- Since the 17th century the city has been known for its liberal thinking and tolerance
- It encourages its many visitors to explore beyond the city centre by branding and promoting its neighbourhoods
- Increasingly cultural policies and activities in Amsterdam have a broader citywide and regional scope, rather than being concentrated around one area.
City data: Key facts
- Geographical area: 2,580 sq. km
- Total population: 2,503,000
- Percentage of total national population living in the city: 15%
- Education level – percentage with degree level or higher: 42%
- GDP (PPP) million: US$ 170,878
- Percentage creative industries employment: 9%
The earliest written record of Amsterdam dates from 1275, referring to a small village on the river Amstel. On this basis, the city is planning its 750th birthday celebrations for 2025. Amsterdam has had a history of trade and innovation, as well as a reputation for liberalism and tolerance, beginning with its involvement in the Enlightenment. In modern times, that liberalism has expressed itself variously in support for its LGBTQI+ community, its legalisation of soft drugs and sex work, and in attracting a multicultural population. Today around 900,000 live in the city, and 2.5 million in the wider metro area, with a third of Amsterdam’s residents born outside the Netherlands.
The city combines historic assets such as its UNESCO World Heritage Site canal ring, and famous painters from Rembrandt and Vermeer, with a vibrant modern creative sector and night life. This includes its yearly Amsterdam Dance Event, which is the largest electronic music festival in the world, DGTL, a global festival aiming to become the first circular, climate-neutral event of its scale, and in 2021, the launch of Amsterdam’s first Night Vision Strategy. Over the last two decades, Amsterdam has invested extensively in cultural infrastructure. More than 25 institutions have been built, rebuilt or refurbished, including the central public library, the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum, Hermitage Amsterdam and the De La Mar theatre. Much of this was financed via public-private partnerships.
The city spends an annual budget of €136 million on arts and culture, as part of its Cultural Strategy 2021-24. The Cultural Strategy focusses strongly on diversity and inclusion, and recommends institutions it subsidises to provide an action plan on these topics. It also wants to extend cultural venues, which are easy to find everywhere in the ‘old’ city, into newer residential districts such as Noord, Zuidoost and Nieuw-West. It aims to create new infrastructure ranging from music schools to neighbourhood stages, rehearsal rooms, libraries and public art. The city is also developing a reference standard, that states the square meter of culture that should be offered per capita.
Amsterdam is also supporting cultural organisations explore digital and innovative ways to reach audiences. A new public-private partnership, DigitALL, is designed to help cultural institutions connect with the public through digital technology. It works with all types of institutions but with a focus on collaboration between different cultural institutions.
One of Amsterdam’s most pressing problems is a lack of space and rising costs of living, which is making it very hard to secure real estate for the cultural sector, as well as pushing creatives out of the city. It is therefore developing new ways to make space at least temporarily available, including offering vacant land and buildings for cultural events – and extending the use of street space. Additionally, artists can apply to rent living or studio space directly from the city itself, helping with affordability.
Preserving its international links is also a priority. Amsterdam has attracted artists from abroad with festivals including Dance Summer Forever, featuring hip hop, and the Holland Festival, showcasing performing arts. The city also sees its citizens’ international connections as an advantage in developing a world-facing culture. Just one example is the Andalusian Orchestra, based in Nieuw-West, which creates work with artists from Marrakesh, Tangier and Casablanca.
Prior to the pandemic, many involved in culture and tourism in the city feared that the scale of tourism was making Amsterdam unliveable for residents. Issues ranged from too many properties repurposed for short tourist lets, shops selling souvenirs squeezing out those serving everyday needs; a spiralling cost of living; and permanent tourist crowds. Proposed policy interventions included encouraging high spend cultural tourists and guiding them around the city with dedicated apps, while discouraging low spend groups likely to disrupt Amsterdam with anti-social behaviour. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has given the city the opposite problem of too few tourists – first due to lockdowns and then due to a slow return of visitors.
As the City confidently develops its cultural offering for its citizens, it is still grappling with the tension between over-tourism and under-tourism, as well as a hesitancy of visitors to return to in-person cultural experiences, impacting the cultural sector’s recovery.