdam and Antwerp and the ten Signposts were the starting point for the conference taking place November 5 2018, in Stormkop, Antwerp. Major Flemish and Dutch cultural institutions were represented, along with fellow city makers, artists and policymakers. Even the ministers of Culture of both countries, Ingrid van Engelshoven (NL) and Sven Gatz (FL), came to draw inspiration. 

Network analysis and national suits     
The plenary morning session started with a presentation on the cultural sectors of Flanders and the Netherlands and the degree to which they are strongly intertwined. DutchCulture demonstrated the common Flemish-Dutch theatre network by using data from the databases Buitengaats (NL) and Kunstenpunt (FL). Thus far, network analysis is not frequently used for the purposes of conducting research in the cultural sector, but the approach has brought significant and interesting results. One of the things that stood out is the lack of sharply delineated boundaries between the Netherlands and Flanders when it comes to artistic collaboration. Theatres, collectives and makers find each other very easily and frequently. Yet, another finding shows that when funding becomes a factor, both makers and institutions need to follow a national suit. The theatre field struggles to cope with a so-called ‘subsidy barrier’ when it comes to cross-border collaboration.  

Similarities and differences    
Judging from the presentation of city makers Floor Ziegler and Reinhard Deman, the similarities between Flemish and Dutch professionals outnumbered the differences. The difficulties encountered by both are largely comparable, too. What is striking here is that many of the differences play out at policy level. An interesting example is the human resources policy of the city-financed cultural centres in Flanders. They employ civil servants and therefore are not really able to diversify their workforce themselves, even if there is widespread agreement that a more diverse cultural offering can only come to fruition with a staffing that represents the many groups present within the city. Although this particular case seems to be less of a Dutch problem, cultural institutions in the Netherlands do experience the consequences of top-down policies. Subsidies contingent on the total number of visitors, diversity quotas and the focus on outreach are among a few that are starting to show a tightening grip on institutions in the field and do not seldom backfire. 

An often-heard call for an increased estimation of the capacity of the institutions could be heard after lunch. The guests went on to deliberate and discuss in smaller constellations in the afternoon, with the aim of contributing to an eleventh signpost. The key message was that governmental bodies should confide more in the expertise of those working in the cultural sector. The desire to remove constringent frameworks and to create more room for transdisciplinary work was strongly voiced. And this does not stay limited to the cultural sector; municipal authorities themselves will benefit from crossovers between various sectors. 

Arts, culture and policy    
Culture - in the widest sense of the word - ultimately forms the cement between people in society. Imagine a society without its music, its community centres, its museums and its dance schools and there is not a lot of room left for shared experiences. The arts and culture, as a policy terrain, should therefore be an integral part of decision-making. Only then can it harness a positive impact on other domains such as healthcare, the local economy, housing and urban development. Think of maintaining a social mix in neighborhoods with “broedplaatsen” (creative incubators) and a diverse supply of housing, or stimulating artists to counter loneliness through artistic interventions in neighborhoods. These are among the many ways that the arts and culture may contribute to the health and liveability of the city. 

Read this article in Dutch

Watch the video of 'The interspace' to find out more on the views, visions and ideas on gentrification, inclusion and the citizen-artist we gathered during the research days (Dutch)