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Fair pay for artists: Why art budgets must favour creators and innovators

13 January - 2023
by Vincent Moleveld


The art subsidy system does not always favour the very people creating art and its structure should be reconsidered. This concludes the Dutch researcher Renee Steenbergen in her new book De Kunst van Anders (‘The Art of Different: 6 proposals for cultural innovation’). The author, research fellow at the University of Utrecht, points out the money is often used to build prestigious museums and theatres: landmarks in big cities. But the high running costs are often forgotten, also the costs of the content -the art- needed to fill these buildings to attract the public. To ensure profit, cuts are decided on resulting in underpayment of artists and freelancers, who make up two thirds of all working in the arts sector. ‘This has made them a low-income group. The gap between artists and the organisations showing their work has increased over the past ten years’.

In her new publication, presented by the author next week in Amsterdam, Steenbergen investigates cultural innovation and looks at ways to create a financially fairer and healthier art environment. The Senior Research Fellow Patronage Studies also examines the role and influence of benefactors. Steenbergen, considering specific Dutch prerequisites to obtain art subsidies, warned last year the roles of patronage and state have become intertwined, saying this is ‘a danger to the democratic quality of the art sector.’

Tax advantages

In 2011 in the Netherlands austerity set in for the art world, with considerable budget cuts. This policy coincided with a campaign to encourage individual donations, with tax advantages for the benefactors -paid for with public money. Looking at a model used in America, it was hoped art organisations would become more enterprising and the wealthy would donate more. Art foundations received tuition in fund raising. However, the growing influence of private sponsors receiving tax advantages -including large, not always politically correct companies with a vested interest- has led to criticism and distrust of the public.

‘Change standards’

Steenbergen also points at other problems concerning national art policies, and calls for more transparency, accountability, and more insight in what art means in the first place: ‘Offering people beauty and consolation, more understanding, showing them other ways of life, letting them experience deeper insight and connection.’ The Dutch researcher recommends measures to strengthen change in behaviour and social standards – starting with the art world.


Strict policies and patronage mainly favouring the largest art institutes do not help the many smaller art organisations and ‘flex’ workers and free lancers with an irregular, low income. In The Netherlands alone there are 165.000 people in this position, says Steenbergen. The researcher recommends the available budget to be invested in the creators and innovators, ‘not the stratum of bureaucrats and managers.’ She says this may mean less (art) production, because free lancers can no longer be used on low pay. But changing this unjust situation will pay off: ‘Art will be made with more time and attention, leading to more reflection, pleasure and solidarity.’ After all, it is the quality of the art that attracts visitors to the big establishments – and the innovation a society needs. Rebalancing the arts system is required, backed up by laws to force councils to also invest in the creators, not in prestigious buildings alone.


Reference: pre-publication, ‘The Art of Different: 6 proposals for cultural innovation’.

Original Dutch title: De Kunst van Anders, author Renee Steenbergen

[Edited pre-publication first published in newspaper Vrij Nederland].