Giveaway of Dutch art mostly gets the brushoff Government plan meets resistance

September 14, 1992|By Marlise Simons | Marlise Simons,New York Times News Service

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Considering its long love affair with painting, the Netherlands is undertaking an unusual task. It is trying to give away 215,000 works of art.

The problem is, most are not the works of contemporary Dutch artists, and not everyone wants them.

At issue is the towering pile of art that grew from the 1950s to the 1980s, when the Dutch government guaranteed artists' place in one of the world's most generous welfare states by purchasing their work.

In a new mood of intolerance, the Ministry of Culture has said that the enormous stocks of art must be cleared out because they are tying up costly storage space, air conditioners, computers and staff.

More ominously, cultural officials are saying openly that while the program has yielded some fine work, it has produced much of dubious quality. Only one of six works is worth keeping and fit for exhibition, the ministry has declared.

The decision has caused a commotion in the Netherlands. Some residents argue that the subsidies should be revived to keep struggling artists afloat when the market fails them. Others see the pile of art as a monument to socialist central planning at its most absurd.

Almost inevitably, artists have opposed the plan to give away the works. One artists' union has denounced it as "wholesale dumping" and warned that it will spoil the market for new work.

Heleen Buijs, the art historian who is running the giveaway program, has been writing letters and working the phones with her staff of eight in an effort to jettison thousands of canvases, tapestries, sculptures and other works of art.

With so much to give away, the keepers concede that they are unfamiliar with most of the inventory. The taxpayers' art collection occupies a space the size of a hangar in a government building in Rijswijk, a suburb of The Hague.

"We store by size, not by quality," said Frank de Man, a warehouse worker, as he moved among cages filled with diptychs and triptychs and sculptures of wood, clay and bamboo. Nestled among the objects were a handmade amphibious helicopter, a bicycle wheel with leopard spots and a puzzling metal pyramid.

In the next room, engravings and etchings were still neatly packed in their own boxes. "We have 85,000 prints," Mr. de Man said with pride.

Was all this work, everything crowding these racks, to be given away?

"Not to worry," he replied. "We are not donating the Rembrandts and Van Goghs of our time."

Over four decades, the Netherlands allocated large amounts of public money to buy artists' work and thereby guarantee their income. But the program ground to a halt in 1986 as the number of artists taking part and the work they produced swelled to an unmanageable flood.

"Stuff was arriving by the containerful," said Miss Buijs, who estimated that the state was buying some 20,000 works a year by the early 1980s.

She gracefully sidestepped questions about the quality of specific works. "People who did the buying included welfare officials," she said. "Their main criterion was often whether the artist needed the money rather than judging the attributes of the work."

Prices paid by the government ranged anywhere from $100 for a drawing to $5,000 for monumental pieces. The state also reimbursed artists for materials. No precise figures are available on how much was paid, but the Ministry of Culture estimates that the state spent more than $65 million buying artworks and benefited close to 10,000 people.

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