Rotterdam in the seventies

In November 1968 I started to direct the Rotterdam Arts Foundation. I would stay for 10 years. My mandate was broad: to improve arts and culture in Rotterdam. What methods would help vitalise a wounded, diminished, amputated city of culture? The city of Erasmus had lost much of what it had considered natural before the war. The city centre had been destroyed, but could be rebuilt. That was the easy part. But publishing houses had left the city, film too had left the city of Joris Ivens. How to revitalize a carcass.

Today the answer would probably be: money. It is the basic American answer. It was not and will not be mine. Money does not resurrect culture. Well managed money may help. But what is well managed? Not if the cult is of management itself. Money and management are only tools.

So what is left is people. To revitalise culture one needs people. Culture comes from the hearts and minds of people, and they can only vitalize culture by, as it were, fertilizing other people and so create new life. These people are rare but present. Yet seldom seen. They are invisible because they are not common. Without them culture will not emerge. They are not rich, not powerful. With a handy but laughable term one can call them pioneers. In retrospect.

As pioneers in culture are not powerful, rich, or even visible, it takes time for them to bear fruit. By way of interpersonal contacts they will start to achieve recognition and sometimes success. This is a slow process. Cultural historians tend to think in terms of half or whole centuries before they emerge. Think of Spinoza. During his life he had only a handful of friends. It took his ideas more than a century to be understood and centuries to be accepted. Yet both contemporary humanism and democratic culture are inspired by him. Spinoza grinded lenses for a living.

So when looking for pioneers in cities that had their cultural heart torn out like Rotterdam (and Berlin) one should not spend too much time on the visible and the successful. It is better to treasure hunt in hidden places. For people “with eyes or ears or a nose”, as Willem Sandberg told me. In a few years I found a group of pioneers to tackle the job with me.

They would come from diverse places, like Assen or Utrecht or Arnhem or Rotterdam. One will find for instance a disgraced journalist (Han Huyts) running an intelligent gallery for local painters, a translator (Martin Mooy) arranging readings of German poets in a houseboat, a Jewish survivor (Walter Maas) promoting modern composers, a young lawyer (Gosse Oosterhof) giving up his career because of an intuition for uncommon art, a former dancer from New York (Lucas Hoving) teaching at a conservatory, a neighbourhood worker (Hubert Bals) with dreams of a film festival, an architect (Carel Weber) critical of present architecture, a gallery owner (Felix Valk) bored with selling art, a pop enthusiast (Rommert Boonstra) testing the patience of his provincial board. And also some artists that wanted to explore. Among them may be hidden a grinder of lenses.

One should not look for an institution, or a recognised avant-garde, but just for naive pioneers – that is, for people.