Sluit Filter
Dutch design news website

Design Funding, Power and Politics: it's a Tricky Mix

The government’s decision to shift responsibility for distributing arts and culture subsidies to various foundations has ignited debate.  Issues of what is design, what is its purpose and who will ultimately benefit from the decisions were discussed last week in an open debate at De Balie in Amsterdam. 

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 16-10-2008

A good old-fashioned debate about the future of design funding

In last week’s debate over how government subsidies should be divvied up in the design world, Timo de Rijk, member of the Council for Culture, opened up an oddly shaped umbrella and stood in the center of the stage. “This is what politicians mean when they talk about design,” he said.

The umbrella, designed apparently to endure harsh winds, is a fun object that is no doubt enjoying great commercial success in gift shops and department stores.  The problem, of course, is that design isn’t just about funky shapes and groovy packaging.  What it is, however, remains a hotly contested issue and one that divided speakers and audience alike during the one-hour debate.

Is design, like high art, the result of what uniquely creative minds produce, and as a consequence, are there parts of the design world that deserve to be nurtured through government subsidies? Or, should design be hurled at the market-mechanism and be left to sink or swim?  Can or even should such harsh economic realities be allowed to decide what design-products survive as symbols of our culture?

Max Bruinsma, editor of Items magazine, kicked off the debate by defining design as a highly individual, provocative undertaking. Like art, design offers a commentary on who we are, and on our identity.  He dismissed the idea that popular products sold at stores like Ikea qualify as design.  That, he argued, misses the dynamics of the industry.  A designer introduces a concept that wows the establishment.  It’s recognized and celebrated for being thought-provoking and original. It takes years from that point of conception, however, for the mass-market to tout a diluted, more accessible version to the mainstream. “Those who distribute subsidies,” he said, “should focus on design that explores new boundaries and which says something about our culture.”

Timo de Rijk, who as well as his role with the Council of Culture, the advisory body of the Ministry of Culture, works as a design historian at the Delft University of Technology.  He called the ideas of Bruinsma mistaken. “The meaning of design is in the social context,” he said, “while art only refers to itself.

“A design policy can’t focus on products, but the designers themselves,” De Rijk said. He maintained that policies should never try to steer designers in certain directions. “We can only provide the infrastructure, like for instance education.  How do we handle design in education?  How do we handle the lifestyle of young people? That’s where the opportunities are.”

The reality, however, is that the government is clearly stimulating design with a focus on commercial opportunities. “The cultural entrepreneur will remain on the agenda of policymakers,” explained Bart Hofstede, an official from the Ministry of Culture. “It’s about the economic exploitation of creative industries and their innovative capacities. Media, design, fashion, and architecture have a tremendous capacity to grow, which is clearly visible in Amsterdam.”

In Hofstede’s vision there is a fusion between unique projects and commercial work.  He even labelled the challenges ahead as digitalisation, globalisation, and commercialisation. The question that arises is how in these developments our traditional concepts of design will erode: how will media influence traditional arts? How will the non-western world influence us? “In the end,” he said, “culture has to establish a new relationship with the economy.”

When the microphones were handed to the audience, it became clear that they also saw the issue of identity as the most urgent. “Politicians are discovering design and using it for their own interests," said one woman.  "And in society there’s a movement from below to make design a part of society as a whole.  This demands a repositioning of our institutions. How are we going to handle the democratisation of design and the emancipation of amateurs?”

In response, Dingeman Kuilam, the fourth and last participant and head of the Premsela Foundation referred to the Streetlab initiative. “Young people are busy with fashion in many ways,” he said.  “But we have to be careful because although we want to stimulate this, as soon as you institutionalise it, you lose it.”  

Kuilman’s point is that funding street and youth culture, which is very much about identity, is tricky because as soon as the government gets involved, the parameters change and thus the contents.  “In Streetlab we managed to create a podium for this,” he said, “but at the same time, we automatically lost the initiative … It’s a whole new way of working that we ran into.”

The three themes Kuilman says Premsela will use to guide its funding decisions will be history, globalization, and the democratisation of design, which are all in some way connected to the broader issue of identity.  To him, depoliticizing decisions is a safe way forward: “We have to be careful when politicians start using ‘Dutch Design’ for their own goals,” he said.  “Design can also turn into a vehicle for nationalistic policies.”

And as De Rijk reminded us at the beginning, since when do politicians really know anything about design anyway? If the evening proved anything, it was that debates of this kind are where anyone who cares about design can sort through the issues in an attempt to generate the best solutions to the most difficult issues.

The New Culture Policy: How About Design? debate was organized by the Premsela Foundation and Items magazine.

Image:  left to right, Timo de Rijk, Bart Hofstede, Dingeman Kuilman and Max Bruinsma, and on the far right the evening’s moderator Titus Yocarini from the Museum voor Communicatie.  Small, head of Premsela,
Dingeman Kuilman.

Add to favorites
Share this:

Additional information

Points of sale



star1 star2 star3 star4 star5

( 9 Votes, average: 5 out of 5)

click to vote

Mail this item

Your favourites

You have no favourites