The different government levels in Belgium have taken measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 since the beginning of March 2020. These have been gradually upscaled — among them an advice on 10 March to cancel public events with audiences over a 1.000 people and a complete ban on public events on 13 March — until a lockdown has been installed for the whole of the country on 17 March.
At the time of writing, exit strategies (or, maybe more appropriate, ‘open up strategies’) are deployed in different phases. Museums and exhibition spaces have, for example, reopened on 18 May. By 8 June, cultural activities without an audience could recommence. Events involving an audience (up to 200 people) were prohibited until 30 June. Mass gatherings (e.g. festivals) are banned until the end of August. In the wake of the gradual reopening of the cultural infrastructure, different guides have been provided for a safe return to work. In Flanders, sector guides for the professional arts, cultural heritage and the audiovisual sector were published. In the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, sector guides for gradual recovery of activities were published as well (e.g. for performing arts, music sector, movie production).
Impact on the cultural sector
As in other countries, the COVID-19 crisis impacts the arts and cultural sector in different ways (more on this in this article by Flanders Arts Institute). It profoundly influences the creation, development, presentation and distribution of artistic work, affects artists’ and cultural workers’ wellbeing (both physical and mental) and imposes a severe financial burden on the sector. As the effects of the crisis will be felt throughout a long period, monitoring these effects requires a long-term effort.
Several surveys have been sent out by cultural organisations in Belgium, trying to get a first glimpse of the impact (e.g. the Corona Impact Hotline by artist platform State of the Arts). These mostly focus on the socio-economic repercussions for artists and cultural workers. With regard to the socio-economic impact, we should also refer to the recurring general surveys by the Economic Risk Management Group (ERMG), which monitor financial losses of companies in different sectors. These surveys clearly show how the sector of arts and recreational activities are, together with the catering industry, the most heavily inflicted of all.
In Belgium, cultural policy is foremost a competence of the Communities. However, the measures that affect the arts and culture sector in Flanders and the Wallonia-Brussels Federation — measures to contain the spread of the virus as well as relievement plans — come from different government levels. Most of these government actions are not specifically aimed at arts and culture workers, but apply to larger portions of the Belgian (working) population.
Beside the measures on securing national health, an important part of the government actions in Belgium is centred on the socio-economic impact of the crisis, mitigating financial losses for the working population or adjusting the social welfare system, funding schemes or taxation. The following list contains the most relevant new measures that impact the arts and culture sector. It partly draws from the overviews (in Dutch) provided by Cultuurloket and the Department of Culture, Youth and Media, Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship and 1819.Brussels. The measures are categorized according to government level:
Belgian Federal Government
(These apply to the whole of Belgium)
- Belgium already had a system of temporary unemployment, in which employers (among them cultural organisations) can apply for a temporary unemployment benefit to be granted to their employees, if work is obstructed in case of force majeure. The consequences of the COVID-19 crisis have been recognized as such and conditions for applying for and receiving the benefit have been made more flexible. Short-term contracts — which are frequently used by artists — are recognized as leverage for obtaining temporary unemployment. Equally important is that, under certain conditions, artists and temporary employees of festivals or other events can also apply if they can present proof of a deal with an employer, other than a signed contract.
- If independent (art and culture) workers are forced to stop activities because of (measures taken to contain) the crisis, they can apply for a special form of the already existing ‘overbruggingsrecht’ (literally: ‘the right to bridge over’). This entitles them to a full or partial benefit. People working independent part time can also apply in certain conditions (related to the height of their income or to fiscal arrangements).
- The conditions of Tax Shelter agreements — aimed at facilitating private investments in audiovisual productions and performing arts — have been adjusted to help producers to bridge the gap in expenditure.
- Different measures have been taken for independents, entrepreneurs and employers to enable them to apply for a temporary exemption from or reduction in tax (pre-)payments.
- The conditions of the unemployment framework for artists have changed. In order to be eligible for certain benefits of this framework — for example the flexible combination of unemployment benefits and artistic jobs — artists need to prove that they carried out artistic jobs for a certain period. This is of course compromised by the current crisis, and the Federal Government temporarily adjusts the prerequisites.
(These apply to people and organisations living and working in Flanders and Brussels)
- An emergency fund of EUR 265 million for different sectors has just been launched. EUR 65 million is directed at the cultural sector. At the time of writing, the allocation of this emergency fund is being worked out. A great deal of this fund will be directed to structurally funded cultural organisations. The government expects them to both cover their own losses and distribute the support to non-subsidized organisations and individuals within their networks. A part of the budget will also be used as extra funding for Cultuurloket (an organisation providing administrative advice) and Hefboom (an organisation providing loans tailored to the cultural sector).
- The Flemish Department of Culture will be lenient when funding recipients need to account for their subsidized activities, reckoning the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.
- A new round of project funding for the arts has proceeded in May, while lockdown measures were still in place. The procedures for project funding have been therefore temporarily adjusted, such as a reduction in the number of people in the peer review commissions that give advice on applications.
- The Flemish Audiovisual Fund and Flanders Literature will receive a part of the emergency fund of EUR 65 million in order to compensate players affected by the crisis in their respective sectors. These funding bodies are also looking into the possibilities of flexible support for productions or events.
(These apply to the territory of the Flemish Region, which excludes the Brussels-Capital Region)
- An impediment fee (‘hinderpremie’) of EUR 4.000 for businesses, independents and organisations employing at least one full time employee (including those in the arts and culture sector), who were forced to close due to decisions on the federal level. The amount is given once, but smaller, recurring fees can be added. Only those providing services to an audience on a physical location (e.g. a theatre, an exhibition room, a store, a travelling circus tent etc.) are eligible.
- A compensation fee (‘compensatiepremie’) of EUR 3.000 for businesses, independents and organisations employing at least one full time employee that suffer a loss in income of 60% or more. This includes those working in arts and culture. Contrary to the impediment fee, this measure also applies for organisations or businesses which do not provide services to an audience on a physical location.
- EUR 87,3 million of the aforementioned emergency fund will go to local governments. Although not strictly earmarked, the Flemish Government holds the view that around EUR 20 million of this budget will be used to support local cultural scenes.
- In addition to the emergency fund, the Flemish Government announced to provide an extra EUR 31,25 million of loans and warrants.
- The conditions of an existing stimulation fee (‘aanmoedigingspremie’) — aimed at (cultural) businesses in financial distress that keep employees in part time employment in order to avoid firing them — have been modified. Businesses suffering financial losses of 20% or more due to the COVID-19 crisis can also apply now.
- Businesses can postpone the payment of certain taxes levied by the Flemish Government.
(These apply to the territory of the Brussels-Capital Region)
- A one-time impediment fee of EUR 4.000 for businesses. Contrary to the impediment fee in the Flemish Region, cultural organisations (except for cinemas, businesses offering “recreational activities” and book stores) are not eligible.
- A one-time compensation fee of EUR 2.000 for small independent companies (up to 5 full time employees), under certain conditions.
- The Flemish Community Commission (VGC) — which acts as a representative of the Flemish Community in the Brussels-Capital Region — funds cultural projects and organisations in Brussels. It will continue providing the full amount of subsidies, even if the funded activities are obstructed by the crisis.
- Together with the VGC and the COCOF (which acts as a representative of the French Community), the government of Brussels-Capital Region has launched an emergency fund of EUR 8,4 million for the cultural sector. This fund will be distributed through one-time fees of EUR 2.000 for affected organisations (both profit and non-profit) and through a fund of EUR 5 million aimed at cultural workers who cannot benefit from other forms of support (these will each receive a fee of EUR 1.500).
- Small to medium-sized (cultural) businesses can enjoy support for settling their activities in the Brussels-Capital Region (‘economische expansiesteun’). During the COVID-19 crisis, applications for this form of support will be treated faster.
- The payment of certain taxes levied by the Brussels-Capital Government will be postponed.
Wallonia- Brussels Federation
(These apply to the territory of the Walloon Region – except the territory of German-speaking Community – and Brussels-Capital Region)
- Guarantee of the grants despite the crisis and speeding up the payment of the various grants.
- Loan guarantee for sectors and operators who could encounter difficulties in accessing credit due to the COVID-19 crisis and facilitate access to loaning with a crowdfunding mechanism (citizens, businesses and insurers).
- Emergency fund
- In April, an emergency fund of EUR 50 million was established to provide assistance to affected sectors whose viability is in danger (culture, equal opportunities, education, youth, sport, etc.). The organisations benefiting from the emergency fund will have to ensure the remuneration of the final service providers (for example, for culture: companies, artists, etc.). Of the EUR 50 million, an amount of EUR 8,6 million was dedicated for cultural operators suffering significant loss of revenue due to the cancellation of activities or the closure of the premises during the period March 15 to May 4.
- On May 29, the following funds were announced:
- an additional amount of EUR 8,5 million for cultural operators for the period May 4 to July 5;
- an additional amount of EUR 2,5 million to support festivals for the period May 5 to August 31;
- an exceptional grant of EUR 1 million to support artistic sectors in difficulty in the context of international dissemination for the period March 13 to June 30.
- Emergency loan launched by the ST’Art investment fund for the treasury (cash-flow) of cultural and creative enterprises. This product would be available for a period of 6 months (possibly renewable for 6 months) for an amount of EUR 20.000 to 100.000 with a fixed rate of 2%.
- Measures for the audiovisual sector
- On 14 April, WBF approved the following emergency measures for audiovisual professionals to cope with the health crisis:
- Removal of the obligation to reimburse advances on receipts received in 2019.
- Production assistance: extension of approval deadlines and validity of contracts.
- Modification relating to reinvestment premiums.
- On May 22, a recovery plan for the audiovisual sector was announced (EUR 6 million):
- Measures for the benefit of authors
- Implementation of a new system of aid for writing and development in September 2020.
- Launch of several calls for projects for the benefit of authors.
- Re-opening of cinemas: measures for the benefit of exhibitors and distributors supported by the FWB
- Coverage of the cost of health measures linked to the reopening of cinemas for arthouse exhibitors (gels, masks, equipment, etc. necessary to ensure a maximum degree of safety in terms of hygiene).
- Purchase of 20.000 cinema seats in FWB-supported cinemas.
- Specific support will be put in place to encourage distributors who take the risk of releasing arthouse films as soon as theatres reopen.
- Promotional campaign for the reopening of arthouse cinemas will be launched to encourage spectators to return to the movie theatres.
- Measures envisaged for the benefit of producers
- Coverage of the additional costs linked to the COVID-19 measures on the shooting of French-speaking Belgian-initiative films – and possibly series – until December 2020.
- Increase in production aid from the Cinema Commission by 20% for feature films, short films, documentaries and Lab films in 2020 and 2021.
- Increase in aid for Belgian series: bonus of between EUR 100.000 and 150.000 per series.
- Emergency measures for media actors
On April 30, a plan to assist the media and journalists was adopted:
- A communication campaign: the Government undertakes to purchase advertising space for a communication campaign of public interest in all national, regional and local written and audiovisual media, in order to respond to the drastic drop in their advertising revenue.
- Support for the media, the viability of which is threatened due to the COVID-19 crisis: media pluralism is an essential pillar of democracy. In this context, the Government has provided a budget of EUR 3 million to compensate the sector for the loss of revenue caused by the crisis.
- Direct support for independent journalists through an increase of EUR 550.000 in the resources devoted to the Journalism Fund.
- Support for the book chain
On May 29, a plan to support the book chain was announced:
- Transversal support for the book chain
- A massive purchase of Belgian books for EUR 1 million by and for communities (50% for public libraries, 50% for communities welcoming audiences distant from reading) in independent bookstores.
- A promotion plan for French-speaking Belgian literature of EUR 100.000 to encourage the purchase of productions and encourage the public to return to bookstores.
- Help for authors: it is decided to set up grants for an amount of EUR 650.000 to help accessible projects impacted by the crisis whatever the professional category (author, publisher, distributor, bookseller).
- Aid to subsidized actors who have promoted literature in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation for an amount of EUR 60.000.
- Aid to booksellers
- Bookstores can apply for loans to the Bookstore Aid Fund, EUR 160.000.
- Support for the LIBREL platform, the digital portal for French-speaking booksellers, is increased by EUR 100.000 for the year 2020.
- Aid to publishers: Publishers can apply for loan assistance to the Publishing Aid Fund, EUR 600.000.
(These apply to the territory of the Walloon Region)
- An extraordinary solidarity fund of EUR 233 million in order to support SMEs and the self-employed in the sectors affected by the crisis, through flat-rate compensation:
- EUR 5.000 for a company completely closed or stopped as a result of decisions adopted by the National Security Council and belonging to one of the following sectors: catering, accommodation, activities of travel agencies, tour operators, reservation services and related activities;
- EUR 2500 for a company that must modify the days of closure without being closed all week in applying the decisions adopted by the National Security Council (personal services like hairdressers until a certain date).
- Tax payment deadlines: taxpayers will benefit from a suspension of the payment deadline, which will be extended by the period corresponding to the crisis.
- Get up Wallonia! is an initiative of the Government of Wallonia with the goal to shape the future of Wallonia. The main measures decided and concerning the cultural sector are the following:
- In terms of economy and employment, EUR 285 million comes on top of the EUR 233 million already allocated in March to support the economy, businesses and the self-employed. It is intended to extend the categories for the lump sum indemnity of EUR 5.000 (it includes arts, performing and recreational activities, cinemas venues), to set up a second lump sum indemnity of EUR 2.500 for the self-employed/companies which were only able to function partially during the confinement period and who benefited from the gateway right.
- They also make it possible to create a ricochet loan for the self-employed who need cash to pass the course.
- In order to maintain employment in the social economy and guarantee its sustainability, the immunization of subsidies from associations was decided when the suppression of their activities was linked to the COVID-19 crisis.
Some local authorities have taken measures for people and organisations in the arts and culture sector — even before the support coming from the Flemish emergency fund was announced. Examples are the City of Ghent (which has announced EUR 2,7 million of support for its cultural institutions as part of a larger relaunching plan), the City of Bruges (a relaunching plan of EUR 6 million, of which a part is directed at the local cultural scene) or the City of Mechelen (which, among other measures, provides a solidarity fund of EUR 114.000 for professional artists and arts organisations).
Notes on the government measures
If we would order these government actions chronologically, we could infer that measures are first taken on a broad scale, meeting the needs of different sectors. Apart from easy to implement adjustments of the rules of funding schemes, specific actions for the arts and culture sector are taken in the second instance. Examples are the Flemish emergency fund or the alterations of the conditions of the unemployment framework for artists on the federal level.
Many actions are being undertaken at different government levels. One possible blind spot in all of this concerns the difference in government levels. Arts and culture is a matter of the Flemish Community, spanning the territory of both Flanders and Brussels. An important part of the financial relief measures, however, is organised at the level of the Regions, or at the Federal Level. That, for example, means that cultural organisations funded by the Flemish Government, but based in the Brussels-Capital Region might not be entitled to similar impediment or compensation fees as their colleagues based in the Flemish Region.
Another blind spot concerns those who fall outside the scope of the current measures. Many of the government actions (aimed at different sectors) are tailored to traditional labour schemes (such as salaried workers with a single, long term contract or people in full time self-employment), causing a situation in which certain multiple job holders — among them many artists and cultural workers — simply cannot meet the criteria for eligibility. The informality of agreements in the arts and culture sector is also a case in point. Contracts between freelancers and organisations are usually signed in a late stage of the planning, when a great deal of the (preparatory) work is already done. As official agreements are prerequisite for enjoying certain measures, this has caused difficulties for freelancing artists and culture workers.
But as existing measures are gradually adjusted and emergency funds are being installed, some of those that were previously ineligible might still receive compensation of some sort. The recent exemption in the conditions for temporary unemployment made for artists and artists and temporary employees of events serves as an example. Caution should be nonetheless heeded. The Flemish Government announced it would be able to compensate precarious freelancers in the cultural sector through its new emergency fund. The distribution of the fund, however, takes place through structurally funded organisations, who are then expected to reach out to freelancers within their networks. It is yet unclear who will fall in or out of the scope of this measure. The question is pertinent when taking young artists into account, especially those who have just graduated. Many of them will not be able to fall back on an extensive network or a portfolio of commissions that could grant them access to measures.
With regard to the Flemish emergency fund, it should be also noted that structurally funded organisations — who usually have an at arm’s length relation to their funding government — are actually called upon to act in ways similar to a government department. They are implied to function as an intermediary for the many freelancers (with complex labour situations) in their networks. It remains to be seen how these organisations will take up these new responsibilities, what extra workload this will amount to (while also working out and implementing exit strategies) and how this will affect relations between the organisations and individual cultural workers .
Beside the government actions, we should of course mention the countless bottom-up initiatives in the arts and culture sector. Many artists and organisations are reaching audiences in a virtual way, by sharing (recordings of) new and extant work, mostly for free. Meanwhile, organisations managing author’s rights and neighbouring rights have set up special measures to the benefit of their many members. SOFAM and PlayRight each created an emergency fund, while members of SABAM can exceptionally access the savings they made with this rights management organisation.