The lesson in my new tree for arts policy makers

About my tree:

Last month my husband and I hired a small family-owned landscaping business to help us renovate the small gardens in the front and back of our house. They planted three new trees, two of which are young (thin) but already quite tall. They planted the trees with support poles on either side to ensure they grow straight (see pic). As I have never had a garden I asked how many weeks the poles would need to stay. The answer: three years.

About the production houses in the Netherlands:

For years the Netherlands has had a unique system of support for promising performance artists and theater makers who have finished their training: dedicated production houses. As I understand it, these houses are often affiliated with larger theaters, drawing on resources they can provide, but are funded by the government and operate independently. They provide multiyear production support for artists after university (e.g. cash resources so artists can invest time in the research and development of their works and pay other artists, tech support, dramaturgy, promotion, etc.). During these post-grad residencies the emphasis is on strengthening the artist’s work.

I was with a gathering of artistic directors and performing arts curators last week at which we met several artists, including two that had come through this system and who spoke of the importance of the production houses in helping them become better artists and develop successful careers. We asked how long the support lasted. Their initial residencies were three years.

About the funding cuts in the Netherlands:

Among the many orchestras, dance companies, and other arts organizations that are going to be defunded in 2013, the Ministry of Culture has determined to shut down all 23 production houses in the Netherlands. This strikes me as a particularly unenlightened decision. For one, these production houses are relatively inexpensive to operate (they are a big bang for a small investment); second, the production houses play a critical role in the arts ecosystem here; third, they seem to help the Netherlands attract and retain truly talented theater/performance artists.

I am unsettled by what appears to be a strategy in the Netherlands of maintaining investments to the most high profile fine arts organizations while leaving many smaller organizations, artist companies, and intermediary organizations to fend for themselves. The rhetoric that is being perpetuated in the case of the production houses is that they will be taken under the wing of bigger institutions or become more entrepreneurial and find other sources of support. Given the short timeframe (the cuts go into effect in 2013) both scenarios seem highly unrealistic.

In any event, it seems that not many in the arts sector are buying the rhetoric. Quite a number of the artistic directors and artists our group met with spoke of planning to leave the Netherlands by 2013. Of course, as someone said to me a few days ago, this could be considered a positive outcome from the standpoint of the government.

Pfffffff. Cue the flashback reel of the US in the 80s and 90s.

The Netherlands is not alone in wanting to encourage private sector support for the arts. But there are smart ways and not-so-smart ways of doing this.

About ArtSupport Australia:

Several years ago now (after changing the tax laws to make it easier and more beneficial for individuals to set up small trusts and foundations), the Australia Arts Council started an arm’s length organization, run by visionary Louise Walsh, whose role is to broker relationships between small and midsized arts organizations and small private family foundations and trusts. ArtSupport Australia (ASA) meets with donors, talks to them about the importance of supporting the arts, and identifies organizations that might fit with their values; it mentors arts organizations to help them develop realistic funding strategies and prepare effective proposals; and it makes matches between the two. It’s a brilliant system and has had tremendous positive impact over the years.

While Kickstarter and other crowdfunding models seem to be working for some types of individual artists and projects and larger institutions have the capacity to buy fundraising expertise and (as a result of being high profile) tend to be attractive major private donors and foundations, a mechanism for connecting smaller family foundations with smaller and midsized arts organizations and ensembles/companies seems like a missing cog in many arts funding systems (including in the US). Even community foundations and donor advised funds aren’t really set up to fulfill this particular role.

When ArtSupport Australia was founded it received three years of support from the government. Even before the end of the initial funding period it was clear that it was working and the government has funded it consistently ever since. There’s an important tangential point here:  a big part of what makes ASA work (which, not unlike the production houses, is a lean organization that provides big bang for the buck) is that the Australia Arts Council is committed to funding it. It would change ASA (and compromise its mission) if it suddenly had to raise all of its operating expenses by skimming off a percentage of every gift or competing against the organizations it exists to support by competing directly for support from private donors.

Over the past year I’ve been asked rather frequently for my thoughts on how to encourage private support for the arts in the Netherlands, in light of the pending cuts. I’ve directed people to an an essay I wrote about some of the issues we face with the US system and I’ve said the same thing to everyone: the ArtSupport Australia model is brilliant and I think it would work very well in the Netherlands. I could easily imagine such a system, for instance, helping to broker relationships between a number of enlightened families, individuals and small firms and the production houses here.


As I’ve written before, cutting off the sprinklers to the grass and small shrubs while continuing to water the old, tall trees is not the path to a vibrant arts and culture sector. Too often, arts policy makers develop policies that demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding about such things as: the interdependencies between large organizations and small ones, and the commercial arts sector and the subsidized sector; what makes a city attractive to artists; how good artists become great artists; what motivates donors to give; how difficult it is for some very worthy organizations to be competitive in the funding process; and the time and personal connections that it takes for donors and arts organizations to form relationships that are beneficial and that will be sustained through good economic times and bad ones.

My young tree needs supports if it is going to become a healthy, large tree. Young artists need developmental support if they are going to become great artists. Countries without a culture of asking and giving need a support system if effective long term relationships are going to be built between private donors and the arts sector, particularly if there is a hope that more than just the large, historically leading organizations will be supported by private donors. Policy makers need to be smarter about how the arts ecosystem works so that they know where to provide support structures and for how long.

Australia got it right. I’ll be interested to see what the Netherlands does in the coming months and years.

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  1. says

    “Australia got it right”…well no actually it didn’t. ASA has made no real difference to anything at all. I would be hard pressed to find anyone in the small to medium scale sector who really thinks it has. Sorry to burst your balloon but really, it’s just another piece of bureaucratic invention that takes grant money away from artists.

  2. says

    Dear Zane,

    Thanks for the perspective. I’m *so surprised* to hear this as this is not at all the perception I have had from others I have talked with in Australia nor from the information I’ve read about the impact of the program over the past several years. Here are some of the stat’s from the ASA homepage:

    More than $50 million of new philanthropic income has been facilitated to around 200 Australian artists and 600 arts organisations since 2003. It is a strong outcome for a government investment of nearly $5.2 million, providing a return of nearly 1,000 per cent.

    Key Organisations philanthropy mentoring program: A special mentoring program was developed for the Australia Council’s Key Organisations division, which services small-medium triennially-funded arts clients. The two-year program commenced in 2008 with 15 organisations and another 15 starting in 2010. Each was provided with 50 per cent of the salary costs of a part-time philanthropy manager for two years, after which time they were expected to be self-funding. The manager and organisations are mentored by Artsupport Australia for the duration of the two-year program and beyond.

    (I also notice that large organizations are provided with support from the ASA, so it seems to be aimed at strengthening the entire arts ecosystem).

    In any event, perhaps someone from the Arts Council or ASA will weigh in to try to reconcile what appear to be conflicting assessments of the success of the program?


  3. says

    Diane: Have you seen the crowdsourcing fundraising website that ASC in Charlotte has put together: It appears to be a mechanism for helping arts organizations of all sizes raise money within their communities. I believe the template is replicable in other communities.

  4. says

    I don’t want to interrupt the conversation about ASA, which is very interesting. I just want to note that the Commonwealth countries have always used a system more-or-less halfway between the American private funding system and European public funding.

    In a global economy, it is essential that countries have common standards for subsidies in order to avoid problems with unfair competition and trade imbalances. The Europeans, for example, have had trouble competing with the American aeronautics industry because it is so heavily subsidizing through military spending.

    Economists in government and finance know that arts funding will also need to find a common ground for subsidy in the international community. The hybrid system of the Commonwealth seems to offer a middle ground, but neither the Americans or Europeans seem to be moving toward it.

    On August 25th, the New York Times published an article which falsely claims that Europeans are moving toward the American system. (See:

    If the claim were true, the evidence would be obvious. European governments would be lowering their subsidies for the arts far out of proportion with cuts in other sectors of government spending, and they would be creating significant changes in their tax laws to benefit arts donors. Since none of this is happening (not even in Britain, Spain, Ireland, or Holland,) the article does not provide such documentation that would be easily obtainable. Instead, temporary reductions in public arts funding due to economic duress are falsely portrayed as ideological changes in how the arts should be funded. It is important for arts administrators to understand that propagandistic misinformation like this regularly appears in the Times, and that it is part of America’s cultural war with the Europeans over public arts funding.

  5. says

    I may be wrong, I often am and I am sure some individual arts orgs have done well from it yes. But the Oz Co has been entirely dominated by the major orgs (opera, ballet, main stage theatre) for the last 10 years or so, including where it gets its staff from these days, this was not always the case, these organisations were not part of the Australia Council for many many years. Once they started losing money they realised there were a whole bunch of government grants they weren’t getting, so there has been a significant erosion of contemporary culture in favour of huge sums of money that used to go thre going to ballet et al. For many of these classically trained staff the experience of the small to medium scale contemporary and community sector is simply zero, so yes, it comes as a major revelation to them that things like philanthropic trusts actually exist!! So getting some money out of them is “really big news” however, one might ask “how much of that $50mil of income would have been generated anyway”? And frankly when the average annual grant to a contemporary theatre/dance/music/new media/community company is about $100k (less in most cases more in others) and a project grant is about $20k then $5.2mil would have generated a massive amount of cultural activity with all the usual flow on into local, national and international partnerships (with philanthropics and other businesses), employment, audience and community engagement, well beyond I would argue, the benefits outlined on the ASAs own web site.

    Funding funding looks great to politicians and bureaucrats, funding art is a real no no and causes government untold trouble from wingnuts in the Murdoch press (which dominates the agenda here). Easier to fund funding and talk a lot about “outcomes” and “sustainability”. Marcus Westbury & Ben Eltham have been quite a good read on all this recently.


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