Climate Regulation

Perspective on climate change and sustainability in the arts sector and policy in Flanders and Brussels

This article was written for the publication Towards Sustainable Arts. European best practices and policies by Boekman Foundation, the Dutch institute for arts, culture and related policy.

Torrential rains, heat waves, storms; the world felt the effects of global warming in the summer of 2021. In the meantime, it has been six years since the international leaders made a legally binding commitment in Paris to jointly limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius (COP 2015).

The EU is even aiming for Europe to be the first continent to be climate neutral by 2050, and is drawing up a schedule for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with interim targets to be achieved in 2020 and 2030 (European Green Deal 2019).

When editing the Landscape Sketch of the Arts – a strengths-weakness analysis of the arts sector that Flanders Arts Institute publishes every five years at the start of a new policy period – we found it self-evident to include a chapter on climate-conscious action in future plans during the period between these two milestones (Kunstenpunt 2019). It was unclear at the time whether a climate policy tailored to the arts practice would be developed.

In this contribution, we draw up a new state of affairs regarding the attention that policy and the arts sector in Flanders and Brussels pay to this pressing social theme.

Sustainability: What’s in a name?

In his 2020 Strategic Vision Statement for the Arts, the Flemish Minister of Culture established the policy framework for the arts on the basis of the 2019-2024 Culture Policy Memorandum, the Flemish Government coalition agreement and the Landscape Sketch of the Arts. The impact of climate change on the arts is not discussed anywhere in this Vision Statement (Jambon 2020); keywords such as “climate”, “energy” or “transition” are not to be found. In the text, the minister usually uses the adjective “sustainable” as a synonym for “continuous”, “ongoing” or “permanent”. 

However, the word is used three times in a context in which we can understand (albeit implicitly) a reference to growing climate awareness, especially in paragraphs about design, infrastructure and internationalisation. The encouragement of sustainable (cross-sectoral) collaboration through the subsidy line of Innovative Partner Projects is also hopeful, since it creates opportunities for collaborations between artists or arts organisations and partners from the environmental sector or the circular economy. 

Another positive note is that Pulse (the Transition Network for culture, youth and media of which Flanders Arts Institute is an active partner) is mentioned by name as a knowledge network. This bottom-up network, co-founded in 2010 by the arts sector, connects some one thousand individuals and organisations that are working on a socially just and sustainable society in the areas of the arts, cultural heritage, socio-cultural adult work, youth work and the media.

However, the reality is that since 2013, this network has been running on uncertain annual and project resources, and requires long-term financial stability. For two legislatures now, cultural policy has been looking for a suitable framework for this cross-domain operation.

In the area of infrastructure, the Cultural Infrastructure Fund (FoCI) [1] provides partial assistance with additional resources available from the Flemish Climate Fund. The Ghent theatre, dance and music venue for children and youth Kopergietery, for example, was able to make their theatre and rehearsal space more energy efficient. But this temporary regulation will expire in 2021, while financial support for these renovations will continue to be needed in the future. The fact that infrastructure is an attention point in the Strategic Vision Statement for the Arts provides the opportunity to develop a broad and long-term vision of sustainability for this aspect. 

Proof that a sustainable policy does have an impact can be found in the Flemish Audiovisual Fund as an external subsidy provider for the Flemish Community. Production support for a feature film or TV series via the Flemish Audiovisual Fund is accompanied by coaching and tools to work as sustainably as possible. While the average CO2emissions of a film production in the baseline measurement was still set at 83 tonnes in 2013, it had already fallen to 73 tonnes in 2016. 

Unfortunately, it must be repeated that the arts sector rarely comes into the picture when climate policy is on the agenda at other levels [2] and domains of competence (mobility, energy, water…). In the development of measures to reduce emissions from transport, economic but not cultural stakeholders are involved. Even though there is indeed a link between cultural activities and the theme of transport.

We know from public surveys, for example, that the proportion of the public that travels to a cultural activity in a sustainable manner depends on the facilities available (Wellens 2017b). There is therefore a need for a wider and better coordinated offer of public transport during leisure time, more public bicycle parking areas and safer cycle paths. How can this knowledge from the cultural sector be used in this change process if there is no room for it at the discussion table?

photo: markus Spiske, Unsplash

Art and climate policy: global, local, integral?

Culture and nature have always been closely linked: nature has long been a source of inspiration for artists and art organisations. This is also the case for Musica’s Klankenbos (sound forest) in Pelt, a unique open air museum where visitors can discover among the trees installations by eighteen sound artists. This artistic experience of nature raises questions such as: “What does it sound like when the wind blows on a blade of grass? Can a pine cone be a musical instrument?” 

A number of artists focus not only on nature in their work, but also touch on aspects of climate change and sustainability. Visual artist Koen Vanmechelen, for example, has been asking questions about biodiversity since 1999 in his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project. [3]

In 2014, together with musician Stijn Meuris and filmmaker Nic Balthazar, he was one of the eleven founders of Klimaatzaak (Climate Case), a citizens’ movement using court litigation to demand better climate policy. Later, ten more artists joined this campaign as ambassadors. [4]

Architects and designers also contribute to the spatial and ecological dimensions of social transformations and give an impulse to the development of the circular economy. Art organisations such as 4AD, Ancienne Belgique, Kaaitheater… and networks such as Pulse and Greentrack Gent [5] share their artistic vision and practical experiences with sustainable solutions (Wellens 2016, Greentrack Gent 2017). But finding financing for the required knowledge and investments is a challenge (Wellens 2017a). 

When it comes to art and sustainability, the argument is often made that sustainability would mean an external limitation of artistic freedom, but not everyone in the arts field agrees with this appraisal. After all, the relationship between art and sustainability is not just about limiting the negative impact.

A positive impact is also possible, which starts from a certain conception of the autonomy of artistic practice that contributes to social development (Elfving 2017). The potential for social innovation in the arts does not consist of conclusive answers or concrete solutions, but of food for thought and imagination. 

Within transition processes, artistic practices and methods are highly valued, because they create the necessary space for imagination and experiment. Artists have a lot of experience with intuitive, process-oriented work, and can deal with unpredictability and setbacks. 

Ecological challenges are particularly acute at an international level; travelling differently and travelling less is quickly seen as a loss in other areas (De Moor 2019). Such paradoxes and big questions in the arts sector are no longer hidden away, which creates space to think about answers. There are opportunities to share this social contribution more widely through research and inspiring practical (visual) stories (Swillens 2021). 

A Flanders Arts Institute project illustrates this: in the context of the development project (Re)framing the International, we commissioned a text by writer, dramaturge and performer Jeroen Peeters about greater sustainability in international mobility (Peeters, 2017). At sector meetings, we then collected travel experiences with a low ecological footprint.

This material was visualised in our Start to train map: a map with destinations that can be reached by train from Brussels in less than 6.5 hours. 1,000 copies of the map were distributed free of charge within the arts sector via a network of partners in early 2020, and the map was shared far beyond by many thousands online.

Art can also play a valuable role in the policy-making of cities and municipalities. In the context of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 for sustainable development, cities and municipalities are working on shaping new policy on the basis of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Cultural and artistic partners can contribute to this in a critical and creative way and also take action locally.

A recent example: artist Anyuta Wiazemsky Snauwaert worked as an “embedded artist” at the Environment and Climate Department of the City of Ghent at the request of and at the expense of Greentrack Gent. The intention was to investigate how she could influence their approach based on her expertise, background and way of thinking as an artist. After an exploratory phase, it was decided that she would participate in an ongoing project, one of the 23 “testing grounds” for de-paving in Flanders. 

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A park, consisting of three green zones separated by paved intersections, will be redeveloped. Local residents are concerned about the historic value of the neighbourhood or the disappearance of parking spaces. According to Anyuta, the city of the future will be built not only by specialists. She brought together residents, officials, planners and contractors to share scientific, technical and practical knowledge of the site. As embedded artist she was given the space to question routine procedures and technical jargon (Steynen 2020). In 2021, she will complete her participation in this project in the form of an artistic project with local residents of the park. 

This project, with the title Cultural Adaptations was part of an international collaboration with partners in Glasgow, Göteborg and Dublin and was realised with a Creative Europe subsidy. Various collaborations on sustainable themes have taken place and are ongoing under this programme with Flemish and Brussels partners RESHAPE [6], Art Climate Transition [7], SHIFT [8]. Via Interreg, among others DEMO [9] and Green Screen [10] receive European support.


And then suddenly there was the corona virus. The measures to protect public health against the threat are having a major impact on the arts sector. In general you can say that the ban on or limited access to cultural activities and other gatherings since March 2020 has made two things more difficult for the arts sector: the relationship with the audience, and the relationship with partners within and outside the arts sector. 

Numerous aspects are cause for reflection on the part of all actors: the stagnation of a significant part of artistic production, presentation and distribution, a complex tangle of financial repercussions, and a possible reshaping of the arts landscape (Leenknegt 2020). 

Corona is not the great equaliser that people sometimes make of it. The pandemic brings the greatest problems of our time into sharp focus. This is not just a health crisis: the virus is linked to the impact of our behaviour on the environment, which in turn is linked to our mobility, linked to the search for fame, influence, and the way in which art builds symbolic value. 

When our mobility is restricted, digital applications take flight, creating opportunities for greater inclusion. At the same time, technology can be coercive and is founded on questionable values. In the project A Fair New World?!,Flanders Arts Institute bundles and connects today’s major challenges with research into the impact of the corona crisis

The consequences are not only negative: we see numerous bottom-up initiatives emerging that keep the bond between artists, art organisations, social partners and the public enthusiastic even in times of physical distance. This resilience gives hope: there are voices in the arts sector calling for an open up strategy instead of an exit strategy (Quackels & Van Lindt 2021). Momentum is gaining for questioning the major systemic relationships and dynamics, and to fully set in motion sustainable transformations. 

Art as a community and social space 

Extreme weather events resulted in floods, forest fires and droughts in the summer of 2021. Just like the pandemic, the most vulnerable were affected first and worst. In Belgium, 41 people died in the flood following heavy rainfall on 14 July 2021 and thousands of families lost their homes. In the same week, Fit for 55, the European Climate Plan and part of the Green Deal, was published. Shortly thereafter, the IPCC’s sixth climate report appeared: global warming is happening faster than expected and is undeniably man-made.

In addition to drastically reducing greenhouse gases, we also need adaptation strategies. Economics professor Mariana Mazzucato proposes using the seventeen SDGs as targets for all policy making. This vision changes all existing paradigms: policy can no longer pursue the status quo, and growth can only be achieved if it is sustainable and inclusive (Mazzucato 2021).

She argues for new institutions that citizens and government should develop together. The cultural world and the humanities play a major role for her in restoring mutual trust. Culture is a social space where people dream, push boundaries and can disagree. Until now, however, the debates in parliament and in the media have been polarising, and thus no consensus exists on what to do.

Sometimes approaches that seem contradictory at first can still be combined. It is not necessary for all the interests and ideas of the various actors to coincide completely. A diversified strategy takes into account shared interests, establishes links between diverse practices through experiments and networks, and is tolerant of tensions (Paredis 2014). 

We see artists, staff, volunteers and management taking major steps towards a more sustainable arts practice. There is no shortage of private initiatives and voluntary projects from diverse corners of the arts sector that contribute to the social transition process, in many cases without extra support.

At the same time, they prevent art from being reduced to a “future factory”. For years, climate policy support measures have been directed either at citizens or companies. The social potential of the arts and culture organisations is missing from the radar. In the quest to make real work of system change, a supportive policy framework is not an extravagant luxury.


[1] Since 1998, the Flemish government has provided a supra-local investment subsidy (FoCI) for the construction, expansion, renovation or acquisition of infrastructure of exceptional size in which a cultural operation is realised. For the period 2017-2021, making cultural infrastructure more energy-efficient is one of the three priorities.

[2] Belgium is a federal country with communities, regions, provinces and municipalities.

[3] The artist cross-breeds chicken breeds from different countries. The exhibitions and installations of his artwork shed light on crossbreeding and the diversity that results from it.

[4] The lawsuit started in 2014 with a formal notice. In March 2021, the judges ruled in their verdict that Belgian climate policy is so substandard that it violates the legal duty of care and human rights.

[5] Started in 2012 with four members, Greentrack has grown into a network of 56, representing all the major and smaller cultural organisations in Ghent. The initiative is working closely together with the City of Ghent in reducing CO2 emissions and in looking at climate adaptation.

[6] RESHAPE is a three-year research process that has developed alternative organisational models, structures and practices in the arts, in direct relation to society and its evolutions.

[7] ACT is a project initiated by ten cultural operators from ten European countries, working in the field of performing and visual arts.

[8] Shared Initiatives For Training is initiated by nine cultural networks and co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

[9] Cross-border cooperation between France and Belgium on sustainable development in the contemporary music sector.

[10] Green Screen’s mission is to inspire and educate the nomadic world of filming by creating sustainable working practices.


De Moor, M. (2019). About not taking the plane to Kristiansand.

Elfving, T. (2017). Residencies and future cosmopolitics.

Greentrack Gent. (2017). CO2-nulmeting Cultuur en Jeugd 2015.

Jambon, J. (2020). NOTA AAN DE VLAAMSE REGERING – Betreft: Strategische Visienota Kunsten, in uitvoering van het decreet van 13 december 2013 houdende de ondersteuning van de professionele kunsten (Kunstendecreet). Vlaamse Regering – read a summary in English.

Kunstenpunt (Red.). (2019). Landschapstekening Kunsten: Ontwikkelingsperspectieven voor de kunsten anno 2019. Kunstenpuntread a summary in English.

Leenknegt, S. (2020). Kunstenveld in lockdown. Een verkenning van de mogelijke impact op de kunstenpraktijk.

Mazzucato, M. (2021). Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism. Allen Lane

Paredis, E. (2014). Pleidooi voor een genuanceerde kijk op transitie. Oikos., 68, 71–86.

Peeters, J. (2018). Transition Exercises for a More Sustainable Mobility.

Quackels, A., & Van Lindt, B. (2021, april 20). An ode to proximity.

Stynen, E. (2020). Embedding imagination.

Swillens, V., Decuypere, M., Vandenabeele, J., Vlieghe, J. with Swillens, V. (corresp. author) (2021). Place-Sensing Through Haptic Interfaces: Proposing an Alternative to Modern Sustainability Education. Sustainability, 13 (8), 1-14.

Wellens, N. (2016). Naar een duurzame kunstenpraktijk: Een verkenning van baanbrekende organisaties en initiatieven. Bijdrage naar aanleiding van trefdag 2016 van Pulse Transitienetwerk Cultuur.

Wellens, N. (2017a). Wie gaat dat betalen?

Wellens, N. (2017b). Kunst- en vliegwerk.

About Towards Sustainable Arts

This article was written for the publication Towards Sustainable Arts. European best practices and policies by Boekman Foundation, the Dutch institute for arts, culture and related policy. The publication explores how this role takes shape in seven European countries, and offers inspiring examples and best practices for artists, cultural organisations and policy makers.

In seven chapters, experts from the Czech Republic, Finland, Flanders, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland and Spain investigate how cultural organisations in their country are becoming more sustainable, how artists are engaging with the climate crisis, and which role culture has in the general transition towards a greener society.

While each chapter contains many inspiring initiatives and ideas unique to each country, there are also striking similarities. In most countries sustainability is lacking in national cultural policy, and culture is missing in climate policy.

The project Towards sustainable arts was initiated by the Boekman Foundation: the Dutch institute for arts, culture and related policy. Research conducted in 2019 by the Boekman Foundation and Bureau 8080 showed that motivation to engage with sustainability was generally high among cultural organisations, but a lack of money, time and knowledge were mentioned often.

Based on the conviction that there is much knowledge to gain from initiatives and policies in different countries, the project Towards sustainable arts was started with the aim to bring together a variety of ideas and perspectives in the form of a digital publication.

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