ethnographic method / Research Proposal

When the youngsters take over the Arts & Culture

A study case of the new generation of donors for the Dutch National Opera & Ballet, the Muziektheater Amsterdam

By Morgane
November, 2016


My ethnographic research is deeply connected to the work of Renée Steenbergen, researcher at Utrecht University. She is looking at the motivation and giving behavior of younger European donors and funders for the arts. Our study takes place in a context of internationalization and privatization of the arts: State subsidies have considerably decreased since the 1990s, leaving the cultural institutions to their own devices. The former balance between the triad (1) public subsidies, (2) company sponsoring and (3) private donations has changed. Steenbergen proves how nowadays the private funding play an essential role in the financial management of National art museums (2008). My approach will focus on the Dutch scene, and more specifically on the donor’s club of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet (DNOB) located in Amsterdam. The Ballet, and even more the Opera, are usually seen as an elitist leisure for old and wealthy people, which makes this study very challenging: I will investigate on the donors of the Opera & Ballet and look at the rise of new kind of public.

The purpose of my study is to highlight:

  • the major place that private donations start to have for the subsistence of public cultural institutions
  • the generational turn in the arts philanthropy
  • the motivations of young people (under 45) to support an artistic tradition as the Opera & Ballet

The preservation of the national cultural and artistic institutions in Europe is a priority concern in a context of globalization and it seems that until now, the benefits of art philanthropy has been neglected.  Indeed, we have often been confronted to the refusal of public institutions to collect or share precise data about the donors’ identity and motivations. For this reason, I believe that this study is a unique contribution, in order to understand the upheavals of the cultural industry in the 21st century.



Dutch cultural policy and the call for civic engagement in the arts

Because of the economic recession of 2008, the European States had to cut their cultural funding and encourage donations from individuals or private institutions, named the ‘third sphere’ (European Parliament, 2006). This call for civic responsibility is one of the result of the neoliberal model, taking place in all of Europe (Bishop, 2011: 13).

The Dutch have not escaped this trend, and in 2011 the State Secretary Zijlstra (liberal party) announces the cuts to culture funding for the period 2013-2016. The government attempts to compensate the austerity measure in appealing to private sponsorship and donation (van Hamersveld, 2015). That is why ‘the Gift and Inheritance Tax Act’ [Geefwet] is implemented in 2012 in order to stimulate ‘giving to culture’ and to make private donations fiscally attractive for citizens (van Woersem, 2014: 38). While Dutch cultural institutions certify that the number and the amount of private donations in the cultural sector have increased in the last decade, the impacts of the fiscal act have not been published yet (European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, 2011: 65).


Are Opera and Ballet elitist?

Seen as an elitist leisure, the Opera does not draw the crowds anymore. Indeed, the European Commission reports that the Ballet-Opera is the least popular activity, with only 18% of participation (compared, TV is about 72%), and that because of a “lack of interest” of the public (2013: 21). However, this has not always been the case. If we look at the rich history of the Opera and Ballet, we can see that it was a very popular entertainment in the nineteenth-century. At that time, all kind of social classes share the same excitement for these performative arts (Storey, 2002: 33). The turn of the Opera into “high culture” operates at the beginning of the twentieth century. The creation of a new set of social norms prevent the genre from popularization and mass entertainment. Nowadays, if the Opera and Ballet are increasingly accessible leisure – I underline here the multiple efforts of theaters to attract new kind of public and to reduce the ticket prices– it is still affected by this image of ‘activity-for-rich-educated-old-people’. And indeed, the report of the European Commission (2013: 20) confirms that the spectators correspond mainly to these social categories.

Created in 1986, The Dutch National Opera & Ballet (DNOB) is based in Amsterdam. Funded mainly by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sciences and the municipality of Amsterdam, the institution benefits also from private foundations, as the VandenEnde Foundations and AMMODO, Institute of Arts and Sciences. The rate of private donation is not communicated on their website, but donation is strongly encouraged (in the menu, one of the main tab is called ‘support us’).


Art Philanthropy in the Netherlands

The Netherlands has a long tradition of individual giving to the arts (European Parliament, 2011: 68). Steenbergen argues in her previous study about the cultural patronage that the donor standard of cultural patronage is evaluating: for instance, the art philanthropists tend to be younger than before (2008). Because it remains to be proven with concrete data, I will focus my study specifically on the youngest donors of the DNOB. Firstly, I will produce detailed quantitative data in order to better target my population (questioners will categorize the public per age, for instance). The purpose in a second time, is about collecting qualitative data about the motivations of these under 45 years-old donors.

My assumptions will be supported by Bourdieu’s theory about the power of capitals (1986). I suppose that the philanthropists are interested in:

  • financial benefits (economic capital)
  • becoming part of a group (social capital)
  • prestige (symbolic capitals)
  • the belief that patronage is a tool for cultural and social change (cultural capital)

I wonder what are the motivations of the young donors and if they differ from the elders. Secondly, I investigate in what extent the economic / social context encourages to donate at an increasingly early age.

This research aims to redefine the importance of individual donations in the cultural sector and to emphasize the emerging issues of this growing phenomenon. My study case about donation for the DNOB is a starting point to look at a broader scale: the national and European mutations in the cultural financing.



A broad set of literature has been already written about the evolution of the cultural policy and the privatization of the cultural sector. Peter Boorsma, Annemoon van Hemel & Niki van der Wielen, and Max Haiven are all focusing on the broad scale of the European context. Concerning the Dutch case, Ineke van Hamersveld and Lisa Van Woersem bring an historical perspective on the topic, when Merijn Oudenampsen proposes a critical article about the Dutch policy of austerity for the culture and art. In support of my study, I also use the reports from the European Commision, European Parliament and the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. These official communiques offer precise figures about cultural participation and funding.

For the issue of elitism in the context of Opera & Ballet, John Storey and Alexandra Wilson come up with cheerful discourses and they both hope for a popularization of Opera. In contrary, the journalist Dreda Mitchell gives a critical speech about cultural resistance against the genre. They are all connected to Pierre Bourdieu, but surprisingly they never mention him. Indubitably, his essay about ‘The Forms of Capital’ represents the main source of my study, in order to better understand the social and cultural issues of giving to the arts.

About the specific phenomenon of patronage and philanthropy Andrew Milner & Caroline Hartnell’s essay will be of a great help. However, I found their article idealistic, reducing philanthropy to a tool for social healing. I believe that creating a connection between their optimism and Bourdieu’s sociologic theory would bring a more relevant overview of the patronage phenomenon. Tina Mermiri (about the UK) and the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy’s website are my information base for business and economic issues.

Finally, my study is an extension of Renée Steenbergen’s previous work (2008). Our contribution to the topic of arts patronage is an exclusive combination of economic, sociologic and ethical analyze. My study case is a concrete example and it will portray the diversity of donors’ motivations, enriched by figures and qualitative data. Connecting a large set of literature, I believe my research will present a unique analyze of the current philanthropy phenomenon in the Netherlands.


In order to understand the growing interest for the arts philanthropy, the concepts of neoliberalism and privatization are important to define. Neoliberalism is a politico-economic theory based on free market competition. It includes the reduction of governmental subsidies for public structures and the privatization of their management: the private sector becomes the ownership of the former public services (Bishop, 2011: 14).

That is why nowadays, the consideration for private sponsorship and art philanthropy are crucial in the cultural sector. Art philanthropy and patronage are defined as the support to the arts and culture by individuals or groups (the patrons). The patronage can take the forms of financial or material gifts, time and knowledge (Steenbergen, 2008). We know that the art givers have achieved a certain level of material comfort before seeking “to better themselves through meaning, morality, creativity, spontaneity and problem solving – all of which are characteristics of philanthropy” (Mermiri, 2010:7). Thus, the patrons are mainly on the top of social and economic classes.

Bourdieu’s concept of capital allows us to look at the benefits of art philanthropy. The capital determines the social order: It gives power and status. Bourdieu separates four different categories of capital: (1) the economic capital, about the financial and material goods, (2) the social capital, which refers to membership and group belonging, (3) the cultural capital, concerning knowledge and education, (4) and the symbolic capital, associated to prestige and recognition. If patronage is connected to all of these, Bourdieu elaborates more on the specificities of the cultural capital. Members of the same social class share the same cultural capital, because it creates a sense of collective identity. The cultural capital has three different forms: embodied (inherent culture), objectified (material culture goods) and institutionalized (institutional recognition). For the case of philanthropy, giving to the arts can be connected to the institutionalized cultural capital. Patron obtain recognition from the cultural institutions and the philanthropic circle create social bond and group belonging. All these aspects are source of individual and collective empowerment for the donors. It would be interested to connect the question of the new generation – under 45 years-old – with the economic affluence and the cultural capital. How to explain the increasingly number of younger donors in the Opera and Ballet?

The notion of cultural elitism is deeply connected to Bourdieu and the context of the Opera-Ballet. The idea that an art is addressed specifically to an elite (group exercising a certain authority and power over the others) is mainly constructed by social norms. For instance, at the turn of the twentieth century in New York, Opera is separated from theater, with the construction of specific buildings, an étiquette (as the dress code, a code behavior) is invented, and the upper-class emphasizes its preference for only foreign-language opera (Storey, 2002: 33). These new norms produce a privileged class, that prevent Opera from any popularization. All these concepts will support the development of my analyze, in order to understand the motivations of opera philanthropists.



The population I study is limited to the private donors of the DNOB (Amsterdam) who agree to participate in my research. The question of anonymity is crucial and the institution refuses to bother its benevolent donors.

The beginning of my primary research will comprise a tight collaboration with the Fundraising & Relations department, and particularly with the coordinator Christine Philips. The practical and ethical limits are set as:

  • the meeting will take place inside the Muziektheater
  • with the consent of all patrons
  • my presence should not bother the first concern of the meeting
  • anonymity is absolutely guarantee (no record, no photo, no name reported)
  • discussions with the donors (individual or per group) are allowed, depending on the individual willingness
  • More personal questions can be asked, on the limit of privacy and decency


If I consider the unpredictable nature of the ethnographic research, I still have a plan for collecting my primary data. The aim is to compare the differences in motivation between the younger and elder donors.

My first sources are questionnaires that I will use to gather quantitative data about the identity of the patrons and their motivations. Three categories of question will be asked: (1) overview of the population: gender, age, social class, income, education. (2) Factual information about their involvement in giving: charity or cultural donation, since when, the amount, the frequency, etc. (3) How they start giving and what are their first motivations: passion for opera-ballet / to know more about opera-ballet / civic responsibility to preserve culture / financial reasons because of the tax deduction / social interest, to be part of a club / others. These last qualitative data are limited by a multiple-choice form.

The second sources will be based on participant observation. It consists on meeting and discussing with the patrons during an event in the theater. Informal interviews are a tricky exercise that I will have to prepare: make the donors comfortable in discussing with me is the challenge. I will cross the language barrier by introducing myself in Dutch. This exercise – that might become a bit grotesque – would show them my effort and interest for learning their culture and also it will put them in a position of cultural comfort and intellectual dominance. However, because I have knowledge about Art History and that I will expand my research about Opera, I think I will use as much as much the type of discourse / register / linguistic tools, proper to my public (emic perspective). My study goals and assumptions will be presented with a total transparence.

Even if the interviews will be unstructured and informal, I will keep try to structure my questions in order to know more about their motivations. However, I believe that not everyone is aware or loud about the reasons that push him to give. That is why, the observation of the behaviors and social interactions between the members will be precious information; non-verbal data and social performativity can be some of these aspects.

My short-term memory seems the best tool for recording my data. After each meeting, I reserve a moment for writing reports of all the conversations that I just had with the givers. In terms of cross-checking the validity of my interviews, it will depend on the possibilities that each one will offer me. Follow-up interviews or mail reports with the donors could valid the representationally of my information and interpretations.



‘About the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy Programme’, Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy. England, 2016

BISHOP, Claire. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London and New York: Verso. 2011, Chapter 1 “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents”, pp.11-40

BOORSMA, Peter B. HEMEL, Annemoon van. WIELEN, Niki van der. Privatization and Culture. Experiences in the Arts, Heritage and Cultural Industries in Europe. 1998

BOURDIEU, Pierre, ‘The Forms of Capital’, 1986

CROMPTON, Sarah. ‘The Big Question: Are opera and ballet elitist?’. The Telegraph. March 2013

European Commission, Special Eurobarometer 39. Cultural Access and Participation. Report. Conducted by TNS Opinion & Social. Nov. 2013

European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education.  ‘Private Investment in Culture: The Netherlands’. Encouraging Private Investment in the Cultural Sector. Study. 2011, pp.64-70

HAIVEN, Max. ‘Privatizing creativity: the ruse of creative capitalism’. Art Threat. Oct. 2012

HAMERSVELD, Ineke van. ‘Netherlands/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments’. Compendium, Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe. 2015

MERMIRI, Tina. ‘Arts Philanthropy: the facts, trends and potential’. Arts & Business. 2010

MILNER, Andrew. HARTNELL, Caroline. ‘An Act of Faith: Why Should Philanthropists Fund the Arts?’. Alliance Magazine, Philanthropy News Digest. Apr. 2015,

MITCHELL, Dreda Say. ‘We can’t leave it to the elite to decide who’s cultured’. The Guardian. Sept. 2015

OUDENAMPSEN, Merijn. ‘Culture Wars: on the politics of gutting the arts’. Merijn Oudenampsen blog. Febr. 2013

STEENBERGEN, Renée. Bureau Renée Steenbergen

STEENBERGEN, Renée. Summary of the book The New Patron: Culture and the Return of Private Money. Het Financieele Dagblad (Dutch Financial Times) and Business Contact Publishers. Amsterdam. 2008

STOREY, John. Expecting Rain: Opera as Popular Culture. High-Pop. Wiley-Blackwell. 2002

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Cultural policy in the Netherlands. Boekmanstudies. Amsterdam. 2006

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The Dutch Cultural System. 2013

WILSON, Alexandra, ‘We need to move beyond the cliches about ‘elitist’ opera’. The Guardian. Febr. 2014

WOERSEM, Lisa van. Country Profile, The Netherlands. Compendium, Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe. 2014



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