Little ‘up’
and lots of ‘down’

The Flemish arts’ budget yo-yo

By Katrien Reist Bart Caron

Bart Caron is a former Belgian politician who has occupied a wide variety of functions in the cultural political field since 1999. He was a member of Flemish parliament for the Green Party and presided over the commission for cultural affairs in the Flemish Government. A contrabass player himself, he has been an important critical voice and advocate for the arts.

In a well-researched article,1 he analyses the development of the budgets for culture throughout the years. The interview seeks to elaborate on the political background and reasoning behind these developments.

Katrien Reist In your article, The Flemish Arts Budget Yo-yo: a little ‘up’ and lots of ‘down’ you describe how the Flemish culture budget has been adjusted over and over again during the last 13 years. At times upwards, but much more often downwards. We also read that the culture budget accounts for 1.04% of the total budget. Of this 1.04%, 40% goes to the arts. That is 0.43% of the Flemish budget. You therefore end your article with a striking closing sentence:

”[…] What I do know is that anyone who ever hoped that Flemish nationalists would regard art and culture as the building blocks of Flemish identity is wrong. Maybe in the past, but today the economy seems to play a much more important role here. The role of art and culture has been pushed into the background. Why else, when savings are made, does the culture sector, defined broadly, always have to make the biggest sacrifices? […]”

What do we stand to gain here, actually? Or to put it another way: aren’t these budgets already so minimal that every fist ful of euros removed from this pot is more symbolic than really making a difference in the budget? How does the government make this assessment? Is this not rather symbolic, under the heading, ‘Everyone has to contribute’?

Bart Caron In 2022, the Flemish budget amounted to 51.6 billion euros, of which culture represents just 538 million euros. Economising 45 million on that, as in 2016, represents 0.1% of the budget. That is insignificant in terms of the Flemish budget. Because conversely, 10 or 20 million less or more will have serious consequences for the sector.

Cuts are political decisions in which policy priorities are clearly reflected. Unfortunately, culture has not been a high priority of recent governments. It’s about symbolism. But also because people in these political circles believe that public opinion does not lose any sleep over it. There’s also a kind of revenge by politicians against a critical, often idiosyncratic and articulate sector.

Katrien Reist In the article, you speak of a status quo (after all index corrections) at the level of the 2014 budget. How does this look compared to other sectors? Are we not generally living very heavily on (old) reserves? Can you put this in perspective with other sectors?

Bart Caron The budgets for other sectors have increased much more sharply since 2014 than the culture budget. A comparison in absolute figures shows that, for example, the mobility and public works policy area has increased its funding by 67% since then, that of education by 21% and that of work and economy by 52%. There are also differences within culture, youth, sport and media. The general increase is 9% for the whole, but for culture separately, it is only 3%. Media and sport therefore increased much more.

Katrien Reist Isn’t there also a perception problem for culture, frequently seen as a sector of ‘subsidy guzzlers’? How justified is this image, and where does it come from?

Bart Caron The picture comes from the fact that, given the frequency of subsidy rounds – once every five years for structural funding and at least twice a year for projects – there is always a commotion about the amounts. You see that much less in education, a sector that is even more dependent on subsidies, but where wages are paid directly by the government. In addition, the relatively low value placed on culture in public opinion plays a role. Public works and education sit higher on the shelf. The image is incorrect. Politicians, at least some, feed that image of subsidy guzzlers. The cultural sector needs ultimately to put more effort into gaining and maintaining its public support.

Katrien Reist At the same time, you also write about the increased resources for the Flemish Audiovisual Fund and Literature Flanders.

[…] The Flemish Minister-President attaches great importance to Flanders’ image abroad. Strengthening Flanders’ specific identity with cultural products is high on the list of priorities. Investing in film and fiction, in games or in the translation and promotion of books abroad fits perfectly into this policy. […]

Is there a real political and ideological vision behind this? Or do economic aspects play a role here? Or also some lobbying from these two solid funds?

Bart Caron It’s a combination of two motifs. A right-wing and neo-liberal cultural policy suits the cultural industry nicely. Film and books are parts of the market, with a fairly large economic importance. In addition, they are products that do well on an international market, and thus contribute to the image of Flanders. It can easily be seen as marketing for Flanders, driven by a nationalistic vision, not immediately by the needs and interests of artists and authors.

Katrien Reist To what extent does this policy also positively affect the rest of the sector? Does this generate added value, which flows back to the arts via a solidarity system, for example? Have these questions ever been on the table?

Bart Caron They are, in reality, separate sectors. Even the two funds have no real inter-relationship. In practice, there is a spillover with the arts sector: there are many actors, (play) authors and directors who are active in the different sectors. This is an added value for artists.

Katrien Reist In your text, you talk about the big difference between the grants to the Kunstinstellingen2 and those for the rest of the subsidised field (structural resources for arts organisations in addition to resources for projects and grants). This reflects a deep, conservative thinking about the value of so-called ‘beacons’ and the ‘trickle-down’ effect this would have. Do you see evidence of a trickle-down system in your figures? And if not, why is this myth still perpetuated at policy level?

Bart Caron The seven art institutions – that are no doubt needed in the cultural landscape – receive about one third of the pot, the other art organisations (more than 200) just over half of the pot. The art institutions are also expected to commit themselves in the broad field, through co-productions, circuit formation, coordination, paying attention to young artists, etc. The desired trickle-down effect is stated in the management agreements they conclude with the government. These agreements contain good intentions. Is the art field experiencing that effect? That needs to be investigated. Besides, I personally believe that innovation will come from the margins, not from the centre. Hence the great importance of raising the project subsidies. In addition, the N-VA always claims that merging organisations into larger structures will create value, both artistically and financially. There are several proposals for the merger of the major museums, or of the city theatres, or earlier, of the orchestras. But quality is for sure not the result of large structures, is it…

Katrien Reist In your article, you provide an overview of the resources distributed during the corona pandemic. There has been praise, but also much criticism of the large amount of money ‘scattered’ over the sector in an unsustainable manner. How do you assess this? For you, was this money spent wisely? What lessons can we draw from this?

Bart Caron In 2019 and 2020 together, 197 million euros were allocated to fighting the corona crisis in the broadly-defined cultural sector. From the local government policy area, 87 million went to the local authorities, for culture, youth and sport. There are serious doubts as to the usefulness of these allocations, much of which did not end up with those who needed the money. In addition, 86.5 million went to the sector via the Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship Agency (VLAIO), resources that largely went to commercial cultural producers. Whether that money was well spent, I’m unable to judge. Finally, 63.6 million went to the non-profit cultural sector, in the form of an amalgam of measures such as the Culturele Activiteiten Premie (cultural activities grant), the Innovatie Mechanisme (a grant for cultural innovation), etc. Was that useful? Certainly partly so, but the effect is not measurable and may have been limited. It all took place in the form of ad hoc measures, largely outside the existing decree frameworks. The lesson is clear: if the rules (our decrees) represent those subsectors and organisations and operations that the government considers important, these should also be the basis of such a policy… which was not the case here. As part of the overarching project ‘Vlaamse Veerkracht’ (Flemish Resilience project), in which the Flemish Government will be investing an additional EUR 4.3 billion in the coming years “to restore the economic and social fabric”, the government is allocating money to the audiovisual sector and, remarkably, a lot of money for bricks.

Katrien Reist It seems like a rhetorical question, but why is investing in bricks so lucrative? However, the (logical!) obligation to come up with operating resources once the buildings are there is often hard to find.

Bart Caron Investing in new and updated cultural infrastructure always makes sense. Today we have many outdated theatre halls, libraries, museums, etc. that need to be renovated, just think of the expensive energy that is now burned, the ill-adapted equipment, etc. But, but, but, the choice for bricks as made by the Flemish government is imbued with political favours to pro N-VA cities and organisations. Old-fashioned nepotism, appointments not based on real needs, nor ecological or artistic objectives. Arranged in back rooms of government cabinets. The list of lucky ones is in the article, which speaks for itself.

Katrien Reist Last but not least: Jambon unexpectedly pulled 25 million euros out of his hat at the end of June 2022. Does this answer the next question you asked?

[…] The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Is the restoration of the project grants sincere, or is it a fig-leaf? Or does the government, and especially N-VA Minister Jambon, want to make even greater efforts? Is he hoping that the cultural sector will be more cooperative in its attitudes towards the Flemish nationalists? After all, there are elections in 2024. […]

Bart Caron It was a smart move by Jan Jambon. No one expected such a budget hike. So, my respect. But I do regret the way things were done: the assessment committees were forced into a straitjacket, required to make strict choices, after which the minister was allowed to proclaim the glad tidings as a Messiah. All those who received positive responses, but were placed ‘outside budget’ (applications that were to be reassessed by a new commission) were saved from drowning, but also a number of negative assessments, not to mention the shrinkage, which for some financially ‘within budget’ more closely resembles a hangover. The process did not go as it should have. But, it could also have gone much worse…

Katrien Reist Do you have the hope that if another party gets responsibility for culture in the next legislature (Groen, Open VLD, …), new paths and opportunities will open up for culture? Or will we remain always a bit sick in the same bed, with culture seen as ‘icing on the cake’ as something ‘nice to have’, if there are any funds left?

Bart Caron I think we could start a whole new discussion about this, but that’s for another almanac! I especially hope that, with elections due in 2024, all democratic parties will finally speak out on the merits of art and culture. With firm attention in their election programmes. Not with empty phrases but with commitment and ambition. Then I hope that the parties we imagine to be honest and ready to fight for art and culture will form the new majority.


  2. de Kunstinstellingen are the 7 largest art institutions in Flanders: deSingel, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Brussels Philharmonic, Kunsthuis (Opera Vlaanderen en Ballet Vlaanderen), Ancienne Belgique, Kunstencentrum VIERNULVIER and Concertgebouw Brugge