Aart van der Maas – Culture commons and community cultural centres towards an inclusive city

Aart van der Maas’s socio-cultural PhD research focuses on the relationship between the inclusive city and ‘culture commons’ – a term that refers to collective, cultural practices initiated by citizens, without direct involvement of the market and/or government. His research aims to determine if and how community cultural centers in Utrecht might contribute to a more inclusive city by working with culture commons and so-called ‘commoning’ principles.

His research is situated in the urban context of Utrecht, where five community cultural centres at eight different locations have been established as artistic citizen’s initiatives since the 1990s. Over the years, these cultural institutions have functioned as an important link between (neighbourhood) residents, the market and urban and regional cultural policies. The emergence of such community cultural centres corresponds to a broader international trend: urban cultural and arts policy is increasingly seen as an instrument to achieve the objectives of social cohesion, inclusion and urban renewal (see for example: Merle, 2002; Van Erven, 2013; Lees & Melhuish, 2015; Moulaert, MacCallum, Mehmood & Hamdouch, 2015; De Vos & Verhagen, 2017). As such, the five community cultural centres in Utrecht are viewed as the ‘cultural infrastructure’ of the city. They are therefore given the responsibility to respond to social developments such as the rise of urban diversity (Cultuurnota 2017-2020). After all, Utrecht is increasingly becoming a city of ‘superdiversity’ where concepts such as assimilation and immigration no longer suffice, since there is no longer a clearly-defined majority group (Crul, 2016; Oosterlynk, Verschraegen & Van Kempen, 2019).

Up till now, research into cultural interventions (such as community art) and associated (inter)national cultural policies, has focused primarily on “socialisation and binding cohesive behaviour” (Matarasso, 1997; Otte & Gielen, 2019). As a result, it remains unclear how and to what precise extent cultural interventions and projects contribute to social inclusion and social renewal in superdiverse urban areas (see, among others: Lees & Melhuish, 2015; Otte & Gielen, 2019). Moreover, there is a considerable amount of international criticism of social and cultural projects managed top-down by the government. Structural changes only come about through bottom-up and commons-driven initiatives of various groups of people (see, among others: Moulaert, MacCallum, Mehmood & Hamdouch, 2015); Dockx & Gielen, 2018). This doctoral study therefore seeks to examine how community cultural centres might offer a lasting infrastructure for the initiation of culture commons and/or the facilitation of so-called ‘commoners’. This requires research into the relationship between the government, community cultural centres and commoners’ initiatives. Here, the government serves in a facilitating role to help develop the framework within which forms of self-government are made possible.

The central research question is:

How can community cultural centres work with culture commons and ‘commoning’ principles to contribute to an inclusive society in the city of Utrecht?

By way of such theoretical concepts as ‘culture commons’ and the ‘(culturally) inclusive society’, this docoral study aims to provide an innovative, scientific basis for the study of the function of community cultural centres and the implications of this function for (municipal) governmental policies. In various articles and papers [see for example: Gilbert, 2014; Gielen, 2013, Otte, 2015 and Otte & Gielen, 2019) the authors point out that the current (policy-based) concept of “community” is problematic, since it increasingly emphasises a “we-feeling”, resulting in further social exclusion. A ‘common’, by contrast, does not place emphasis on shared identity. Rather, it highlights a common resource characterised by a non-hierarchical, open structure and ‘dissensus’. Dissensus within commons is associated with mutual conflicts and open-ended experiments. Commons are difficult to control and commoners maintain a problematic relationship with current (municipal) policies aimed at “poldering” and consensus (Otte & Gielen, 2019; Rooijakkers, 2019).