First among equals? The art institution today

(c) James Wheeler

Shedding light on the current debate about the position of the art institution in the Flemish arts field

The debate about art institutions is not a new one. Earlier this year, it again flared up with the public ambition of three Flemish municipal theatres to become an institution. The issue also exists at the level of policy. The question of possible and desirable roles for institutions has been the subject of legislative work in multiple legislatures. In the run-up to its new policy memorandum on culture, the current Flemish government is also pushing the institutions as mainstays.

In September 2019, Flanders Arts Institute brought together a number of voices in the debate for a public discussion of the topic. This article summarises the most important questions and arguments in this debate. To provide context, we will first briefly look back at the history of the institutions in our arts landscape.

The art institutions: Who and what?

Art institutions are large-scale initiatives with national and international appeal and an important symbolic value in cultural policy. They are organisations with a structural link to the Flemish Community. The seven Flemish art institutions are Ancienne Belgique, Brussels Philharmonic/Flemish Radio Choir, Concertgebouw Brugge, deFilharmonie, deSingel, Arts Centre Vooruit and Kunsthuis. They must meet certain conditions:

  • A focus on the five functions development, production, presentation, participation and reflection
  • Artistic excellence
  • International relevance
  • Sustainable development of tradition and innovation
  • Social and cultural embedding and engagement
  • National scale and good in-house infrastructure
  • Strong and dynamic management and sound financial policy
  • Compliance with the principles of good governance
  • Attention for art and cultural education, in collaboration with the education sector
  • Support for starting artists

In exchange, they can count on a separate assessment process, a substantial part of the available subsidies, and certainty about their continued existence. There is sometimes resentment about this in the rest of the arts sector, which is suffering from successive rounds of economising.

Origin and development

Various state reforms gave Flanders the opportunity to develop its own cultural policy from the 1970s and 1980s. After the founding of the cultural centres for the broad distribution of art, work was also done on a Flemish art policy, in consultation with a new generation of Flemish artists and art houses (the so-called ‘art centres’, established within the sector). Existing houses also contributed, driven among others by a new “Flemish wave” in the arts. Flanders benefited from the “law of the handicap of a head start”: since it was starting fresh, it was unimpeded by bureaucracy or cumbersome structures, and work could be done on a dynamic arts policy, the benefits of which we continue to reap today.

The Landscape Sketch of the Arts shows how strong the international reputation of the Flemish arts is and how broadly it extends: from individual artists to ensembles, from small to larger groups, from media ‘stars’ to top international talent in artistic niches, from both deceased and living artists. This would not have been possible without the cultural policy that was established in recent decades in consultation with the ambitious arts field. The arts and heritage institutions, previously referred to as the ‘institutions of the Flemish Community’, also have a place in this success story.

Unlike the other players in the field, the institutions are close to the Flemish government. This bond with the government is formalised in management agreements and with specific conditions for recognition.

Due to their scale, their reputation and the top quality they present, the art institutions are of great importance. Their infrastructure, programmes and artistic staff legitimise a demand for sufficient resources. In addition, many other Flemish art organisations are responsible for the production, presentation and international distribution of a rich range of high-quality art. Flanders is known and famous worldwide for its early music, its children’s and youth theatre, its dance and performance art, contemporary music, art films, its visual work and the many innovative crossovers between art and technology. A large part of this work does not pass through institutions.

Arguments on the table today

Today the question is: how do we maintain our strength as Flemish arts field, how do we consolidate our international edge? Or: how can we ensure that artistic Flanders can look to the future with confidence, even in a context of economising? And what role can the art institution play in this? This was also the approach of the public conversation with Jerry Aerts (deSingel), Michaël De Cock (KVS) and Karlien Vanhoonacker (Pianofabriek), on 9 September at Vooruit.

The Flemish arts landscape is pre-eminently a level playing field with considerable room for artistic initiative, facilitated by the government and a strong network of public organisations. The assessment of subsidy applications is primarily done by peers, which is remarkable and is evidence of strong mutual trust. In such a system where the inflow and outflow of players are common, it seems strange to bet on a select group of “firsts among equals”. How do you place the rather stable and centrally managed institution in the more flexible, facilitating system of the Arts Decree, in a way that promotes artistic innovation and excellence?

To answer that question, many refer to the extensive set of roles that an institution assumes. An art institution meets a long list of conditions for recognition. Conditions such as ‘social and cultural engagement’ and ‘support for starting artists’ point to an explicit alliance with other players in the field. The debate does sometimes take a critical look at the form this alliance takes. A number of institutions, for example, collaborate with smaller players with carefully developed expertise related to a specific function. In this way they recognise the specialisation that is sometimes hidden ‘deep in the field’. Another approach consists of co-productions, or supporting artists by offering residencies. Some argue that institutions should have the courage to go further, and, for example, be required to more explicitly take up a public (spokesperson)/megaphone role for the entire field in advocating artistic-social issues: good governance, fair practices in collaborating with artists, more explicit attention to inclusiveness, or the importance of supporting projects as oxygen for innovation. On the other hand, others warn not to place all responsibility for the field with the institution: for them, an institution must first of all develop its own, unique identity.

No one in the debate denies that it is difficult for an institution to excel in such a wide spectrum of tasks. How feasible is it for a single organisation to fulfil all the functions defined by the decree equally well, even in alliance with other players? Consider development and reflection: is not this type of role already filled by smaller and less visible players, who deserve extra support in this endeavour? Or also: how can institutions that are expected to act internationally as ambassadors of an arts landscape, intervene with equal strength in local meaning-giving processes or tinker with difficult social issues in their city or municipality? Scale and institutionalisation can stand in the way of these kinds of tasks.

Furthermore, it is also pointed out that while the status of institution has its advantages – such as a relative guarantee of a future – it also has disadvantages, such as a smaller room to manoeuvre and a strict management agreement. But the most frequently heard objection is based on the privileged position that this status entails, which leads to division in a field that eminently depends on interdependencies. No functioning stages without good art projects, no institutions without a healthy artistic field.

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