Photo: Charlotte Apituley
In 2017, a museum director asked me if I wanted to create an exhibition. She responded enthusiastically to a topic I had been doing interdisciplinary research on for years. After a long contractual negotiation, I went to work with her team and two colleagues from my network. I also supported the museum team in raising funds; we raised about 300,000 euros.
The exhibition was a success, attracting tens of thousands of visitors, including audiences the museum did not previously reach. Reviews were favorable.
But behind the scenes it was unsafe. The collaboration was awkward, as I was regularly confronted uninvited with all sorts of internal museum policy issues: from breaking stereotypical target group approaches to freedom of expression, and even Zwarte Piet and other topics that had nothing to do with my exhibition. For the first time, I experienced what it was like to be censored and openly underestimated by a Dutch woman. The contributed colleagues witnessed the strange state of affairs and were silent about it. Moreover, the fee of me, my colleagues and the artists involved was absolutely not fair pay.
After the exhibition, the museum advocated "polyphony" in public relations statements - I watched in silence from the sidelines. A few months later I received word that the museum was receiving a million euros from the State to create similar innovative exhibitions. Later I saw that the grant had been awarded using my exhibition concept as a blueprint.
The museum was fully committed to its own positioning, without asking permission to use my concept. There was also no evaluation with me or my colleagues about the collaboration, about which we had much to say.
This experience, unfortunately, is not unique
When the pandemic broke out, the project had already been completed. But to my surprise, I discovered that the 2020 exhibition was now being promoted as an "online exhibition. I emailed the museum's new director asking him to take everything offline.
Later, I did speak to the new museum director in writing and on the phone to share my experience and set boundaries. She tried to talk to me in person to "learn" from it. I declined because I am not there for didactics. I am not there to teach a museum to treat creators with respect and thereby cure them of a persistent VOC mentality.
Unfortunately, this experience is not unique, but part of a long list of collaborations in which the expertise and ideas of vulnerable makers are used to bring an established cultural institution to the attention of new audiences, or to make good cheer around policy themes such as diversity and inclusion. Meanwhile, these same creators are forced into an unsafe position of dependence by their established collaborative partners.
These kinds of experiences led me to establish my own foundation, Ellae, in 2019. In collaborations with museums, theaters and other organizations, I wanted to be my own sponsor, or co-producer or contractor on an equal footing, applying fair practice.
What will it take to break the false lead of institutions?
I am proud to be part of the arts and culture sector, but I am also concerned about persistent systemic failures. As a sector, we must be aware that we still have not broken with patterns from previous policy periods, and in some cases these patterns have actually worsened.
One of the biggest problems we face systemically is the false lead of established institutions in terms of infrastructure, grants and closed networks. Directors talk to directors and walk in the door with their lobbyists to funds, policymakers and politicians. This leads to an accumulation of power and resources, and unequal struggles for small organizations and creators with independent practices. The vulnerable periphery around the established order is now effectively co-funding the established order, often at their own expense. Make it make sense!
A lack of independent data and research ensures that cultural institutions can currently color accountability around fair practice and inclusion rosy. Partly because of my experiences and those of other creators, I would therefore argue that we should look at the business model of the arts and culture sector with a little more objectivity.
In particular, better accountability to grantmakers is needed to verify that grants actually end up where they should be. That is, that they do not just disappear into building maintenance and expensive overhead costs, but accrue to the creators and other small collaborative partners who make a cultural institution what it is.
In other sectors, it is very common to hold companies and organizations accountable for their activities. In business, there are checks and balances, to help prevent abuse of power. In the NGO world, ethical policies are common to counteract greenwashing and nepotism, for example.
So why does the arts and culture sector complain about accountability? Surely when it comes to ethical policy issues such as fair practice (to combat abuse, overuse and underpayment) and diversity and inclusion (to combat exclusion, discrimination and abuse), one should be extra strict, and not always reach out to the establishment?
Makers are slowly burning up
Funds, municipalities and other grantmakers should set up much better process monitoring, with a more central role for makers. Collecting input from the maker side before, during and after a collaborative project can prevent institutions from always getting away with just fine words. Then, hopefully, institutions will be more realistic in their intentions and creators can be better protected against exploitation. The negotiating power and protection of creators' intellectual property will then also be better guaranteed.
Many creators have been structurally sidelined by flaws in cultural policy as the biggest ethical issues in the arts and culture sector have once again been pushed forward. But waiting until 2025 until fair practice is an obligation will be too late. Independent creators have been paying de facto co-pays to participate in this sector for years.
Institutions that can present and dream again after the stagnation of the pandemic may show a little more solidarity. Creators and small organizations bring much-needed change and innovation to the sector, but also suffered the most during the pandemic. The top tier of the arts and culture sector may well make some concessions now to help them move forward.
I hope there will be a better, practical and fair structure, where fair practice and diversity and inclusion will be decisive in distributing cultural funding, and we will no longer lose talent to the frayed edges of the sector. Because my peers and I are tired. We are slowly burning out, by continuing to make art and seeing the good in traditional institutions - which are doing everything they can to avoid losing their own acquired positions and grants.
Policy makers, don't let this come at the expense of talent.
22.02.2023 - Rajae El Mouhandiz is an interdisciplinary performing artist, doer and thinker. www.rajae.net & founder of creative-impact platform ellae.nl, whose mission is to close the gender, socioeconomic and cultural divide in the arts and culture sector.
Editor: Boutaïna Azzabi - Ezzaouia
Final editing: Jelena Barišić