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ZiM Debate #02

[ 28 September 2004 ]


Featuring: Siebe Thiessen
(BKOR_Centrum Beeldende Kunst/Rotterdam)
ZiM kantoor, Zwaanshals 283 A, Oude Noorden/ Rotterdam

Often public art finds itself in a very uncomfortable situation doing the work the state is not willing to provide any longer such as e.g. integration work or providing a social framework for urban revitalisation projects to upgrade/gentrify certain areas. This can lead to the paradox situation that artists are stuck between urban developements, the deep blue sea of social work and urban marketing. How do artists deal with the multiple roles they have to play in this context? Are they committed to the arts field or to the interests of their financing partners or to the inhabitants or to their personal objectives?

From art in public space to public art in Rotterdam - A brief overview

Rotterdam has a very high amount of autonomous art in public space such as murals, sculptures etc. Most of them date from the 1960ies and 70ies when the socio-democratic cultural policy wanted to make art accessible for everyone by bringing works of art to the public. The ideological background behind this strategy was a rather paternalistic one: art in public space should educate and enlighten the persons living in the city. This kind of art was not financed from the arts budget but from other sources such as public funds for urban development or money coming from the soil exploitation budget. Like this, lots of works of art have been created in the public space and in public buildings in an uncontrolled growth. The activities have never been documented and many works of art have disappeared since they have not been recognised as art.

The last 10 years brought important changes in this policy. This is due to several reasons. First of all, the financing structure is changing as the main subsidisers are getting privatised. Then, the strategy to educate people via the random presence of works of art in the public has everywhere turned out to be a blind alley and other ways of artistic intervention have been developed. And, last but not least, the social structure of the city of Rotterdam has been changing as well and demanded for other solutions.

All these factors provoked a change of paradigm in the city's cultural policy. Now, an active gentrification process was started which entails a different kind of public art. The trend of the "Creative City" coming from Anglo-Saxon countries was - like in many other European cities - imposed onto Rotterdam, regardless the specific context. Two examples for this context are first the fact the arts community in the Netherlands had been subsidised since World War II and second the numerous hurdles to open a restaurant in Rotterdam. These and other factors shipwrecked the top-down strategies. The unavoidable failures have shown that it is impossible to impose the concept of the "Creative City" onto Rotterdam without any awareness for the actual demographic and economic situation of the city. Instead of fostering the settlement of a white creative (middle) class it is necessary to develop an "urban culture", taking into account the potential of the 2nd and 3rd generation.
If "urban culture" is the objective than artists are forced to re-invent their own approaches. Community arts projects have to work within a given situation, depending from the interests of their financiers (housing corporations, in many cases) but also willing to achieve their own goals. Artists are interesting for housing corporations or project developers because they find new solutions, which are developed in a specific context. They do not apply a standardized methodology but develop their own individual and adjusted approach. They function as cross-points for communication where the inhabitants of a certain region cannot be reached via traditional communication tools.

The downside of this development is the risk of overcharging the artists' capacities. They have to come up with too many expectations at the same time: They act as project managers, artistic directors, communicators, fundraisers, producing artists etc. Additionally they have to deal with all the expectations from the other parties involved - financiers, inhabitants, community bodies, the arts world and others. But for all that artists have to focus on their artistic projects and concepts and on a specific public.