Retort #26 Quid Pro Quo, But What Is the Quo, Exactly?

Towards an ethics for public and private interests in the changing cultural sector.


It has already been established before: the boundaries between public and private in the art world are shifting. We were reminded of this last year when a debate arose about the Hartwig Art Foundation’s future exhibition space and arts centre, the philanthropic pet project of stock-market billionaire Rob Defares. A ‘gift for the city’, cheered the aldermen involved. It is striking, however, that the municipality will provide the building. A former courthouse on the Parnassusweg is acquired for €27 million to house the new arts centre. This raises the question: is a gift still a gift if the wrapping paper and the delivery come at the recipient’s expense? Why is the municipality acting as the benefactor’s benefactor?

The example of the Amsterdam exhibition space is not unique. Private interests are gaining ground in a field that had previously been seen as public in the Netherlands and which was dominated by public institutions. More and more collectors and philanthropists are investing in buildings, constructing museums, or purchasing performance venues that used to be public property. When self-made banker Dirk Scheringa opened a museum in 1997, it was seen as the quixotic whim of a lonely nonconformist. Now, private museums are being established all over the country by wealthy chemical industrialists, turn-around managers, supermarket entrepreneurs, and other Quote 500 members. In addition, private wealth vehicles are also emerging, such as the Hartwig Art Foundation and Droom and Daad funds and semi-philanthropic, semi-commercial holding companies such as Amerborgh, funds that support art museums, exhibition institutions, and post-academic institutions, and even establish new institutions themselves. A development that was outlined last year by Timo Demollin for Platform BK in the article ‘The Philanthropy Trap‘.

A less visible variant is the emergence of exhibition spaces that appear to operate as small public institutions, but behind the scenes are actually embedded in commercial real estate development, spaces that are funded directly or indirectly by mixing with commercial functions. Think of shops, offices, housing, or bars and restaurants. This development also indicates a metamorphosis of the government itself, which is transforming from a builder into a broker. Still lurking in urban policy is a watered-down version of the social-democratic idea that culture has a vital, elevating function and belongs in urban development. But the city no longer has the resources, the planning apparatus, and perhaps not the will either to build a museum or cultural centre ex nihilo. The creation of spaces for culture is increasingly dependent on clauses in tenders and small change in the negotiations between governments and market interests, who in turn know that things go much more smoothly when a plan has social or cultural value. In management speak, that’s called ‘social return on investment’. It is notable that these new art locations are often situated in neighbourhoods where a greater transition from public to private ownership is taking place, because great swaths of social housing are being sold off.

Without lapsing into cynicism and branding every private initiative as ‘bad’, I think we should keep a critical eye on this development. The concern is not that private parties are increasingly making their presence known in art. The problem is that we are failing to mobilise an ‘ethics’ to understand, analyse, and steer this development. That is because it is not always clear from the side-lines where the boundary between public and private lies, and whether there even is a boundary at all. There are public institutions that are diligently facilitating creeping privatisation, and private players creating much-needed new spaces for public debate. Public parties are becoming more successful in recruiting private funding, but conversely, private projects are also linked in countless ways to public funding streams and agendas.

The situation is sometimes so complex that entanglement and separation of public and private magically coincide. A famous Rotterdam museum is publicly in conflict with a family of billionaire philanthropists because it doesn’t want to give them seats on the supervisory board in exchange for two donations of €40 million each. Outrageous! At the same time, the same museum is working closely with the same family of billionaires on a semi-public hall of mirrors, the public-private wet dream par excellence. Are you still following?

Gifts have something magical about them, both to give and to receive them. So, in that respect, it is wonderful that governments and market parties are now trading in mutual presents. But let’s not be naïve. On the subject of gifts, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote that they often look like there are no strings attached but that often isn’t the case. A gift can lay a claim on the recipient because there is the implicit obligation of something in return. The principle of quid pro quo also exists in the new culture of giving. But the quo often remains out of view. We are not used to demanding public accountability from private interests that are active in the public arena. This is a minimum requirement in a new ethics to get a handle on the changing current moment. Public dealings demand public responsibility to prevent private interests from harming the public good.

This essay was first presented as a spoken column at the symposium ‘De staat van mecenaat‘. Parts of it are based on articles by the author that appeared in the magazine Metropolis M: ‘Bread and Circuses: Art as a cog in the machinery of the real estate firm’ (‘Brood en spelen: Kunst als schakel in het vastgoedbedrijf’), Metropolis M (2022) 1, pp. 81-86; ‘The art space as real estate investment: Why project developers are diving into new construction in the cultural sector’ (‘De kunstruimte als vastgoedinvestering. Waarom projectontwikkelaars zich op culturele nieuwbouw storten’), Metropolis M (2020) 1, pp. 32-34.

About Roel Griffioen

Roel Griffioen is a researcher and freelance journalist. He is completing his Ph.D. at the University of Gent and writes about art and architecture theory and the politics of urban planning.