ethnographic method

Assignment 1

After World War II the Netherlands was a welfare state. This meant that a lot of things related to arts and culture were being subsidized. During this periode a lot of great works of art have been produced, but not everyone was a fan of this way of governing. The criticism towards this policy was mostly neo-liberal of nature and something that was frequently outed was: “Why should the government pay for art that nobody wants to buy?” One can agree upon this or not, but about ten years ago the subsidized art climate in the Netherlands collapsed. This, of course, had everything to do with the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008. Governments all over the world were forced to make cutbacks and the Dutch government was no exception.

The government had to make hard decisions to see where they could save money to try and repair the economy and to make sure the national debt would not rise too much. Whenever something like this happens the art sector is usually cut first. This is exactly what happened during that time. Government cuts on arts and culture were very large and a lot of cultural institutions suddenly did not have sufficient funds to avoid bankruptcy. Luckily this was not the end of cultural institutions in the Netherlands, but it did mean that these institutions had to look for other ways of coming up with funds. One of these ways is looking at the private sector for money. This is not to say that in the Netherlands the private sector did not exist up until then, but when we compare the amount of funds obtained via the private sector to the amount of government subsidies, it is very fair to state that it did not play a very large role.

The government addressed the people and stated that the welfare state that we all knew so well was ending and a participatory society would have to take its place. In terms of art and culture the government asked its people to step in where they had to step back. Even though researchers like Renée Steenbergen have said that it is impossible for the private sector to fill the gap that is created by the government, organizations are trying to acquire as much funds as possible in other ways than relying on subsidies. This includes looking at individuals for donations.

The Dutch are known for being very direct people, but when it comes to asking people for help, in whatever way, it is not always that easy. It is typical for the Dutch not to ask for help (as they might see this as an admission of failure), especially when it concerns money. These two seemingly strange features of the Dutch do not make it easy for cultural organizations to go about and ask for money.

In the United States of America asking for donations for cultural organizations is something that is much more common. Americans have always had a relative small welfare-state and art and culture has been made possible almost entirely by the private sector. They dare to ask but they also know how to successfully ask and that is why all (Dutch) eyes are on the United States. The Dutch need to learn from the Americans that it is okay to ask for money, within reason of course.

One of Renée Steenbergen’s more famous quotes is: “If we want to develop a culture of giving for art in this country, we first need to develop a culture of asking.” Though she also says that the American model would most likely not work in the Netherlands (and the rest of Europe), it is useful for organizations in this country to be a bit more like the Americans and be more upfront in asking for money. People should not feel ashamed of doing so. To our opinion this is exactly what Foam has successfully done.

Foam is a relatively young museum and whole system of donations surrounding Foam is even newer. They have a patron circle called Foam Fund, that consists of individuals and businesses that donate at least €3000 per year. They do get a lot of special benefits, but for the most part the fee of Foam Fund is a donation towards the museum.

They also have a patron circle for younger donors. Not only is there an age difference in the two groups (Club Foam aims at individuals from 18-45), the fee for Club Foam is €450. Basically they see Club Foam as a patron circle with a lower threshold that can prepare people for a membership for Foam Fund. Mathilde Smit is the person who is in charge of Club Foam. In our other posts you can read a lot more about her. One of the most important things that we have learned about Mathilde is her work-style. She has to make sure that all the members feel comfortable, have a good time at events, but also has to attract new members. In an interview with her she talked about the way she goes about and even showed it.


Image 1. The different Foam memberships

Her style might be described as informal, empathetic, attentive and direct, all in the most positive sense. Mathilde takes her time and talks to you as one of her peers, though she is really thoughtful in that sense and if she feels that you do not have the desire to talk to her she will keep her conversations short. She is really empathetic and attentive, so if she picks up that you are into a certain artist she will find information about it so she can talk to you about it.

Since Mathilde is someone who has come to know a lot of people in the business, she might even be able to tip you about something that has to do with the artist (a similar artist or a great exposition, etc). She uses all this to be direct without being rude. In fact the opposite happens, you start to feel special. The combination of all of this suits the museum very much, since its main audience is a lot younger and more hip than that of a ‘regular’ museum.

For us the approach that Mathilde takes is the best example we have seen of a more American-styled approach, coated in a Dutch way. This hybrid form of asking for help is something that really works in her case. Because we have learned a lot from Mathilde and she exemplifies (at least to us) a modern way of asking, we have used her strategy for our own presentation in class. For our first assignment we have chosen an artifact that represents the way she works.

Our artifact is a card that Mathilde (and Foam in general) use. For us the card had the same feeling to it as the vibe that Mathilde created. It is an extension of her work. The front of the card has the text “Ben jij al Foam Fan?” (Are you a Foam Fan yet?) on it. They purposely address you on a first-name basis (‘jij’ instead of the more formal ‘u’). The font they have chosen – Foam’s own font – is a little bit playful, without coming across as childish. The card itself is made of high quality cardboard. It feels as if you are actually holding  something.

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Image 2. The front of the card                    Image 3. The back of the first page

The card can be opened and the first thing you see is the text “Steun Foam vanaf €34 en krijg toegang tot het museum en andere bijzondere Foam-activiteiten.” (Support Foam from €34 up and get access to the museum and other special Foam activities) Here they get right to the chase and let you know how much a Foam Fan membership fee is, but they also let you know that by joining this club you are entitled to special things, things that are apparently off-limits to regular visitors. This is something that Mathilde also does. The section below is used to sum up the benefits of becoming a member. At the bottom they end with “Met jou steun kan Foam blijven fascineren, verbazen en inspireren.” (With your support Foam can continue to fascinate, amaze and inspire.) all in red. By doing so they continue with their strategy to make you feel special, because if you support Foam you are contribute to all of this.

The other side has the text “Ja, ik ben Foam Fan” (Yes, I am Foam Fan) on it. It seems only natural that once you have explained what the costs and benefits are you try to proceed to the point of sale, but note the difference between Yes, I am Foam Fan and Yes, I’d like to be a Foam Fan. They deliberately chose the first option, because it implies that you already were a Foam Fan, they are not trying to persuade you to become one, but they are just making it formal. Of course to complete this formality you have to agree with a yearly fee. In the text below they even offer three options: 1) becoming a ‘regular’ Foam Fan, 2) becoming a Foam Fan + (which comes with additional benefits) and 3) an option you can choose if you would like to know more about other ways to support Foam, like Club Foam or the Foam Fund. The second half of the page is used for the entry of personal details to finalize the acceding to the patron circles of Foam.

On the back of the card you can state the method of payment. If you want to become a Foam Fan for just one year you have to pay €5 extra (so €39 or €59 for Foam Fan +). If you choose the continuous payment you get a €5 ‘discount’ (note that this was already the price they were advertising, but they are now selling this as a discount, something that Dutch people love). They also leave it up to you what you want to pay for your membership, as long as it is above €34 euros. This is a smart move, because some people are more than willing to give more to Foam than the fee for a Fan or Fan + membership, but might think that €450 (a Club Foam membership) is too much. Below some room for your bank account details they also provide you with the opportunity to grant Foam and additional gift to your choice.

Once you have filled this out you can rip the card in two. This is a very nifty trick, because now you hand in the part about the payment (so there is no turning back, but also you are not reminded of the costs) and you still have the page that has all the benefits on it and all the reasons why you should feel special and good about what you have done.

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Image 4. The front of the second page                Image 5.  The back of the second page

This is the strategy that Foam uses to attract patrons in its smallest version. They do not really trick you in anything, they are quite upfront, but they do try to control every step of the way as much as possible. A lot of cultural institutions could learn from the strategy employed by Foam.


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