How cultural entrepreneurship bites its own tail.
I never think about why something happens, just what happens. Thinking about why a thing happens distracts from acting immediately.
Trading in the stock market is all about speed. This is what the first episode of Planet Finance, a documentary series about the world of big money, taught us. You either act or you don’t, immediately, without hesitation. If you hesitate, you are too late. It is black or white.
And thus, I realized, the stock market is the opposite of the arts. Because the arts are ambivalent, full of hesitations and hidden meanings. It is this layering that allows museums to tell new and relevant stories time and again. For every work of art and every museum object is connected by countless strings to the time in which it was made, to the culture and to the people who shaped that culture. Museum curators tell those stories each time from a new perspective, the very questions of our time. That is what makes such an exhibition urgent. If an exhibition is not urgent you shouldn’t be making it. Therefore, the first question of an exhibition maker should always be “why? Why are we showing that collection of works from the time of the Italian Renaissance? Or why that fine collection of portraits by that 18th-century artist who immortalized the rulers of his time shortly before the French Revolution?
Like stock market traders, museum professionals have to deal with market dynamics. We are therefore more concerned with what we show than why we show it. Visitor numbers are the north star of contemporary museums. You set your course on that basis. And because the brand power of famous artists or art movements is more important for visitor attendance than answering the question why you make a certain exhibition, it is more about what we show than why we do it and what we want to tell with it. Museums are subject to the rigors of the market. This has led to optimization but it has also caused us to lose something. We can afford to take fewer and fewer risks. After all, you always have to be scoring.
Is this one of the reasons that museums and other cultural institutions have recently been evoking less warm feelings than makers? The Dutch Council for Culture, the ministry, municipalities and funds are rightly paying more and more attention to makers. After all, the artists, the musicians, the actors, the self-employed are struggling and hardly share in the growth of the cultural sector in recent years. It strongly seems that this is because institutions are focusing more on the safer “what” they present than on the doubting “why. The danger for institutions, such as museums, is that they may imperceptibly lose their urgency, or even their relevance. Does the snake of cultural entrepreneurship thus bite its own tail?
This may well be true, but just as institutions cannot do without makers, makers cannot do without institutions. Because through their programming, institutions establish connections between artists and developments, between ideas and cultures, between past, present and future. In this sense, institutions are also makers of culture, or at least they should be. But then they must constantly keep asking themselves why they want to organize that exhibition about Rembrandt or about that new talent and how that story is relevant to a contemporary audience. Relevance must be regained every exhibition, activity or performance.
Market value is in the what. Relevance is in the why! We need both.
AO, 27 January 2023