Trampling down closed doors

door Rowan Stol

28 June 2021


On 12 February 2021, Amsterdam Museum live-streamed a symposium from Felix Meritis. The symposium was inspired by the exhibition Refresh Amsterdam and investigated the state of the city’s artistic climate through panel discussions, a column and a performance. The first panel discussion focused on the relationship between makers on the one hand and housing and working space on the other, with participants AiRich (visual artist and resident of Heesterveld Creative Community), Tim Vermeulen (director of NDSM wharf), Nadia Benchagra (coordinator at W139, board member at De Zaak Nu), Massih Hutak (writer, musician, member of Verdedig Noord collective) and Terra Dakota Stein (lawyer, member of Verdedig Noord collective). Amsterdam Museum asked Rowan Stol to write an essay based on the discussion. 

The limited accessibility of cultural organizations is a well-known point of criticism these days, which the entire sector is attempting to address. In the book The Art of Relevance, Nina Simon uses the metaphor of open and closed doors to illustrate how cultural organizations can become relevant for a wider audience. Simon argues that people have access to various “keys”, based on such factors as identity and experience. These keys open doors to things or places that draw your attention, which means that they are relevant to you. So cultural organizations that focus on things that are relevant to certain people thereby open their doors to those people. This does not mean that relevance cannot be created, however. It is a question of opening one’s front door and actively inviting people to step through it so that relevance can be fostered systematically from the inside out.

As Massih Hutak and Terra Dakota Stein of Verdedig Noord argue, when new cultural initiatives are established in so-called ontwikkelbuurten (neighborhoods slated for “refurbishment” or “improvement”, usually resulting in an influx of new and wealthier residents), the doors of those initiatives are often locked tight against the former residents of a neighborhood. Broedplaatsen, the metaphorical hotbeds of artistic development, are examples of this: initiatives of this type are increasing, while the residents of many neighborhoods actually desire public, shared spaces – which these hotbeds do not provide. I am reminded of Simon’s book by Hutak’s assertion that he cannot measure an initiative’s success before “the doors are open and the boarded-up windows are unblocked”. In his view, a new cultural initiative can only be considered a success if and when the original residents of the neighborhood feel involved in what goes on inside. It’s not about the number of initiatives or how high or low the involvement of local residents ranks in the priority list of new plans. The residents of a neighborhood must feel truly welcome; they must be actively invited in. The relevance of an initiative to these people is a core value, for which their sense of engagement and ownership serves as a yardstick.

Another place on the verge of closing its doors is W139: a smaller but prominent institution in the heart of Amsterdam whose continued existence is less than certain due to a lack of subsidies. Coordinator Nadia Benchagra emphasizes that the institution is run by artists: the power is directly in the hands of the makers themselves. As artists, they are fully capable of determining what is needed. However, because organizations like W139 rely on subsidies and funds, their independent position is at risk. Makers often feel boxed in by top-down decision-making, instead of being given the freedom to determine who they wish to collaborate with and how. According to Benchagra, policy does not consider people a priority. Instead, it is out of touch with the reality of artists’ residential and daily lives. As a result, artists who do not fit the profile defined by funds find themselves turned away at the door. While the purpose of policy should be to empower makers, not cripple them.

That freedom to create as one sees fit is what Tim Vermeulen, director of the NDSM wharf, hopes to make possible. As he explains, the principle of NDSM is to build a neighborhood from the ground up. The neighborhood now growing around the compound is filling up previously unused land, thereby helping to address the huge need among creative professionals for more living and working space. However, it is important not to lose sight of the role that this compound should fulfil in Amsterdam’s Noord quarter. While Vermeulen would prefer it to be a facilitating role rather than a defining one, Terra Dakota Stein insists that it is important to empower residents, not just facilitate them. Simply unlocking a door is not the same as throwing it wide open. She urges Vermeulen to bear in mind that his position of power gives him a great deal of influence on the conditions under which doors are opened.

Visual artist AiRich was born and raised in Amsterdam Zuidoost and now lives in the Heesterveld Creative Community, a broedplaats in the same area. As such, she is familiar with the position of makers in such hotbeds as with that of local residents faced with a growing influx of new people in the neighborhood. Although actively collaborating with local residents is an intrinsic part of her working methods, she notices that other makers around her do not feel involved with the neighborhood. While these makers do mention local involvement in their concepts and applications, they often fail to put it into practice. AiRich feels that the actual implementation of makers’ declared intentions should be better monitored. It is not the hotbed itself that is the problem, but its function for the surrounding neighborhood. Does it only benefit the artists it attracts? The inherent division between a hotbed’s function for artists and its often non-existent function for local residents is the nub of the problem, according to Hutak and Stein. This is exacerbated by the temporary nature of many of these initiatives. Short-term contracts mean that artists do not remain in any given location for long, and they therefore feel little motivation to settle down in a neighborhood. This is where funds must take responsibility: offer better long-term prospects and monitor artists’ fulfilment of their duty to the neighborhood.

It appears to be trend to measure the impact of initiatives, such as broedplaatsen, in terms of quantifiable data: the residential capacity of artistic hotbeds, the number of new work spaces, the number of people involved, the number of years people are permitted to live in a given location, and so on. Returning to Nina Simon’s book, it seems to be about the number of doors being opened. However, the real conclusion to be drawn from the words of our various speakers is that the focus must be on a qualitative evaluation of these initiatives. Furthermore, attention should be devoted to the question of how much weight this qualitative evaluation holds in relation to a person’s position of power. For example, how much power do long-time local residents have who can no longer afford their rent due to the development of their neighborhood? And how does this relate to the position of new residents, who are prepared to pay much more for a home in this neighborhood suddenly made attractive by its new, creative image derived from the establishment of artistic hotbeds in the area? The disparity between these positions must be taken into account: only then can positive developments occur in such neighborhoods that are not at the expense of the original residents.

Broedplaatsen have become part and parcel of the city, and as our speakers’ stories show, the concept itself has potential – provided that the freedom granted to these centers comes with certain demands regarding their qualitative impact. We must not just open doors: we must distribute keys as well. Only that way can we create hotbeds whose once closed doors are trampled down.