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Privileged and precarious
My instagram feed looks cool. Some friends, unaware of the reality of performing arts in Europe, tell me this is what success must look like. Before the pandemic, I had been travelling continuously over the last five years – and while doing so, I gradually began to think about working conditions, budget cuts, infrastructure, access and policy. For quite some time already, the question in the field – at least for those lucky enough to be residents in Europe – has been not who can afford to travel, but on the contrary, who can afford not to travel and still work? Cultural workers are circulating the global markets just like commodities. They are in the peculiar situation of being both privileged and precarious. Privileged, because even the possibility of thinking about a career in the arts already requires a solid social and material base; and because the consequences of that choice are usually hidden behind success stories. Precarious, because freelance work in a stagnated economy with unstable income leads to depression, anxiety, burnout, frustration and sadness, and makes them question their professional choices and capacities within a permanent identity crisis.
Austerity and restructuring
This situation has been exposed, but not caused, by the pandemic. At the end of 2019, the government in Flanders announced budget cuts for the cultural sector of 3% on big institutions, 6% on companies and a shocking 60% on project funding. The outcry was immediate; the U-turn came later, packaged as an ‘budget increase’ when it actually only partially restored the previous amount (half a million euros disappeared), making it probable that the major cuts will return along with ‘normality’. To put it bluntly, a whole generation of artists might have to bartend indefinitely in order to practice their profession as a hobby.
But Flanders was late. The slashing of cultural budgets has already been rehearsed across Europe after the 2008 financial crisis. ‘Act normal or go away’, said Dutch PM Mark Rutte, whose right-wing government introduced severe cuts back in 2012 to the arts (which populists called a ‘leftist hobby’). Dutch authorities have tried to continue the same way even through the pandemic: on 18 November 2020 the production house of Frascati Theater in Amsterdam – which distributes 95% of its funding to emerging artists, and is an important doorway for recent graduates – dramatically announced its closure due to refused corona subsidies. A compromise was eventually struck with the minister of culture, who found some ‘crumbs’ to cover less than half of the sum they requested. So Frascati continues, on a much smaller scale, for now.
In Barcelona funding used to be entirely structured around the company and production model and some dance companies founded in the 80s, 90s and 2000s achieved enough stability to employ dancers (though the French artist status system never really existed), to rent or even own spaces, keep administrative staff, produce annually and tour internationally. The left-wing Catalan government of 2003–2010 gave the culture sector a vast economic boost, and many dance companies emerged in addition to those already operating. But once austerity took hold in 2011, the dance sector was decimated and the company and production-oriented model collapsed. Companies could no longer keep their own spaces, the production cycle fractured and most dancers and choreographers were forced more than ever into freelancing. Today, there aren’t any long-term support schemes and artists have to be ultra flexible and well connected internationally to develop a coherent body of work. For while big countries with national touring circuits like France and Germany can still afford a less internationally integrated scene, Catalan artists are trying to enter the international co-producing and touring system through the revolving doors of Brussels and Vienna.
Norway’s national contemporary dance company Carte Blanche, established in 1989 in Bergen, is a notable exception. Like a remnant of another world, its delegated budget can sustain both production and touring, and international co-productions arise not out of funding desperation but for the sake of cultural exchange. The company employs 14 dancers full-time, with 9–10 permanent contracts, several three-year contracts, and paid one-year apprenticeships for dancers under 24. Salaries are negotiated by union agreements, and they get access to the public Norwegian healthcare and pension systems. To promote decentralisation, the company is seated in Bergen instead of the capital Oslo, and the team of dancers is international. In the words of current director Annabelle Bonnery, ‘these are extremely good conditions, incomparable to anywhere else I’ve worked before.’
Yet even in that oil-rich economy, budgets are being slashed (volunteer programmes, long-term grants for artists, free language courses for foreigners). Across the continent, meanwhile, freelancers are not free, but struggling with insufficient funding and infrastructure, set against one another in constant competition, and juggling with several jobs of different registers. Only the most adaptable remain in this self-destructive race.