Speaking with a
single voice

Reflection on forms of representation

By various voices

On October 25, 2022, State Of The Arts and Monty invited cultural actors for a critical reflection on the representation of the sector in the Flemish political landscape. Two weeks prior, Antwerp culture alderman Nabilla Ait Daoud (N-VA) cancelled the local project subsidies 2023-25. In so doing, experimental, non-commercial art projects and opportunities for emerging artists disappeared overnight. The Antwerps Kunstenoverleg (AKO), the official advisory body for municipal cultural policy, was not consulted in this decision. Protesting art students and recently-graduated makers asked for a meeting. Ait Daoud refused. “Talking to students is useless”, the alderman said in a press interview.

In terms of representation, this incident is more than an anecdote. What are advisory bodies for, if not consulted? To what extent are policymakers legally bound to involve the sector in their decisions? And if so, who sits at the table?

consultative structures

The fragmented political landscape lacks a ‘representative’ structure for dialogue at the different levels… In fact, the social dialogue is the only real structurally anchored interchange between the government, professional federations and advocacy groups. Here, binding agreements can be made – at least concerning economic and social issues around employer-employee relations and employment contracts. For the Flemish sub-sectors involved in the arts, the Overleg Kunstenorganisaties (oKo)1 and trade unions represent the sector.

In addition, for Flanders, there is also the SARC,2 the strategic advisory council for the policy areas of culture, youth, sports and media. This council consists of representatives from civil society and independent experts appointed by the government to four-year terms. The composition of this council is vulnerable to political preference.

The SARC issues recommendations to the Flemish Parliament and government. Deviations from these recommendations are part of the parliamentary decision-making process. Yet what happens with the field expertise and good advice obtained through more informal, bilateral conversations with other actors in the field (like Kunstenpunt,3 VAF, Literatuur Vlaanderen or the directions of larger arts institutes) remains unclear.

The non-committal ad hoc nature of sector consultation seems to give the current Flemish Ministry of Culture licence to do as if it listened and then simply do what is politically expedient. This is called the ‘primacy of politics’. Meanwhile, we move on very thin ice. Because not only is the content of the consultation at risk, but, increasingly, the consultation itself.

missing voices

Individual artists are not part of the classical social consultation. Nor is there any structural requirement in the SARC for them to be involved. There’s a lot of talking about them, but little or no talking with them. A problem that people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community and other minorities very rightly point to.

Yet, there are better practices. The Gents Kustenoverleg (GKO)4 is a good example of how broad alliances can be forged at a local level. With its short communication lines, cultural and other civil society players succeed in building bridges and coordinating theme-based agendas. The city council is supportive of this bottom-up approach because a proactive policy is more sustainable, more democratic and better anchored. The recent WITA (Working in the Arts) trajectory on social security for artists – a federal-level initiative – has proven that a broad consultation is possible and has potential to grow.

Parliamentarians seem more receptive to input. After all, it is their task to critically monitor the government. Without knowledge and arguments coming from civil society, their role is worthless. But how do we ensure that the input they get is representative? Coming not just from people who parliamentarians happen to know? Is it not in everyone’s interest that the representation of the sector be as broad as possible and that no voice be forgotten?

If you want to be heard in politics, speed, relationships, and factual knowledge are crucial. This demands focus, strong organisation and patience. Right now, only those with plenty of stamina – particularly financial–can play in such a system. If we are to make this system accessible to all players and let the weakest voices in the debate be heard, we must dare to think about systemic adjustments. To demand that these unheard voices just learn to shout louder or band together with those in more privileged positions undermines the diversity we so desperately need.


To have the voice of artists properly heard, artists’ organisations like State Of The Arts and the Artiesten Coalitie need to find a more sustainable form of organisation. While in need of support and/or subsidies, safeguarding their independence, both financial and ideological, is a recurring theme. In the Netherlands, the book sector developed an independent financing model for the Auteursbond,5 where copyright association LIRA6 provides financial support from the income they gain for collective rights. The Vlaamse Auteursvereniging7 (VAV) receives support from Literatuur Vlaanderen8 but ensures its independence by means of a covenant. In Wallonia, artists’ federations do receive subsidies from the government. There, organising your own opposition or critical voice is part of a political dialogue culture.

But also, the fragmented organisation of our advocacy makes solidarity between actors practically impossible today. It undermines our strength and leads to an unaligned polyphony in which an outdated, hierarchical dialogue culture does not help.

Would it not be wiser to structurally interconnect this archipelago of interests? The Dutch interest group Kunsten ‘92 shows that it is possible. A small operational team, an executive board and general management – including several international experts – connect more than 420 members from all disciplines at supra-sectoral level. From the arts to the creative industry, museums and heritage, makers and organisations, but also funds, trade unions and professional organisations.

Representatives from the sector sit here in person and use their knowledge and expertise to contribute to a common agenda based on urgencies and a long-term vision. With a joint voice, they strengthen ‘the social and political climate for culture in the Netherlands’.


Fever towards the elections in 2024 is rising. The political influence on management and supervisory boards of cultural institutions is becoming more tangible every day. If we do not want to become the pawn of a political agenda that is not ours, we urgently must be better organised.

What we need for this is a solidarity-minded, well-structured umbrella consultation process, with a specific place for artists and their professional organisations, but also for small, experimental bottom-up organisations without official structures. Sector-wide, trans-, multi- and interdisciplinary, strengthening the ecosystem in all its facets as a whole. A body that expresses solidarity between ‘big’ and ‘small’ organisations. A structure that accommodates the vulnerability of the sector and protects and defends it at the same time. Moreover, a structure that understands that we are inextricably linked to our audience: a hyperdiverse civil society full of desires, needs and uncertainties. A society that needs culture to breathe and create. The forte of the cultural industry lies in mobilising critical intelligence, humour and creativity. Culture is a basic universal right, and collective agendas have been written many times. How much more do we need to confidently write our multi-voiced, multi-coloured story and place it on the political agenda?

With thanks to Lana Willems, Magali Elali, Sara Sandra Oklobdzija, Niel Staes, Paul Poelmans, Sam Vloemans, Anne-Marie Croes, Marianne Versteegh, Caroline Dumalin, Anyuta Wiazemsky Snauwaert, Ann Overbergh, Sara De Roo, Tibbe Walkiers, Mil Sinaeve, Brigitte Neervoort, Carlo Van Baelen, Pascal Gielen, Dirk De Wit, Tom Kestens, Julia Reist, Tijs Hostyn, LebuïnD'Haese, Philippine Hoegen en Katrien Reist.


Evelyne Coussens, Katinka De Jonge, Marieke De Munck

  1. Flemish Federation of Arts Organisations 

  2. Strategische Advies Raad voor Cultuur, Jeugd, Sport en Media 

  3. Flanders Arts Institute 

  4. Associated Arts Organisations Ghent 

  5. Dutch Association of Writers and Translators 

  6. LIRA copyright Association 

  7. Flemish Authors Association 

  8. Flemish Fund for Literature