Belgium (Flanders)

Country reports

BELGIUM (Flanders)

Expert author: Simon Leenknegt
Last update: April 28th

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, the general lockdown measures are enforced until 3 May. After that, an exit strategy will be cautiously deployed. The (possible) reopening of museums and exhibition spaces on 18 May is a part of this strategy. Mass gatherings (e.g. festivals) are banned until the end of August. It is not yet clear when smaller gatherings in, for example, theatres or small music venues can take place again.

In Belgium, cultural policy is foremost a competence of the Communities. However, the measures that affect the arts and culture sector in Flanders and Brussels — 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.

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.

Beside the measures on securing national health, an important part of the government actions in Belgium is likewise 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 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. Especially important here is the recognition of short-term contracts — which are frequently used by artists — as leverage for obtaining temporary unemployment.
    • 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 apply also for this 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.
    • Though not officially confirmed, the conditions of the unemployment framework for artists might be temporarily 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 might temporarily adjust the prerequisites.

Flemish Community (these apply to people and organisations living and working in Flanders and Brussels)

    • An emergency fund of EUR 200 million for the cultural and other sectors has been announced. At the time of writing, it is still to be decided on how this emergency fund will be allocated to and within these sectors.
    • 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 will proceed in May, while lockdown measures are still in place. The procedures for project funding are 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 are looking into the possibilities of flexible support for productions or events affected by the crisis in their respective sectors

Flemish Region (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. These include those working in arts and culture. Contrary to the impediment fee, this one also applies for organisations or businesses which do not provide services to an audience on a physical location.
    • 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. Also businesses suffering financial losses of 20% or more due to the COVID-19 crisis can apply now.
    • Businesses can postpone the payment of certain taxes levied by the Flemish Government.

Brussels-Capital Region (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) is currently being developed.
    • 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 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.
    • The payment of certain taxes levied by the Brussels-Capital Government will be postponed.

Some local authorities are taking measures for people and organisations in the arts and culture sector. The City of Ghent, for example, has announced EUR 2,7 million of support for its cultural institutions as part of a larger relaunching plan.

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, which are still in development at the moment of writing.

Despite the many actions undertaken at different government levels, we can still point at some blind spots. One 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. These include artists and cultural workers that combine multiple jobs and employment statuses, with contracts of varying terms. Most 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 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. The measures only take into account official agreements, making it difficult, for example, for freelancing artists and culture workers to apply for temporary unemployment. It is to be seen whether the government plans in development (such as the emergency fund) could offer a solution for those falling outside the current scope.

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.