‘Life is enriched when you’re confronted with multiple viewpoints’ – Interview Clayde Menso AFK

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed Clayde Menso the newly appointed director of the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK) for TEDxAmsterdam. It was a very inspiring conversation on his vision on the role of art in society. Below you can read the interview.

At TEDxAmsterdam, our partners are very, very valuable. First, they make it possible for us to create a diverse program five times a year. Second, they are a great help in realizing the TEDxAmsterdam Award. Third and last but certainly not least: the way they share their visions inspires us to think and do things differently. That’s why we like to present to you interviews with inspirational thinkers, working at leading positions in our partner’s companies. This week, we like to present to you Clayde Menso, the new director from The Amsterdam Fund of the Arts.

To reach the office of the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK in short) you have to  take three stairs, which is quite a task with my immensely heavy bag pack. But once I entered the light, open space all of that is forgotten and I can enjoy the many colorful design objects, eye-catching material studies and the stunningly beautiful view of the IJ that the AFK office has to offer.

From this friendly environment, the AFK supports visual artists, photographers, dancers, performers, (play) writers, filmmakers, cultural organizations, schools, community theaters, established venues and amateur groups; in short- as they say themselves – anyone with a good idea that has artistic value and needs some support in order to fully blossom. One of the highlights for the AFK is the annual presentation of the Amsterdam Prize for the Art the most important art award of the city for artists or institutions that make an exceptional contribution to the arts in Amsterdam. The prize has, just to give an example, in the past been awarded to TEDxAmsterdam’s speakers Claron McFadden and Daria van den Bercken.

Clayde Menso

Taking risks in doing things differently
The AFK aims to serve as a quality mark for innovative and vibrant cultural life in Amsterdam –  not a modest ambition. An ambition requiring an organization which is prepared to take risks and is not afraid of doing things differently. ‘We don’t mind being the first, or taking risks’, ensures Clayde Menso. ‘As we are the only municipal fund for the arts in the Netherlands, we are very flexible and capable of innovating’. Menso, who is from the young age of 16 years already an enthusiastic organizer, program manager, supporter and of course a consumer of the Amsterdam arts, says the AFK has gone through many changes since he started as a deputy director at the AFK, now almost six years ago.

First, the AFK has developed alternative financial instruments to provide artists with the right means. In 2010, this led to the successful and very popular crowd funding platform voordekunst, where creatives present their projects in hope for financial resources from the audience. Also unique about the AFK is the use of so-called culture scouts which serve as the eyes and ears of the AFK. They locate new cultural initiatives and look for opportunities and most important, they help artists, institutions and other art-initiators to find their way within the funding possibilities. Finally, the AFK has gone through big organizational changes to serve the artists more by offering a continuous possibility to ask for funding by organizing a so-called consultation hour. ‘That’s the thing with artists’, Menso states, ‘if you’re an artist, you’re an artist. You don’t need money to be an artist, you just do it either way. In my job I see so many artists who work so hard, they’re being so passionate. So I don’t mind working hard for them, helping them realize their ambitions’.

Enriching the city through art
The mission of the AFK is to enrich the city of Amsterdam with art and culture, as Menso explains. ‘We believe that life is enriched when you’re confronted with multiple viewpoints. Public art, whether you like it or not, does something with its surroundings. It gives you a new view on where you live, it can create social awareness and sometimes it creates social cohesion’.

One of Menso’s favorite projects is the Wijksafari of Adelheid Roosen and Zina. A project which started in Slotermeer, an area in Amsterdam which has not a very good name due to the low social-economic status of the people who live there and the massive riots that took place some years ago.  To tackle the one-sided image of this neighborhood, Roosen asked eight theater artists from different disciplines to let themselves ‘adopt’ by eight residents from different cultures.

To really create a more in depth experience, the artists took the audience on a four hour scooter tour through the Amsterdam suburb. Menso recalls his own safari lively: ‘One moment you’re with ten people standing in a living room witnessing the daily routine of a Moroccan family, the next moment you’re on the back of a scooter on your way to a shop, and the next thing you know you are amazed by a muslimlooking lady in her car singing old Dutch melodies. It’s totally confusing and wonderful at the same time but it gives you the input you need to think about your own prejudices. That’s what art can do’.

This project highlights for Menso what he finds unique about the cultural climate of Amsterdam: its diversity. ‘One day you can experience a project like Wijksafari, the next day you listen to a children’s concert at the Concertgebouw. Amsterdam has it all. Or at least we like to think we have.’

TED: Tell the stories that need to be heard
Nowadays it is more important than ever to communicate about the value of art, says Menso. ‘Because of the political view on art of the last cabinet, the way they dealt with the cut-backs and the tone they choose to communicate about that, the art scene has lost a lot of support of regular people. So it has become even more important to communicate what art is, what it means and what it can be’. This means that, as an artist you need to be in constant contact with your audience, and explain what you are doing and tell the people why what you are doing is important. Menso: ‘Culture should be owned by the public and artists can play a much bigger role in the challenges that are now at play in society. ’

This is exactly why the AFK supports TEDxAmsterdam warm-heartedly, because of the unique mix of people it attracts. In the eyes of Menso, the TEDxAmsterdam audience comes from a diverse context but they are all equally hungry for information and inspiration. The AFK believes that with names like Amsterdam Prize winner Daria van den Bercken, Leonard van Munster, PipsLab, Sabrina Starke and Nanine Linning, TEDxAmsterdam has found artists who can provide emotion, confrontation and depth in both word and deed. ´We are confident that there is a total experience created by TEDxAmsterdam that simultaneously increases the support for art and artists in society.´

More so, TEDxAmsterdam can provide a stage to tell stories that need to be heard. Menso anwers my question of what he would like to talk about if he could give a TED-talk with the remark that he would definitely take his chance to communicate how art can enrich peoples life: ‘I think it is very tragic that people these days only look at the financial part of art. Or worse; they aren’t even looking at art as if it was an investment. People see art as a waste of time and even worse: as a waste of tax money. All the wealth art has brought to the city of Amsterdam seems to have been forgotten’.

This year, with the re-opening of the Stedelijk Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Goghmuseum and the celebration of the Amsterdam canals, it’s according to Menso really time to acknowledge that such fantastic cultural institutions only flourish with a lot of creativity and possibilities for experimenting. And, Menso thinks, this very support for these kinds of experiments is diminishing.

‘Funny thing is, the people who reject support for form experiments, have an iPod which is developed through a lot of design experiments. They listen to popular music, where one could recognize influences of classical music. Each Van Gogh needed material studies, each track by Beyoncé has started with experimenting with a melody. Judgment about what is valuable is done too quickly’.

Popular culture in the center, needs the experiments in more peripheral areas, stresses Menso:  ‘People don’t realize that if we take away these experiments, the nature of popular culture will also change noticeably, and not for the better. So, what I would tell the TEDxAmsterdam audience is that we should be aware that many people have worked with all their hearts and minds, for many of years, on things we take for granted these days. I think that is the value of TED; that there’s room to communicate these stories, which desperately need to be told’.

Further Reading
Read my other partner interviews with Wassili Bertoen (Deloitte), Erik Hoving (KPN), Maurits Duynstee and Robert Specken (ING) about their partner’s choice for TEDxAmsterdam and inspiring ideas about innovation.

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