It is time to debunk the myth of cultural entrepreneurship. Cultural entrepreneurship is a vague concept that transfers structural problems to invidual artists and is often at odds with fair practice.
It is time to debunk the myth of cultural entrepreneurship. Cultural entrepreneurship is a vague concept that transfers structural problems to invidual artists and is often at odds with fair practice.
In 2018, I moved to the Netherlands and started a Master’s program in fine arts and design. That November, in front of an audience at the Amsterdam Art Conference, I told my autobiographical story of moving from the US and looking for a better place to become an artist. The host asked me why I had chosen the Netherlands. “Because there is an abundance of funding,” I said, “unfathomable in many other countries.” There was a brief silence. Then, in that room of 100 people, someone coughed out a laugh. It was a short, stern laugh, almost bitter, and it seemed to spell out the sentence: are you sure?
Four years after that incident, having navigated being an artist and writer in this country, I want to tell that audience: abundance comes with a big asterisk. It is true that I could apply for funding for my practice and projects, but to attain the Dutch minimum wage as an artist has proven challenging. In the process, again and again I encounter the term “cultural entrepreneurship”. Upon examining its history and associated narratives, however, I find the rhetoric more toxic than helpful. In this article, I set out to debunk the myth of the artist as an entrepreneur. What are the contradictions between cultural entrepreneurship and fair practice? Is cultural entrepreneurship a useful framework for individual artists? What is cultural entrepreneurship, anyway? I arrive at the conclusion that we need to stop calling artists entrepreneurs.
As early as the 2000’s, cultural entrepreneurship appeared in policy documents in the Netherlands. The real take-off of this rhetoric, however, came in 2011 when large-scale cutbacks of Dutch arts and cultural funding took place. Among the austerity measures, cultural entrepreneurship came to the foreground. “[Then Secretary of State for Culture] Zijlstra […] wants cultural institutions and artists to become more enterprising and to earn a larger part of their income themselves.”
The use of entrepreneurship was a way for the government to justify its austerity policies, argues Johan Kolsteeg, assistant professor at Groningen University. In his 2013 essay “Situated Cultural Entrepreneurship,” Kolsteeg analyzes government strategic documents and finds that “cultural entrepreneurship is used as a synonym to finding new sources of income, as a response to the decreasing government support as a result of the economic crisis.” (At this point, it becomes tempting to conclude that the premise of entrepreneurship for artists in Dutch cultural policies was construed as an afterthought.)
The administrations after Zijlstra have tried to walk back some of the austerity measures. For example, Jet Bussemaker, the Minister of Culture after the Zijlstra era, was able to use €30 million for arts and culture (compared to the budget of zero before) and acknowledged the difficult situations of makers and cultural institutions. The most recent cabinet has reallocated €170 million of structural funding to culture, with emphasis on supporting young makers and tackling the labor market.
Yet, the construction of the artist as entrepreneur has remained in Dutch cultural policy. This can be seen from the terms and conditions of the Mondriaan Fund, which lists “the quality of cultural entrepreneurship” as one of their assessment criteria of individual artists. Presumably then, positioning artists as cultural entrepreneurs is not just an excuse for the removal of public funding, but comes with some other value. One must wonder: after 11 years of so-called cultural entrepreneurship, is there any policy in place that enables art workers to be successful cultural entrepreneurs?
Author Tom Eisenmann elaborates on entrepreneurship as a business strategy in the article “What is Entrepreneurship?”, an article published in the Harvard Business Review:
At a new venture’s outset […] many entrepreneurs bootstrap: they keep expenditures to a bare minimum while investing only their own time and, as necessary, their personal funds. In some cases, this is adequate to bring a new venture to the point where it becomes self-sustaining from internally generated cash flow.
This is the kind of entrepreneurship that policies project onto artists. However, we must note that the operative words here are “some cases,” “their own time,” and “personal funds.” They indicate that only those who can afford to take financial risks—usually by possessing initial wealth—might have a chance, and the majority of people will fail if this is the starting point. Reality check: many artists, especially those from working-class backgrounds, do not have the privileges mentioned here.
In existing financial policies that aim to help entrepreneurs, artists are also left out. A 2016 report, commissioned by BKNL and the Mondriaan Fund, inventories financing opportunities for entrepreneurs and analyzes how the schemes can be applied to individual artists. As the report points out, many schemes “focus on innovative, marketable products and services with a significant profit potential” and apply to businesses at a much larger scale than that of individual artists. Unsurprisingly, the report concludes that “it is difficult for self-employed artists to qualify for the government financing schemes.”
Even if some artists can situate their practice within the policy agenda of innovation, artistic training rarely includes actual knowledge on running a business, let alone acquiring financing. In a 2018 interview, educators from three Dutch and Flemish art academies described the introduction of entrepreneurship and a “critical attitude” towards the market in their curriculum. In the interview, Leen Bedaux, educator from AKV | St. Joost remarked, “Our students get to know entrepreneurship from the theory. What is neoliberalism and what position do you have within it as an artist? They even get to read a chapter of Marx but no lessons about VAT and the Chamber of Commerce.”
Under the rhetoric of entrepreneurship, an artist is supposed to not only make work, but also function as a business manager for themselves. Yet without proper training, they do so through trial-and-error and do-it-yourself. As an example of how this looks in practice, let me recount a recent experience. In an application where I asked for funding to produce an exhibition, I was required to provide a coverage plan with co-financing partners. I met this requirement partially by applying for an interest-free loan. The fund granted me the requested amount, but informed me that all the money would be transferred after I finished the project—not before or during the production.
In this case, I incidentally became a producer and learned to organize cash flow. While some might say this is a growth of my “entrepreneurial skills,” I would argue that such growth does more harm than good. Diverting the artist’s energy into administration while distributing financial risks onto the artist—due to the uncertainty of funding outcomes and future funding acquisition—does not help the artist create (better) work. Personally, I experienced many moments where I lost inspiration for my project and questioned why I wanted to make art at all. Even though I eventually recovered from this episode, I can confirm that operating like a business takes away time, headspace, and motivation from the artist.
While art education lags behind and artists scramble on their own, are there places that offer practical support? At first glance, the answer is yes. In the Netherlands, several organizations actively promote cultural entrepreneurship and position themselves as knowledge centers on the matter. For instance, Cultureel Avonturiers offers paid workshops about applying for culture funds, which range from writing a budget to the preparation of a marketing plan within a grant application. The Huis voor Cultureel Ondernemerschap, part of Huis voor de Kunsten Limburg, supports self-employed cultural professionals by connecting them to semi-public partners in the areas of business, legal matters, innovation, and fair pay. Cultuur + Ondernemen (C+O for short), one of the most recognizable names, possibly due to its relatively long standing and frequent collaboration with municipalities, focuses on training artists to build their business.
However, with a deeper look into C+O’s website, I encounter narratives that perpetuate self-exploitative participation in the market. On many occasions, C+O gives concrete tips for online self-promotion and “getting into Big Art,” with the undertone of breaking through with perseverance in marketing done on one’s own time and at one’s own expense. In a more cut-and-dry example, C+O gives advice about working on projects with no or little budget: “Sometimes an assignment yields little financially, but it does provide enormous exposure. Be smart about this.” Even though the same article points to references such as collective labor agreements and the Fair Practice Code, it does not shy away from repeating the toxic motto “exposure as payment.” This type of contradictory advice is likely to lead to malpractice and feed precarious work conditions.
Let’s take a moment to reconsider what kind of “support”—if it can be called that at all—artists get from these knowledge centers. Cultural entrepreneurship: does it mean acquiring managerial skills, changing behaviors, or taking risks despite precarity? Depending on who is talking about cultural entrepreneurship, its definitions vary and thus indicate different, if not conflicting practices. In the case of the Huis voor Cultureel Ondernemerschap, despite being highly aware of the precarious financial situations of cultural professionals and wanting to offer “all the help and support they need,” links to C+O are featured. Such cross-referencing passes on problematic suggestions and thus creates an echo chamber that normalizes harmful practices for artists.
The ambiguity of cultural entrepreneurship—and the practice derived from it—not only causes confusion among artists, but also leads to an impasse in government policies. In the report “Passie Gewaardeerd” from 2016, the Social Economic Council (SER) and the Council for Culture (RvC) highlight the lack of clarity in the status of the self-employed, which contributes to income insecurity:
There are self-employed persons who have opted for independent entrepreneurship out of full conviction… There are also self-employed workers who have no choice because they have chosen a profession that cannot be practiced as an employee or to a very limited extent. Think of visual artists, composers, photographers, or gallery owners. There are also people who have become self-employed out of necessity […]
Relatively often, [the policy] discussion ends in a stalemate with a plea to prioritize (individual) entrepreneurial freedom or (collective) protection. The councils believe that both values are important and that a mode must be found to facilitate the self-employed and offer a certain degree of protection.
Desperation to make ends meet is not, and should never be, how entrepreneurship starts, and no artist should be forced into the category of entrepreneur. Consider this: In 2020, half of those working in the cultural and creative sector were self-employed, earning €729 per month, or €11,080 per year. Over 90% of businesses under the category of “art” were eenmanszaken (sole proprietorships) in 2020. How many of these people would say they had “opted for independent entrepreneurship out of full conviction”?
The legal form of the eenmanszaak, which most artists register as, encompasses three concepts: zzp (self-employment), freelancing, and being a company without staff. Though categorized under one legal form, the three forms of business operate in different modes (with zzp and freelancing more similar to each other). The freelancer/zzp’er finds work for themselves, while the entrepreneur searches for resources for the business to profit. Think of the difference between a graphic designer who invoices after each assignment (freelancer), a text editor who works for a film festival for two months every year (zzp’er), and a furniture studio that designs and sells cabinets (entrepreneur). All initiate their own business activities but relate to resources differently.
The term “entrepreneur” is ill-fitting for those who work as freelancers or zzp’ers, and crowning it with “cultural” does not help. As strategic advisor Roel van Herpt said in his work with the Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst (AFK), “the term ‘cultural entrepreneurship’ is problematic. It suggests that culture should become a commercial business, or that artists should be able to sell themselves after a course in marketing.”
It is high time that we make a clear distinction: stop identifying artists as entrepreneurs. Instead, use the terms that describe the actual situations of the artists: freelancers, art workers, and cultural workers.
The critique of the term “cultural entrepreneurship,” however, is not a call to stop artists from building economically sustainable practices. Rather, the question is reframed: How can artists find strategies to prevent precarity with the agency of the art worker?
We can start by re-examining what has been referred to as “entrepreneurial skills.” With the market funneling artists into isolated silos where they compete for limited resources, the tasks of fundraising and networking are seen as individual responsibilities, and people who have the knowledge become protective of what they know. A collective take on knowledge is thus not only a way to share concrete strategies, but also to create solidarity among art workers fractured by the market.
Peer-oriented workshops and information libraries are key to such restoration. One workshop example is the Future Framing series by Salwa Foundation and This Works, in which a peer group of artists and cultural workers meet over nine weeks and discuss their challenges and strategies. Another instance is the Post-Precarity Camp co-organized by Platform BK, Hotel Maria Kapel, and the Institute of Network Cultures, where topics like the gig economy, fair pay, and artist wellbeing are discussed in depth. Having participated in both of these events, I find them open and safe spaces with the ethos of mutual support.
Making information transparent, especially regarding funding applications, can further such mutual support and help reduce the damaging practices of competition. The funding library by The White Pube (TWP), a collective identity of Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad in the UK, serves as a major inspiration. This library publishes successful grant proposals in a searchable format, besides providing links to how-to tips on writing applications. TWP encourages readers to submit their applications (with options to redact information), which makes it an excellent case of sourcing from and giving back to the crowd—the artists themselves. Even though at the moment there is no equivalent of such a funding library in the Netherlands, artists have been sharing such information in smaller circles and a similar initiative could grow from there.
As art workers and cultural workers find ways to collectively deal with the current market, policies need to find clear language and ensure the protection of precarious labor relations. In the discussion about fair and sustainable economic practices, the term “cultural entrepreneurship” is not helpful.
This essay was written with support of the Mondrian Fund. The text was proofread and translated to Dutch by Felix van der Vorst and Hannah Vernier. All illustrations were made by Yuri Veerman.
“Zijlstra benadrukt in zijn beleid het belang van cultureel ondernemerschap: hij wil dat culturele instellingen en kunstenaars ondernemender worden en een groter deel van hun inkomsten zelf verwerven.” The report “Beweging in het Bestel,” published by the Raad voor Cultuur, includes an appendix tracing Dutch cultural policy changes. Read the report and the appendix at: https://www.raadvoorcultuur.nl/documenten/adviezen/2022/03/31/beweging-in-het-bestel.
 See Johan Kolsteeg, “Situated Cultural Entrepreneurship”: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330144855.
 See Bussemaker’s interview from 2017: https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2017/01/30/het-was-een-ravage-toen-ik-begon-6430654-a1543601?t=1667814014.
 The details of the plan, however, have received critical responses in terms of feasibility and implementation. See: https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2022/05/24/wie-heeft-er-baat-bij-het-extra-cultuurgeld-a4127914.
 See the section “Bij het beoordelen van het artistiek functioneren hanteert de adviescommissie de volgende criteria in onderlinge samenhang”: https://www.mondriaanfonds.nl/subsidie-aanvragen/voorwaarden/.
 Page 30, “Een verkenning naar financieringsmogelijkheden voor ondernemers en de toegankelijkheid voor (beeldend) kunstenaars”. Link in footnote 7. “De meeste overheidsfinancieringsregelingen zijn gericht op innovatieve, vermarktbare producten en diensten met een aanzienlijk winstperspectief van MKB-ondernemingen die een andere schaal of rechtsvorm kennen dan zelfstandige beroepsbeoefenaren.” “Voor zelfstandige kunstenaars is het om verschillende redenen moeilijk om voor de overheidsfinancieringsregelingen in aanmerking te komen.”
 “Maar dat is ook niet zoals het bij ons gebeurt. Onze studenten leren vanuit de theorie het ondernemerschap kennen. Wat is nou dat neoliberalisme en welke positie heb je daarbinnen als kunstenaar? Ze krijgen zelfs een hoofdstukje Marx te lezen en geen lesjes over btw en de Kamer van Koophandel.” See “Waartoe leiden wij op?”, an interview between journalist Edo Dijksterhuis and educators from three Dutch and Flemish art academies: https://www.zoutmagazine.eu/waartoe-leiden-wij-op.
 For example, see the series “Hoe financier je de boel?”: https://www.cultuur-ondernemen.nl/artikel/hoe-financier-je-de-boel.
 “Vanwege de cruciale rol die ze spelen, verdienen ze alle hulp en steun die ze kunnen gebruiken.”
 Page 64-65, SER report “Passie gewaardeerd”. See: https://www.ser.nl/nl/publicaties/passie-gewaardeerd. “Er zijn zzp’ers die uit volle overtuiging voor het zelfstandig ondernemerschap hebben gekozen. Een groot deel van hen blijft bewust eenpitter, een ander deel heeft de ambitie om te groeien. Ook zijn er zzp’ers die geen keuze hebben omdat ze een beroep hebben gekozen dat niet of in zeer beperkte mate in loondienst kan worden uitgeoefend. Denk aan beeldend kunstenaars, componisten, fotografen of galerie- houders. Er zijn ook mensen die uit noodzaak zzp’er zijn geworden… In de beleidsdiscussie over zzp’ers wordt vaak gesproken over het onderscheid tussen echte zelfstandigen, schijnzelfstandigen en werknemers. Relatief vaak ein- digt die discussie in een patstelling met een pleidooi om of (individuele) onderne- mersvrijheid voorop te stellen, of (collectieve) bescherming. De raden zijn van mening dat beide waarden van belang zijn en dat er een modus moet worden gevonden om zzp’ers te faciliteren en een zekere bescherming te bieden.”
 The numbers and analysis appear in the report “How Precarious is Working in the Cultural Sector?”, written by Claartje Rasterhoff and Bjorn Schrijen and published by the Boekman Institute (translated into English and reprinted by Platform BK). See: https://www.platformbk.nl/en/how-precarious-is-working-in-the-cultural-sector/.
 See footnote 16.
 The SER and RvC pointed out in an earlier report from 2016 that the labor market situation of workers in the cultural and creative sector is a cause for concern. See: https://www.ser.nl/nl/publicaties/verkenning-arbeidsmarkt-culturele-sector.
 On the KVK (Chamber of Commerce) registration page, these three are under the same category. See: https://www.kvk.nl/inschrijven-en-wijzigen/inschrijven/?block=420437.
“De term cultureel ondernemerschap is problematisch, vindt van Herpt. Het suggereert dat cultuur een commercieel bedrijf moet worden, of dat kunstenaars na een cursus marketing zichzelf moeten kunnen verkopen.” See: https://www.amsterdamsfondsvoordekunst.nl/fondsinitiatieven/pilot-cultureel-ondernemerschap/afk-cultureel-ondernemerschap-roel-van-herpt/.
 The definition of “art/cultural worker” is thoroughly contextualized in the book The ABC of the Projectariat: Living and Working in a Precarious Art World. See: https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526161321/.