Arts field in lockdown

“The Act of Patience”, an edition by artist Kevin Reynaert, published in a 2000-piece puzzle for entertainment in times of quarantine

What consequences does the corona crisis have for the arts sector in Flanders and Brussels? While the crisis is still unfolding, we will try to already clarify a number of issues: Where do the current problems lie? Where can we expect to see further consequences? How is the sector itself dealing with the crisis?

A first obvious consequence concerns health issues: a part of the population – including people active in the arts – will be infected with the corona virus COVID-19. It may seem obvious, but it is important to point out the difference between this health risk and the consequences of the government measures to combat the risk of infection. In recent weeks, attention in the sector and the public debate about the arts has mainly focused on these consequences and it is these consequences that we will explore further in this article.

In general you can say that the ban on cultural activities and other gatherings has made two things very difficult for people in the arts sector: 1) the relationship with the audience and 2) the relationship with other actors within and outside the arts sector. We will first analyse these two aspects. Then we will examine the most heavily discussed topic, namely the economic impact. We then close with some tentative and cautious calculations related to the corona crisis.

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Theater FroeFroe is making video recordings of its productions available free of charge via Vimeo (password: froefroe). Image from “Foetshie”.

The intimate connection with the audience

Art (performing arts, music, visual arts, literature, etc.) becomes meaningful in interaction with the audience. Due to the compulsory cancellation of performances, concerts, exhibitions, socio-artistic and art education activities, author lectures, cinema visits and other events, the bond with the (live) audience has been cut. This fundamental insight explains the numerous bottom-up initiatives from the arts sector to connect with their audience in a different way [I].

This alternative is usually via an online channel. For example, many artists and organisations are now sharing recordings or live streams of performances, concerts and lectures, virtual exhibition visits, podcasts or text material on social media or their website. Sometimes it concerns new work, other times archive recordings. A number of initiatives even encourage co-creation (e.g. Lennart Heyndels’ “Overdub Project”). Note that most of these activities are freeof charge. Unlike many cancelled events, the public is not required to pay to enjoy this digital content.

In addition to the earlier art-philosophical explanation, these activities can also be viewed from an occupational psychology perspective. The study “Loont Passie?” [Does Passion Pay?] teaches us that appreciation and feedback from an audience are a part of the job satisfaction of artists that should not be underestimated. In many cases, the alternatives to reaching an audience during the corona crisis will not produce the same level of satisfaction — think of artists who are used to interacting with a live audience. Nevertheless, we expect that these initiatives, which maintain the bond with spectators and listeners, play an important role in the psychosocial well-being of artists.

Interdependencies with other actors

We discuss how the disturbed relationship with other actors inside and outside the arts field has repercussions for developing and making art, and for presenting that art to the public.

Development, production and participation

In some art branches, the bond with fellow artists isas fundamental as the bond with the audience. Think of ensembles, groups, companies, film crews or architectural and design agencies. Or think of participatory art practices, in which the distinction between the audience and fellow artists is removed. The artistic productions they create come about through group interaction. We certainly may not forget support services such as sound and light technicians, cameramen, stage hands and props managers.

Collaborating with others on an artistic work is not completely excluded in times of quarantine. There are sufficient digital tools available that make it possible to remotely discuss, compose, write and so on. But the question then arises how this influences the creative process and whether certain aspects of that creative process must inevitably take place live, in physical proximity to the co-makers.

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Daan Vandewalle recorded 46 piano pieces in collaboration with the Concertgebouw in Bruges. Under the name of “Caress”, one is shared each day on social media.

Artists who primarily develop their work individually also deserve mention here. After all, some (e.g. visual artists) depend on materials and tools provided by third parties. If these are not available, their artistic work is also partially or completely hindered.

An important additional aspect here is the location where they work with and store these materials. Those who rent studio or rehearsal space (or any space that is not part of one’s own residence), are affected by the limited mobility and the ban on gathering, and simply are unable to reach these locations. For the same reasons, studios and residencies are closingtheir doors.

Presentation, distribution and promotion

There are many other actors between artist and audience who are experiencing the consequences of the crisis. This concerns presenting organisations, festivals, (freelance) curators and performing arts programmers, galleries, managers, agents, shops, cinemas, distributors and so on. The circumstances also severely disrupt the relationship with the audience and artists for them too.

These include initiatives to allow the public to enjoy the art that they present, distribute or promote via among others (video) recordings and virtual tours. Here you also see a lot of free activities, but some things are being made available using a pay formula. Artists of course can also engage in remote paid distribution (see the example of Kevin Reynaert), whether or not through existing (online) sales channels.

Two important footnotes need to be made to the above. First, the consequences of the corona crisis described do not apply to all actors located between artist and audience. Streaming platforms (Spotify, Netflix and YouTube are among the best known), for example, can still serve their listeners and viewers in the same way (and perhaps are reaching even more people during the quarantine). Second, remote paid distribution does not take place fully online. Physical objects such as works of art or music albums still have to be sent via mail and courier services. There, of course, the corona crisis is causing disruptions or delays.

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Not a new initiative, but back in the spotlight: Re:Rosas by fABULEUS in collaboration with Rosas

Economic impact

The topic that most of those involved in art are most concerned about in articles, interviews, reactions and open letters are the economic consequences [II]. And these are quite complex for individual artists as well as art organisations.

Impact on artistic activitiesSeveral of the artistic activities described above – producing, presenting and distributing work – generate income for the artists, art workers and organisations involved through ticketing, the sale of works, buy-out fees, co-productions and so on. These sources of income may not be there if these activities do not take place [III]. Moreover, debts are incurred if investments made beforehand (for the construction of an exhibition or a stage, booked transportation costs, etc.) are not recouped, even if the activity is moved to a later date.

Problems also arise if subsidies (project or structural) are received or if one works under a tax shelter scheme. You may not be able to complete the activities for which you are being supported. With regard to the Flemish culture subsidies and the federal tax shelter, the government administrations have already let it be known that they will be flexible in the case of force majeure. However, these are not the only government domains and levels from which artists and arts organisations receive support in practice.

Three things are important to keep in mind here. First, it’s not only about events cancelled during the period gatherings are banned. If groups cannot create or rehearse together, or if individual makers are unable to continue working, this of course will have an impact on the possibilities after the lockdownperiod.

Second, there is the international character of the Flemish arts sector. The Landscape Sketch of the Arts described this as a strength, but also as something that entails threats. Crisis situations such as a pandemic are particularly acute when it concerns international activities. At some point, the risk of infection and the corresponding measures will decrease in Belgium. Presumably the crisis will still be raging in another part of the world. Those who are active outside Belgium, who work closely with foreign artists and organisations or who receive foreign subsidies, will still have a problem [IV].

Third, we do not know how the public (in Belgium and abroad) will react when the measures have ended. Some of that audience may avoid large groups of people, out of fear of becoming infected. This can have consequences for audience turnout and the associated income.

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Argos launches Argos TV: Each Friday a work from its collection is made available free of charge via its website. The first is “Double Take” by Johan Grimonprez.

Impact beyond the artistic

In fact, the loss of income described by the disappearance of artistic activities is only part of the picture. After all, artists as holders of multiple jobs deviate from the normal employment situation. Research shows that only a minority derive their full income from their core artistic activities. These are usually combined with other jobs within and outside the arts, ranging from teacher to work in the hospitality sector. As such, they often fall under a mix of labour regulations.

The consequences of the crisis for other sectors therefore also directly affect a significant part of the arts field in Flanders and Brussels. Therefore in calculating the economic losses for individual artists, it is not enough to look at the artistic activities alone. On the other hand, holders of multiple jobs may be eligible for the various support measures for different sectors and types of employment status. The word ‘may’ is used because the specificity of their job combinations and their tasks can also result in them falling through the cracks. Moreover, individual artists will need some administrative know-how to find their way through the system [V].

Arts organisations too derive their income from a diversity of sourcesand these sources are not necessarily artistic activities. For example, some houses earn income from catering activities or auditorium rental. In the case of smaller organisations, it is possible that one of the parties involved is investing private resources, which may have been obtained through other than artistic work.

Some figures

Are there figures already available that help make the impact on the Flemish arts sector more tangible? The answer is yes, but taking into account the previous paragraphs, we know that these figures A) reflect only some aspects of the full impact on arts practice and B) will change as the crisis unfolds worldwide and therefore are also incomplete for that specific aspect.

Flanders Arts Institute has attempted to make a rough, preliminary estimate of cancelled, postponed or interrupted events. This was done on the basis of its own databases (also see here). To this end we counted all events planned for this period from 10 March 2020 (the beginning of the ban on cultural events) to 31 August 2020 (the projected end date of the ban on mass gatherings). We extrapolated this from data of previous years. This resulted in the following:

Type of eventnumber
(estimate)
Premieres (domestic and foreign) of new productions and reruns of Flemish performing arts360
Foreign presentations of Flemish performing arts2600
Solo and group expositions and residencies (foreign and domestic) Flemish visual artists170
Music concerts abroad by Flemish artists3000

Just to be clear, the above concerns events that would take place between March and August. So in fact this does not yet take into account preparations that were made during this period.

Furthermore, various surveys are being circulated in the arts and culture sector concerning the impact of the corona crisis. These include the Meldpunt COVID-19 in Cultuur hotline of artist platform SOTA/State of the Arts (check the results here), the survey by Circuscentrum in the Flemish circus sector, or the member surveys conducted by interest groups such as employer organisation oKo and the Flemish culture and community centre association VVC. Several of these surveys also assess financial losses. On 17 March SOTA, for example, presented a preliminary estimated loss of 1.75 million euros among 400 different culture workers active in Belgium.

Conclusion

This article does not pretend to provide a razor-sharp and complete picture of the Flemish arts field in the corona crisis. It is an initial exploratory study that tries to carefully sketch a framework for placing the situations that the sector is confronted with in a broader context. 

In this exploratory study, we identified the physical health of artists and art workers, their psychosocial well-being, their economic situation and the nature of their artistic practices as the areas where the corona crisis is having an impact. These consequences are not only negative: we see numerous bottom-up initiatives that retain the connection with the audience even in times of social distancing. Yet there are also quite a few elements that give cause to reflect: the stagnation of a significant part of artistic production, presentation and distribution, a complex tangle of financial repercussions and a possible redrawing of the landscape.

Footnotes

[I] For an overview of bottom-up initiatives in the sector, see e.g. this article on VRT NWS or Podiumaanhuis.be (video recordings of performances and concerts, collected by Cultuurconnect). For an overview from the Netherlands, see the Boekman Foundation website.

[II] See for example the article “Het financiële slagveld genaamd Corona” [The financial battlefield called Corona] by Wouter Hillaert in Rekto:Verso. See also the appeal by State of the Arts, GALM, NICC and the Actors Guild for “Een covid-19 noodfonds voor de culturele sector!” [A Covid-19 emergency fund for the cultural sector!], the petition of the Actors Guild and Artists United to grant temporary unemployment status to artists and technicians with short-term contracts, or the open letter of the European performing arts sector on ‘Fair treatment of freelance artists during the COVID-19 crisis’.

[III] Minister Jambon recommends not requesting a refund for tickets to cultural events. Several culture houses are contacting people who bought tickets for cancelled events to ask whether or not they would forgo their refund (or accept compensation in the form of a voucher).

[IV] Flanders Arts Institute itself is an example here: an international conference organised as part of the Creative Europe project RESHAPE was forced to go digital.

[V] In this article Nikol Wellens explains the different replacement income options available to freelance artists.

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