W.A.T. (Working Apart Together). The collective organisation of artistic practice within the performing arts

Wildflowers of Manitoba (c) Noam Gonick & Luis Jacob

Artists in different arts disciplines increasingly are working together to share knowledge, expertise, contacts and resources. The ‘self-organisation’ of artists has become a buzzword. This trend covers very diverse models and organisational forms that treat very different functions important to artistic development: not only creation, presentation and business support, but also reflection and debate, advocacy and even residencies. But there is one recurring element in all of these diverse endeavours. All are attempts and strategies to provide greater support in today’s knowledge economy, socio-economic as well as artistic, to the careers of individual artists, careers that have become more vulnerable. This paper gives an outline of new developments within the performing arts in Flanders, against the background of evolutions since the 1980s.

Dit artikel is enkel beschikbaar in het Engels.

Historical developments

Examining all art disciplines – not just the performing arts, but also visual arts and music – one can only conclude that artists operate in many different ways. Some prefer to work individually, others in collective projects and structures. Some prefer to associate with a single structure or company, others operate as freelancers working in diverse environments. Some commit themselves to long-term projects in cities, districts or even neighbourhoods. Others work as nomads: they are simultaneously involved in several projects in different countries. Many of these differences are related to the uniqueness of working within specific artistic disciplines. In literature or art, for example, artists mainly work individually. In the performing arts, music or film, collaboration is essential. That has always been so and is still the case. But from a social perspective, there are increasing similarities in the way artists venture into these very diverse fields. Also in sectors such as theatre, dance and music, the professional context of artistic practices has evolved in recent decades: more and more performing artists are working as freelancers, on an individual basis in a series of consecutive projects with different producing organisations.

When you look at the manner in which performing artists organised themselves in Flanders in the 1970s and 1980s, you see at that time a certain diversity in ways of working. Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels had larger city theatres that functioned as ensembles that presented repertory theatre in their own venues. In smaller cities such as Mechelen, Kortrijk and Tielt there were smaller ensembles that focused on presenting topical texts on stage. Thirdly, there were many smaller companies that made productions and toured the many cultural centres that had been built throughout Flanders since the 1960s. This diversity was reflected in the Theatre Decree (1975-1993). This decree, the first Flemish law regulating the organisation of the performing arts field, spoke of ‘repertory theatres’, ‘chamber theatres’, ‘touring companies’ and ‘experimental groups’. In these different ways of working, almost all of these structures consisted of a relatively stable core group of creators and performers, with a more or less strictly defined distribution of tasks.

Interesting for us are the evolutions that took place outside this legally developed system. A new generation of performing artists came to the fore that did not fit within this framework of the Theatre Decree. Today, some of these creators – such as Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (Rosas), Jan Fabre (Troubleyn), Jan Lauwers (Needcompany), Wim Vandekeybus (Ultima Vez) and Alain Platel (Les Ballets C de la B) – are playing at the world’s most prestigious venues. It was mainly for artistic reasons that they could not work within the prevailing system: dance and interdisciplinary work had no place in the Theatre Decree.

The way these emerging artists established their practice is interesting from today’s perspective. They worked via co-productions, with partners in Belgium and abroad. To organise their practice, they worked together closely and developed new, collective forms of organisation. Thus the nonprofit Schaamte vzw was established in 1978 to provide financial and organisational support to diverse performing artists (including Josse De Pauw, Jan Lauwers and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker). The management of this association was largely in the hands of the artists themselves: they bought a building in Brussels, where they installed rehearsal rooms, and where shared technical and administrative facilities were housed. There was strong economic solidarity amongst the artists: they shared international contacts, and the revenue from one artist’s tour was used to temporarily finance another’s new production.

Many of the ‘eighties generation’ quickly developed their own structure, tailored to the demands of their work. In 1988 Schaamte vzw merged with the Kaaitheaterfestival to become a producing and presenting organisation. By then, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker had founded Rosas and Jan Lauwers Needcompany. However, these were not the traditional companies one might have expected. The methods and structures they set up marked a paradigm shift in the way Flemish theatre organised itself. In the words of Marianne van Kerkhoven – an influential dramaturge who also critically guided the work of this generation – at that moment, a ‘situation was reached in which it became possible to give professionalism not only a social but finally also an artistic interpretation’:

‘One of the main levers for this was the awareness that the work structure also determines the work, and that the way one wishes to work is not only an expression of the artistic credo, but at the same time also presupposes a position in society, a “way of being in the world”. (…) Artistic freedom means allowing the options taken in the creative work to penetrate to all parts of the structure in which one creates. Which means, among others: determining how, where and when you want to work and with whom, determining how you want to interact with your audience, determining how you want to talk with your (co)producer, determining how, where and why you want to play somewhere, determining what the accents will be in promoting your work, etc. This perspective views and treats the theatre company as a whole. The organisation, as an expression of the creative work, must therefore have the same flexibility as the creative work.’

In other words: artistic autonomy not only concerned what you presented on stage, it was also linked to all the conditions related to organising the artistic practice. These conditions will impact, directly or indirectly, the work that you can make. That was the basic principle at the time. The point is: today, many performing artists feel that this principle has been lost. It is precisely against this background that we must situate the renewed interest in self-organisation.

Indeed, a number of developments since the 1990s are important to point out. Previous research by VTi, the supporting organisation for the performing arts in Flanders which recently merged to become Flanders Arts Institute, has shown that the position of performing artists in relation to artistic production has changed significantly.

  • A growing number of (performing) artists — To begin with, the number of performing artists and structures active in the production of performing arts in Flanders has increased significantly. In the season 1993-1994, there were 2.141 different artists active in the field. By 2011-2012, this number had increased to 2.601.
  • More and more coproductions — Second, the performing arts are more and more being produced in networks. In the early nineties, 80% of the productions in the performing arts database of Flanders Arts Institute were created and produced by one single organisation. By 2011-2012, two thirds of the productions were coproductions, produced in partnership by two or more organisations: not only companies, but also a growing number of arts centres and festivals from Flanders and abroad. In other words, we see the rise of a transnational network for production and touring of performing arts.
  • Less fixed relations between artists and producing organisations — The fact that the performing arts are more and more produced in networks, has also affected the way artists and organisations work together. Fewer and fewer artists are bound to a single ensemble. More and more artists are working on a project basis with various houses. In 1993-1997, half of the artists in Flanders Arts Institute’s performing arts database worked together with one single company. In 2005-2009, two out of three worked together with multiple organisations.

Briefly, the production modes in the entire sector of the performing arts have changed. There is an increasing degree of networking and interdependency through co-production between organizations. Producers seem to work less and less in a vacuum. ‘Connect and collaborate’ – in an international network environment – appears to be the catchphrase. Subsidies are no longer exclusively mobilized to make and distribute productions. They are increasingly considered as a tool in the search for – domestic and/or foreign – partners and co-producers. The position of individual artists in this network has changed as well. Our field analyses revealed that artists handle things differently from a decade ago: they consider themselves less a member of an organization than an individual in a free-lance circuit that is no longer exclusively restricted to subsidized performing arts environments. ‘Hybrid’ or ‘protean’ careers have become the standard: a lot of makers and players no longer commit themselves exclusively to the (subsidized) performing arts, combining their stage work with other disciplines and sectors. Within the arts, they no longer stick to one company or producing house, but develop an often ‘bumpy’ trajectory working on different projects with different other artists and producing bodies in different countries.

The increasing popularity of producing in networks  too is a consequence of the way in which the sector developed since the 1980s and 1990s. The generation of the 1980s not only built new structures tailored to individual artists. They also developed a network of multidisciplinary arts centres, for instance Kaaitheater in Brussels, STUK in Leuven and Vooruit in Ghent. These were newly emerging ‘off-spaces’ that not only presented the work of the new generation of artists, but also co-produced their work — often in collaboration with international partners and networks.  The art-centre model proved very successful.  This became a new category of subsidies in the Performing Arts Decree of 1993, the law that replaced the obsolete Theater Decree of 1975. The Performing Arts Decree allowed the Flemish Community to fund not only theatre companies, but also dance and music theatre organisations and multidisciplinary arts centres. All these were funded for a four year period, which allowed them to plan their international collaborations long in advance.

Sorting things out

In short, the entire arts field is working on a project basis. Freelancing has caught on. This has advantages and disadvantages. Many artists seek this freedom, diversity and cross-fertilisation. They deliberately develop a ‘hybrid’ career. It quite simply is inspiring to work with new people in new contexts. It leads to ever new groupings of artists and organisations. More and more artists are also combining projects inside and outside the arts sector. Putting your artistic skills to use outside the arts, such as in education or in creative sectors, feels like an enrichment. In such cases, holding ‘multiple jobs’ can be very fruitful: it sharpens your artistic skills in ever new contexts. But the coin has a flip side. Freedom and flexibility bring with it insecurity with respect to work and income, no guarantee of a sustainable career, the need to make choices, stress … Social insecurity also increases. Careers become more ‘bumpy’ and hybrid, with short-term contracts with numerous partners, co-producers and clients, and in diverse (sub)sectors. This is a broader trend throughout today’s knowledge economy, but it is especially true of artistic careers.

In the performing arts – not only in Flanders, but throughout Western Europe – we are seeing a major paradox: there are more organisations that specifically support artists, but due to cuts in spending, the fragmentation of resources, the ‘inflation’ of co-productions,… artists themselves – for the same or no money – are putting more time and energy into networking, business management, negotiations with potential partners, and so on. In parallel with the emergence of facilitating organisations such as arts laboratories, workspaces and alternative management agencies – which offer individual artists project-based and ‘modular’ support – coordination tasks increasingly are handled by the artists themselves.

The ‘artistic freedom’ of the 1980s – with its aesthetic and social dimension – is a pipe dream for many makers. If the premise is that the working structure determines the work, this means that artistic freedom is compromised. When presenting VTi’s field analysis in April 2011 in a lecture entitled ‘The Reflections of a Grasshopper’, in addition to the positive, performing artist Diederik Peeters outlined the negative aspects of the life and work of job-hopping freelance artists:

I have performed a lot, created a lot, travelled a lot and learned a lot – and it was damn fun. But in the meantime this freelance ‘shredder’ is getting on in years and after a good  fifteen years of young and promising flexibility he has gradually become tired of his own ‘availability’. Perhaps in the end, that’s something more suitable for fresh young spring chickens. (And anyhow, this job-hopping is nothing more than a way of making a living in a system that demands this kind of flexibility.) But in fact it substantially hinders my view on a perspective for the future. Just try and build up something while skipping back and forth from project to project. Instead of reinventing and proving myself for every project time and again, today I have the desire to sink my teeth into my work. I desire, in other words, a better balance between this damned flexibility which is demanded of me all the time, and a minimum of continuity and stability.

That dream of a stable art practice is far off for many artists. It presupposes a sound socio-economic position and depends on the organisational form and the relationships that the artist develops. Sufficient time (and income) to develop an artistic vision and practice, an efficient structuring of multiple activities, wages for work, building up social security rights, continuity and a supportive network are crucial. The combination of an increasing number of jobs and clients, however, does put pressure on one’s own artistic development. Less time and space is available for ‘autonomous’ art creation.

In an art landscape in which artists work independently and on a project basis, it is difficult to build a sustainable career. Moreover, artists, if they are engaged on a project basis by diverse structures, have little to say about the formats and processes within which they must operate. For some artists, the present organisational and financial models are no longer adequate to the complex reality in which they wish to develop their art practice.

Moreover, developing a career in a horizontal network environment requires not only artistic talent. Making good art is not enough. You also need business skills, social skills to build a network, and administrative skills to closely manage your business (as internationally mobile freelancer).

Sustainable careers

In an art landscape in which artists work independently and on a project basis, it is difficult to build sustainable careers. Diederik Peeters concluded his 2011 speech with a call to himself and his colleagues to take matters into their own hands by experimenting with new structures. A lot has happened since then. We see many such initiatives on the part of artists to organise their work collectively. Here are some examples.

  • SPIN is an artist-run organisation in Brussels that was founded in 2010 by artists Hans Bryssinck, Kate McIntosh and Diederik Peeters in close collaboration with art worker Ingrid Vranken. SPIN supports, produces and distributes the work of the artists involved and, under the name SPIN-OFF, organises substantive events or artistic interventions on issues that are closely connected with the position of artists in society: about the place of contract workers in the knowledge economy, or the increasing quantification of various domains of society.
  • Since 2015, Manyone is an artist initiative by Sarah Vanhee, Mette Edvardsen, Alma Söderberg and Juan Dominguez. Manyone was set up to develop a long-term perspective for these artists. Like SPIN, Manyone is not a label with which the artists can present themselves to the outside world. It is a collaborative structure that maintains the autonomy of each artist, who do not create their work together and communicate to the audience through their own names. However, the underlying structure is based on the idea of solidarity. It’s about sharing knowledge, expertise and resources. The artists work together to find new and better solutions for the production, presentation and distribution of their work. They also reflect together – critically – about art and how it is produced, and the position of the artist in the field.
  • A French example inspiring Manyone and SPIN is L’Amicale de Production. It is a combined structure – part production company, part theatre – led by artists Julien Fournet, Antoine Defoort and Halory Goerger. L’Amicale has an interesting cooperative production model in which traditional roles are blurred. Julien Fournet and Antoine Defoort are not only the artistic coordinators of L’Amicale, but also production manager for certain projects, and set designer for others. So there is close interaction between the production and artistic sides. These artists believe that production is an integral part of each art project.
  • Finally, an example of an entirely different order. State of the Arts (SOTA) is an independent, informal artist-run network that was established in November 2013 in response to the profound cultural and political changes in Belgium: not so much the spending cuts in the cultural sector, but especially the neo-liberalisation that dominates society. As artists platform, State of the Arts aims to play a role in the cultural political debate at local, regional and European level. Today State of the Arts wishes to position itself more as an advocate of the place of artists in cultural policy. But the perspective is much broader: State of the Arts strives for partnerships with similar social structures and organisations concerned with issues such as social cohesion, solidarity and vulnerable practices within our current economic reality.

The objectives of all these initiatives are very diverse with respect to content. The functions that artists collectively fulfil have become very diverse: it’s not just about creation and business or production support or even reflection and debate. Examples can be given that specifically focus on the widest variety of functions, such as presentation or artistic residencies (Overtoon)… However diverse these initiatives are, in each case, the same question is at the centre: how can artists develop a sustainable career, by adopting a business and organisational approach that is consistent with their artistic vision and societal convictions?

The traditional dependence on larger, intermediary structures such as galleries, art centres or management agencies for production, sales and contacts is evolving into a model in which artists themselves collectively manage and coordinate their relationships with diverse parties. Together they are stronger in the dialogue with all of these actors. Thus they wish to regain control over the models of production and presentation that their work requires.

Remaining visible in a densely populated artistic landscape also probably plays a role: not only to a wider audience or producers and venues. Visibility to those who fund the arts (funds, subsidisers and individuals such as collectors and participants) is also important. Once an artist is professionally organised, his or her work in fact is subject to the judgement of peers, the audience and those who provide funding. These assessors ultimately help determine which methods of working will be rewarded financially. For that matter, some artists’ initiatives have applied for and received project or operating subsidies under the Arts Decree, which replaced the Performing Arts Decree in 2006.

The form of self-organisation is not only a technical choice for a business model, a specific status as worker, and a type of supporting framework. The words of Marianne van Kerkhoven return: the self-organisation of artists is a ‘way of being in the world’. All these initiatives are stimulating reflection about the position of the artist in the art sector and society. In this sense, artists are not only busy with their own, singular artistic vision, but – via new forms of self-organisation – also with reassessing production forms within a society in transition.

The phenomenon of collective self-organisation in the arts is not new. But the buzz around self-organisation is a symptom of and possible answer to important changes in the way art is being made and presented today. Currently we in the arts are at a point where the question presents itself concerning what the relationship is and should be between the mainstream institutions and alternative circuits. To properly support this development, more practical research is needed, as is space and support for experimental models and a structured dialogue between artists, advocates and those who make and implement policy.


  1. Pascal Gielen, Kunst in netwerken. Artistieke selecties in hedendaagse dans en beeldende kunst. Tielt, Lannoo, 2003, p. 64.
  2. Marianne van Kerkhoven, in Metamorfose in podiumland. Een veldanalyse [Metamorphosis in Performance Land. A Field Analysis], p. 167.
  3. The following calculations are made on the basis of the Performing Arts Database of Flanders Arts Institute, which contains information about all performing arts productions produced by Flemish organisations. Check the data via http://data.kunsten.be. For more research mapping trends in the productions of performing arts from Flanders, check Joris Janssens (ed.), Ins & outs. A field analysis of the performing arts in Flanders, VTi, Brussels, 2011 and Joris Janssens (ed.), Transformers. Landscape sketch for the performing arts from Flanders, Flanders Arts Institute, Brussels, 2015.
  4. Diederik Peeters, ‘Reflections of a Grasshopper’, in: Joris Janssens (ed.), Ins & Outs. A Field Analysis of the Performing Arts in Flanders. Brussels, VTi, 2011, p. 77.
Je leest: W.A.T. (Working Apart Together). The collective organisation of artistic practice within the performing arts