Three themes in the run-up to the Strategic Vision Statement for the Arts

On 1 April, Prime Minister Jambon published his Strategic Vision Statement for the Arts, which sets out the main policy guidelines for the arts for the period 2019-2024. The policy document must also elaborate on those elements in the Culture Policy Memorandum that are relevant to the arts field such as the role and status of art institutions, or how to deal with art houses in search of greater financial security. In addition, it will probably present aspects that committees can take into account when assessing subsidy applications, for example the concern for repertoire, or also internationalisation and excellence, which were already mentioned in the Policy Memorandum.

The Landscape Sketch of the Arts by Flanders Arts Institute is intended to support the Strategic Vision Statement for the Arts: the latter sets the course for a ‘to be’, informed by the ‘as is’ as depicted in the Landscape Sketch.

In the run-up to the policy document, and with the strengths/weaknesses chapter of the Landscape Sketch in mind, we briefly discuss three aspirations that recur repeatedly in the field.

(1) The position of the artist

The call for fair treatment of artists is becoming increasingly louder. Their precarious social position was repeatedly highlighted in the Landscape Sketch as well as in previous research by Flanders Arts Institute. At the end of last year, employers’ organisation oKo came out with a fair practice charter; at the same time, many advocate that the resources for projects, grants and other subsidy lines that benefit individual makers be brought (back) up to standard.

Placing the artist at the centre would represent an important paradigmshift:in business negotiations as well as in thinking about art policy (ranging from subsidy lines to the types of organisations needed to support makers) and in enhancing Flanders’ artistic image – which is primarily a function of its art production more than its venues.

Fair practice ideally goes beyond business negotiations and also touches on inclusiveness, and recognises and takes into account implicit power relationships. Anne Breure aptly expressed this in a speech on the Dutch Fair Practice Code to the culture sector and policy makers in the Netherlands: according to her, this code is “(…) not a collection of rules. It’s about the conversation. About the fact that you are able to keep looking each other in the eye. That you are being honest about your motives and why you do something the way you do. It’s about transparency, trust, diversity, sustainability and solidarity. (…) From fair payment to sustainable practice.”

(2) Social cohesion and social awareness

Another shift that is taking place under our eyes is the drastically increased attention being paid to a multitude (and wide-ranging series) of issues of a social nature. Questions around identity, inclusiveness and inequality are being thematised and addressed virtually everywhere. On the one hand, this is not surprising: art operates in the midst of society and offers a platform for critical debate as well as recognition, appreciation and connection. On the other hand, this change did not happen by itself: it is underpinned by long-standing efforts by a wide range of committed activists. According to many, the work is far from finished.

Flanders has a finely-meshed network of large, medium and small venues. Provided the financial thresholds remain feasible, this geographical proximity lowers the threshold and brings art as close as possible to the citizen. A fitting challenge is therefore to develop a global vision of the relationships between the local, supra-local and national cultural policy levels, in order to strengthen the artistic ecosystem as a whole. Many stakeholders advocate landscape care in the sense of an integral, systemic approach to the field in policy choices, in the allocation of public funds, and so on. This includes the relationships between different policy levels, including of course the international.

(3) Maintaining a balance

The most distinctive feature of our artistic ecosystem, however, is the deep interconnectedness and interdependence of the various actors operating within it. The art institution needs the organisation for development, the arts centre offers things that go much further than tailor-made guidance and coaching, and nothing is possible without the art itself.

The Arts Decree makes possible an initial, rudimentary self-profiling based on functions in relation to the field as a whole. Each function – development, production, presentation, participation and reflection – invites actors in the field to take a critical look at their own added value in the larger whole. What gap do you aim to fill, what do you want to develop – whether concerning artistic content or ecosystem needs? This primary self-profiling does not prevent actors from further identifying as an arts centre, city theatre, art hall or music club.

Such an approach leads to mutual interdependence and intensive artistic exchange. This is only possible if the field continues to be organised in a sufficiently horizontal way. The introduction of separate or even ‘privileged’ categories could weaken this cohesion.

The context must also be taken into account. There is a difference between a self-regulating artistic ecosystem that has sufficient resources to “flourish”, versus a stagnation or contraction of resources, whereby choices become increasingly difficult (to almost impossible). In such a context, screening by peers from the field based on in-depth conversation is becoming increasingly important, and the need for sound landscape care is becoming crucial: allocating funds taking into account maintaining an equilibrium: disciplinary, with a view to functions, to artistic and cultural diversity, to geographic distribution, and so on. In this context, it is also worthwhile developing a refined policy framework for inflow and outflow, in which thresholds for newcomers do not become unrealistically high (which hinders innovation), but in which outflow can also be framed, and expertise and oeuvres secured.

These are just three (bundles of) themes that Flanders Arts Institute has repeatedly seen emerge in the broad field in recent months, which we are happy to provide to the sector and policy makers, not only for the Strategic Vision Statement for the Arts that is coming very soon, but also for the coming years. 

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