Interview with Olav Velthuis, May–June 2018
TD: You have frequently published on the global economic context of art and its commercial markets, shedding light on the various relationships between art and finance and the discrepancies between public and private funding. Within the context of the Netherlands and Europe in particular, we see art institutions transitioning from a public funding model to one increasingly supported by private money. In what ways does this affect the traditionally ’public’ status of art institutions?
OV: I would like to start out saying that I have no problems a priori with commercial art markets or private initiatives in contemporary art worlds. In fact, I think many critics of commerce & privatization have a rather simple, caricatural and little nuanced vision. Private initiatives, collectors, patrons, museums etc. come in all forms. There is a lot of variation between them, and in some cases, a well-run, professional private museum may have more in common with a public museum than with another private museum that is not so professional, financially driven etc. Nor do I think that public funding of art institutions is necessarily better than private funding. Public funding comes with problems of its own: bureaucracy, audit culture, problematic sources of public funding (think of the taxes which the Netherlands steals away from other countries, including developing countries, by being a tax haven for foreign multinationals) or, in countries like China, censorship.
Nevertheless, I think that the art world has been too eager and too uncritical in pursuing an American-style support system, which relies more on private donations, for reasons I will come back to below.
TD: A concurrent analysis in your writing is that of the private museum being used by wealthy elites as a financial instrument for realising beneficial income tax deductions, as seen in the Unites States and increasingly across the globe. You have claimed that this is problematic, because these indirect subsidies do not fall under the democratic control that applies to direct subsidies. Can artistic activities be seen as a perfunctory financial asset for corporations and wealthy individuals?
OV: Well, I actually don’t see it as a financial instrument. In other words, I don’t think the main goal of many founders of private museums is just the tax deduction they get. But yes, I do think these tax deductions are problematic. It means that states are raising less taxes. Moreover, it means that the type of art that is favored by the super-rich gets stimulated through these indirect subsidies. This means that economic inequality, which has been on the rise big-time in many countries, gets translated into cultural inequality. In other words, the rich get more and more influence on what art gets exhibited and preserved. That has of course been the case in the past as well (think of the Medici, the courts, the church), but in my mind, the disentanglement of economic wealth and cultural influence which took place in social democratic regimes in the 20th century, is still worth striving for.
Another problem I have with these private museums is that in many cases the source of the money can be quite dubious, e.g. when it considers Russian oligarchs. They use the art world to whitewash their reputations. There is too little debate about those sources, so about where all the new money that has been flowing into art worlds over the last decade or so, has been coming from.
TD: Last February the progressive left-wing Dutch magazine De Groene Amsterdammer published an in-depth article titled De ondernemende mecenas: hoe de superrijken hun liefdadigheid organiseren (The enterprising patron: how the super-rich organise their charity). It reflected on the way in which the cultural ANBI status, as used in the Netherlands, encourages philanthrocapitalist practices. In the case discussed, entertainment industry entrepreneurs do not support other institutions, but more generally their very own cultural non-profit subsidiary organisations. How common are these practices of looped financial constructions within the arts? (thinking of conglomerates of galleries, power dealers, critics and private foundations...)
OV: To be honest, that’s hard to say. We simply know too little about that at this point. By the way, I have nothing against powerful art galleries, critics or collectors per se. They can organize wonderful shows, and sometimes, especially in countries where the government ignores the art world, support forms of non-commercial art that nobody else does. Think of Inhotim in Brazil, a private museum which has been doing a great job in education, or the Garage Museum in Moscow, founded by the Russian oligarch Abramovich and his ex-wife Zhukova. My problem is, also in these two cases, that we know little about where the money is coming from. [Inhotim’s founder Bernardo Paz], for instance, was recently sentenced to more than nine years in jail for money laundering (he will appeal the sentence).
The premises of Contemporary Art Lab B.V. were renovated in 2010 by Moriko Kira Architects, preserving the former factory walls and introducing a contemporary minimalist light grey floor and an interior comprised of flexible compartments with various functions. In 2015 Stichting Looiersgracht 60 was registered by the Chamber of Commerce as a non-profit foundation, located at the same address, under two Standard Business Indicator codes: 8230 – Organisation of conventions and tradeshows; 9002 – Support activities to performing arts. Image source: http://looiersgracht60.org/information/venue-hire [Accessed 1 Nov 2018]