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To what extent does the phenomenon of ‘talent development policy’ – like the term ‘the creative sector’ itself – function as the façade of this destructive system, certainly after the crisis and cutbacks? According to Te Velde, the talent discourse from the world of management consultancies such as McKinsey, in which ‘talent’ was seen as a ‘new oil’ – and perpetuated by Richard Florida with The Rise of the Creative Class – has rapidly entrenched itself within cultural policy and the creative industry. Measurability, investment, competition and impact have become increasingly important. Creative talent is often talked about in terms of investment; the venture diamond that will yield ‘something’: money or ‘social impact’. So it is not surprising that talent must always be ‘young’: only in this way can the returns be optimised.

Competitive System

‘Talent development – it sounds so noble, but what are the underlying sentiments? It’s interesting to see how this concept of ‘talent’ has become so important in Dutch cultural policy in such a short period of time,’ says Te Velde, ‘how normalised it has become, while twenty years ago there was still a completely different discourse on how to support artists, designers and creatives. What implications does this have for how we think about the development of artists and designers? And which forms of culture are recognised as Culture at all? Who is recognised as a talent and what are the prerequisites? How precarious is this system and how privileged do you have to be to be successful?’ The cultural world is small and is dominated by a limited number of actors – education, funds, museums, presentation institutions – who determine what quality is, what is relevant and in what language it is articulated. Te Velde underlines that the funds are doing their best to make the selection of talent as objective as possible: ‘They are well aware of their responsibility to ensure a fair evaluation. But far too little is said about the blind spots that exist. Who can hold their own within this highly competitive system?’

‘If the Stimuleringsfonds selects you as a “talent”, you will receive a grant and thus the freedom to work on your own projects. That’s fantastic, of course, but there is a downside: the enormous pressure to deliver something and be successful. And the grant is temporary. These are people who know what they’re getting into; they weren’t awarded a grant out of the blue. But they are launched into a precarious system. They have to be successful, available, self-confident and innovative. Which is a very white, patriarchal and neoliberal success model. There is little or no mention of failure.’

Specific Cultural Capital

The problem is that funds are limited and there are too many applicants. Only the tip of the iceberg receives a grant while the rest remains largely invisible. Within this competitive and unpredictable system, who is eligible for a place at the top of the pile? As preparation for this interview, Te Velde sent us Teana Boston-Mammah’s essay The Entrance Gap. A Study Of Admissions Procedures At The Willem De Kooning Academy. In 2014 and 2015 sociologist and lecturer Boston-Mammah examined the implementation of the Willem de Kooning Academy’s admission policy, motivated by the observation that the diversity of the student population at the Rotterdam art academy did not correspond at all to the composition of the school-leavers in this city. The academy wanted to change this, but how? After all, the admission policy was already aimed at selecting prospective students as objectively as possible. The faculty did this on the basis of three official criteria: authenticity, use of colour in form and material, and visual imagination. However, the interviews that Boston-Mammah conducted with the teachers revealed that they took many more factors into account when assessing the students: curiosity, audacity, talent, drive, originality, a critical attitude, the ability to express oneself well, social skills, knowledge of the art world, and so on. These underlying criteria made it clear that the teachers were looking for students with a particular cultural capital – and that the romantic ideal of the artist as an individual genius was still very much alive. As a result, prospective students who were less well prepared because of their ethnic, but also their cultural and social backgrounds, were immediately disadvantaged.

‘If they do get through the selection procedure, students of colour at the art academy are sometimes told that their work is too activist or too literal. Or teachers fall silent because they don’t know what to say about a subject like racism or oppression.' 

'These teachers were raised within a particular system and reproduce what they know. That prevailing norm, and who dictates it, is either not questioned or not questioned enough. After all, when does something take priority, what is socially relevant, what is a strong concept, when does a project possess quality? And should everything be innovative and layered In that respect, the “cultural field” has become very introspective.’

 

Unwritten Rules and Blind Spots

‘We can broadly extrapolate the conclusions of Boston-Mammah’s research to include the apparently objective selection procedures for talent in the world of art, architecture, design and digital culture,’ Te Velde surmises. ‘This article shows how difficult it already is to pursue a creative education, but even if you succeed in doing so, what social or cultural capital do you need to be able to develop yourself and your creative talent within the current (narrow) model. And what material and financial preconditions are required? How many unpaid internships, how much foreign experience do you need on your CV? What kind of vocabulary or network and what social codes are acceptable in this competition? And what unwritten rules and blind spots are intrinsic to the assessment? Being a bit different, a bit exotic is okay, as long as you fit within that one specific model.’

To break through these often unconscious and undiscussed mechanisms, she believes a degree of modesty and extreme curiosity are needed. ‘Curiosity in particular should be rewarded when it comes to evaluating creativity. But we white people have trouble understanding and discussing how our own whiteness as the dominant norm obscures our view. As underlined by Boston-Mammah, referencing the sociologist Ruth Frankenberg, whiteness is the “unmarked marker”. For centuries, this whiteness has been skilfully and carefully concealed on the one hand and upheld as superior on the other. This is deeply rooted in all kinds of patterns in our “cultural archive”, as Emeritus Professor of Gender and Ethnicity Gloria Wekker describes in Witte Onschuld (2018). More and more white people are aware of this, but it remains a sensitive subject and provokes a lot of anger and shame. This is also known as “white fragility” (Robin DiAngelo). The slowness of the process of recognising these mechanisms is problematic, because the public money that is spent in the cultural sector still – despite increased attention and a little more awareness – goes to a group of people who do not reflect society from a demographic point of view. Yet it is everyone’s tax money. When it is said that talent is something that we must take care of together, as the curators of the ‘Common Inn’ suggest, we need to discuss and dissect the white patriarchal success model. But an open call in which participants have to pay their own money in order to be able to show their work does not, in my opinion, fit in with the ideas of the commons. As far as I’m concerned, this is just another perpetuation of the system.’

According to Te Velde, the same preconceptions play a role in product design, her own area of expertise. ‘It is a field in which the idea of renewal, innovation and young designers as agents of change predominates. It’s a very destructive model. In general, the design world is rather depoliticised. This comes as no surprise, since its origins lie in industry. In addition, the design canon is not only very white, but it has always been very middle and upper class. There are still lots of designers working on subjects that make me think: what a luxury that you can be busy with something like that! And also: just how small must your world be?’

Open to Real Change

The most important appeal that Te Velde would like to make is, on the one hand, that we consider the limitations of the competitive, precarious success model and, on the other, to examine white privilege and the (preliminary) judgemental attitudes that arise from it in order to adjust our definition of what talent is and who is talented.

‘We often lack the willingness and sensitivity to speak honestly and openly about these issues. Opening up this discussion means relinquishing control and power. We need new definitions and criteria. But why would the “gatekeepers” even consider this? They feel very comfortable and at home. They’d rather play with a “superlative selection” of new talent than – ironically enough – nurture real innovation. Naturally I hope that this remark will be taken as encouragement to do so!’

Interview: Lotte Haagsma