A history of social security for artists in Belgium

By Kobe Matthys

In this text, the author reflects on the history of ‘the social security for artists in Belgium’. That means he analyses the evolution of the laws that decide how artists are being financially supported by the government. Considering medieval guilds, the constitution from 1831 and the worker’s movement at the end of the 19th century, we learn about general social security, which was introduced in 1944. However artists seemed to always have had an exceptional status. Some of the questions raised in that context are: How to make mutuality work? What is labour? How to compensate for work? Who gets access to social security protection? What can be considered as artistic labour?

Various forms of mutuality existed already long before the Belgian nation state generalised social security. Mutual aid has a stunning evolution from microorganisms, plants, birds, insects, mammels, etc., and among the early human species, one can find many banding traditions based on sharing facilities. In medieval Northern Europe, the guilds played an important role for mutuality among artisans. Mutual aid was often organised locally and in affiliation with different professions – artists played an important role in this.

Due to the liberty of association, which was part of the Belgian constituton of 1831, most mutual organisations first took the status of non-profit associations. In Belgium, mutual aid took the form of associations around professions. Some of the the most important mutual associations were the ones related to the arts, such as jewelery makers, typesetters, stone carvers, etc.

Only under the influence of the worker’s movements at the end of the 19th century began first attempts to centralise various already existing mutual associations beyond seperate professions. General social security in Belgium only exists since an agreement among the social partners on April 24, 1944. That brought about the first law of a general social security on December 28, 1944. The new law made social security obligatory for everyone (workers, independents and functionaries) and it covered retirement, unemployment, child support, health insurance, invalidity and paid holidays.

Social security for artists touches on the larger discussions in society: How to make mutuality work? What is labour? How to compensate for work? Who gets access to social security protection? It is important not to shy away from this debate. Many artists and art workers feel a strong sense of solidarity with other precarious workers with irregular, temporary and hybrid activities. In the long term, there is a need for better social protection for all precarious workers. This does not mean, however, that artists should not address their specific problems, which are inherent to the arts. Many other practices have such specific regulations.

The flaws in the laws

One of the first areas of debate is, “what can be considered as artistic labour?” The law itself does not define art, and the list of artistic disciplines is open-ended. That mainly brings about difficulties for the administration that has to deal with a constantly moving and changing art world. The problem appears when administrations create arbitrary definitions which might exclude certain practices as non-artistic. But its a bit of a fake debate because the labour law does not require administrations to enter into the debate of what is artisic or not.

To avoid confusion from the beginning, it would make sense to stop using the name ‘artist status’ altogether. The name ‘artist status’ wrongly suggests that artists are having a separate status compared to other workers. This so-called ‘status’ is, in fact, not a separate status (alongside the employee and self-employed status). It is rather a series of various calculation rules related to social security in order to make the singularity of art practices compatible with other forms of labour.


1912 postcard from la prévoyance social, a cooperative people’s insurance company. In Cahiers de La Fonderie 45, 2011

In general, these calculation regulations for artist labour turn around two issues. The first and most important shared problem for many artists is to gather enough contracts – however long or short term they might be. For art workers it is rather rare and difficult to acquire long term contracts. But only with enough contracts one falls under the full protection of social security as a worker. The second problem to develop specific regulations for artists deals with the the difficulty to translate artistic labour towards a time frame. Many art practies require a lot of research, experimentation, trial and error, erring, etc. for which there is no renumeration.

The kind of organisation of work in the arts has changed a lot in the past 40 years. So did the labour policies and having gone through a massive neoliberal shift. However, the legislation concerning labour and social security for artists didn’t change that much. Every reform of the specific regulations for artists in the social security law is a politically, highly complex undertaking. Firstly, it is a federal Belgian matter while culture is a community matter. Secondly, it is a dossier that has an impact on labour legislation, social security, unemployment and taxes. It is therefore also a file in which different ministries on a federal level hold responsibility. For every reform of regulation, the various governments active in Belgium have to be willing to collaborate.

The short timeline of adaptations

In 1969, a first number of specific rules were developed within social security, mostly for executing intermittence artists in the ‘performing arts’. It allowed performing artists to accumulate various short term contracts in order to be considered as ‘equivalent’ to a long term contract. The special calculation considered a few hours of work equivalent to a day.

In 2003, a number of new specific rules were added for all intermittence artists in the general law of social security. Not only executing, but also creative artists in all disciplines could fall back on specific regulations. This was a great improvement, at the same time, there were many shortcomings in the finishing of this reform.

It took until 2014, before these changes were finally implemented into regulations for unemployment.

In 2020, the corona crisis painfully demonstrated that a large number of artists and art workers in Belgium could not fall back on the protection of social security. Seperate temporary measures were created for them. As a result, the current federal government under Prime Minister De Croo wrote the search for a sustainable reform of the specific regulations for artists into the coalition agreement. In 2021, a lot of meetings were organised by the cabinet of Vandenbroucke. The result of the new reform is still expected for 2023. The most important aim of this reform is to include not only artists, but also all art workers in these specific intermittence regulations.

Aside from enlarging intermittence, many artists also put forward a second important problem why they can’t access the social security protection: which is invisible labour (or forms of labour without contracts and salary). Many artists carry long preparations which don’t get remunerated with working contracts. Still sometimes they receive other forms of support via grants and residencies. Currently, only contracts are taken into account for the intermittence calculations. So this is a second atypical problem of atypical work. If culture were properly endowed and artists and art workers were paid for the actual work, this problem would have been under less pressure. The new parametre can hardly be seen ‘in isolation’ from the socioeconomic situation in the arts and the reality of atypical forms of work.

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