‘I have no income. Zero. Zilch’. This cry of distress from a singer-cabaret artist is by no means the only one among the 425 responses that have already reached the digital hotline of Belgian artists’ platform State of the Arts. Like many others, for the cultural sector corona turns out to be not just a health issue, but above all a financial drain. Cultural workers already report an average of 4,400 euros gross per person in lost income.
By Wouter Hillaert
Quite rightly, the Flemish government immediately provided an emergency fund for the hotel and catering industry on Friday, with a lump sum of 4,000 euros for businesses that are obliged to close, and 2,000 euros for shops with compulsory weekend closure. If necessary, an extra 160 euros per day has been promised for after April 3. In addition, 100 million euros have been released for crisis insurances for companies that build up debts as a result of the crisis that they are no longer able to pay.
For now, besides the general compensation measures applicable to all sectors, the cultural sector has to make do with sympathetic noises made by Flemish Prime Minister Jambon in De Zevende Dag, and his earlier appeal to the population to show solidarity by not recuperating the money they paid for tickets for cancelled events. ‘If everyone starts asking for their money back now, the culture houses will run into trouble’.
‘Why should citizens carry the burden, why not the government?’
‘A drop in the ocean’, says freelance sound engineer Daan Kerkhof. ‘Why should citizens carry the burden, why not the government? No money for culture and the events sector, but enough money for nine ministers of public health…?’ Kerkhof himself saw fourteen concerts cancelled at home and abroad. ‘Instead of just under 9,000 euros gross, I can only invoice 600 euros for the month of March.’
Solidarity has its limits
The solidarity of the spectators turns out to be unpredictable, says Els De Bodt of youth theatre hetpaleis. ‘There are indeed people who tell us they don’t need to get their money back, others opt for a voucher, but there are also many who, with the necessary embarrassment and apologies, simply ask for their money back.’
In the meantime, the Concertgebouw is even actively calling on its audience not to ask for compensation in solidarity with artists. ‘The financial resources that we retain in this way will be fully invested by the Concertgebouw in the artists who have been hit the hardest by the loss of their jobs. We do realise that these resources will not be sufficient.’
In Ghent, Franky Devos of Vooruit is hoping for a similar collective call from the Ghent cultural houses to their audiences, to donate their ticket money to the artists involved in cancelled events. ‘I imagine we’ll then distribute that money among these artists, paying attention to everyone’s specific situation. Perhaps a subsidised theatre company such as Ontroerend Goed can absorb their losses just a bit more easily than a young music band’?
So yes, the coronavirus does appeal to mutual solidarity. But the economic reality in the cultural sector turns out to be rather more complex than donating 12 or 20 euros to a music club, an arts centre or an ensemble so as to help the artists. These organisations are suffering from many other lost revenues and costs already incurred, upon which the audience has no impact. Jambon’s recent cuts of 6%, for example.
’It is the people with the lowest wages who are the first victims.’
From all those art organisations and institutions that we contacted, we do consistently hear the same message: ‘What we are mainly worried about are the freelancers at the end of the chain. Many are already working in precarious conditions, but once again they are carrying the brunt of the losses. It is the people with the lowest wages who are the first victims.’
What does that look like in practice? And how does the money find its way to the artists themselves? Through a survey amongst producing and presenting art organisations we will, in the course of this article, follow the falling dominoes to the artists and freelancers. A descent into an ever-deeper pit…
50 years versus three days
Collegium Vocale was to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with twenty concerts of Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions in as many concert halls all over Europe, with 43 and 91 musicians respectively. One by one these prestigious performances of such reference works fell like dominoes: first Austria, then Germany, then the Netherlands and Belgium, and lastly France. In three days’ time, corona cancelled the whole tour.
For audience members from Brussels to Moscow this meant in practice an evening off, for the ensemble itself and all the musicians involved it is a heavy blow. On an annual turnover of 4 million this project was budgeted at 1 million.
‘We are still mapping out the exact losses’, says Sophie Cocquyt. ‘But most of the costs had of course already been made: fees for rehearsals, instrument hire, 75% advance on air travel, accommodation costs, visas for Russia for 90 people… What can we recover from that? Will the concert halls still compensate part of our buy-out fee? And how will our big sponsors react, if we don’t perform anywhere?’
Postponing is not really an option: this autumn, Collegium Vocale has already planned another big birthday tour, and playing passions at Christmas, is like figs after Easter, says Cocquyt. ‘Our musicians themselves insisted on filming Friday’s general rehearsal and putting it on our website as a proud video, but that offers small comfort. After months of preparation this situation feels completely surreal.’
‘Compensating all wages means that the ensemble will almost certainly go bankrupt.’
All the musicians involved are therefore forced to watch their income dissolve. Nor can they claim the compensation agreement which normally applies to many music ensembles when they skip concerts themselves: roughly 50% of the fee for cancellations two months before the concert, 75% in the case of cancellations one month before the date, 100% in the last two weeks… ‘In this case, we are talking about force majeure, so unfortunately this arrangement does not apply’, says Cocquyt. One soprano even told me that she lost twice: for this tour, she took leave without pay at the school where she teaches, so her replacement is now sitting at home with her salary.’
Producers without reserves
Many other producing organisations have a similar story. The Brussels Jazz Orchestra had to cancel five concerts, four rehearsal days and all scheduled wages, but still has high hopes for new engagements later this year. ‘Once those dates have been set, we’re considering paying our musicians in advance for those concerts, so their cash flow won’t be compromised’, Koen Maes explains. ‘But compensating everything, with only expenses and no income, means that the ensemble will almost certainly go bankrupt.’
Individuals are sadly the dupes, he concludes. ‘Luckily most of our musicians also teach and they can fall back on that salary. Two self-employed people in our core instrumentation have been informed about the special bridging regulation that the Flemish Community provides for them. But it remains a painful situation for all our artists and freelance technicians.’
Also for youth theatre company Studio ORKA, which had just started a nearly sold out two-month tour with its performance Pied de Poule, all contracts with four actors, one musician and a few technicians were terminated immediately. ‘There’s simply no money to pay them,’ Herwig Onghena explains. ‘That’s what makes this crisis such a shock. Since by far the most expenses in the performing arts go to wages, artists are always the first victims when income is lost.’
The team of actors can sympathise with the situation. ‘If all the buyouts are not paid due to force majeure, ORKA doesn’t have the financial margin to keep us enrolled,’ says one actor. ‘But instead of a full wage, I now fall back on unemployment benefit. That’s 700 euros net less per month. And for independent actors it’s even more difficult. What if this takes two months…?’
Mike Naert of Het Depot more or less assumes it will. Of the 21 concerts and events that the Leuven music club had to cancel, most were immediately moved to June or September, the less busy months at clubs. ‘If all these shifts are successful, we and our artists won’t immediately incur major losses.’ After all, half of the Depot staff has already been declared temporarily unemployed, and a few more will follow this week. From a legal point of view, they will still receive 70% of their wages.
’Rescheduling all cancelled events is just fiction.’
‘But the big question is how long this will last’, warns Naert. ‘We can’t keep moving concerts. Ticket sales for the rest of this spring have already fallen flat: people are waiting. So let’s hope that this won’t take too long, and that everything will crank up again afterwards. Otherwise the impact will multiply immediately.’
Moreover, moving events is certainly not easy for every sector. ‘For us and many other performing arts organisations this is a gigantic puzzle, juggling with players’ availability and free slots at presentation places’, says Onghena of ORKA. ‘And besides, postponed performances will always get in the way of earlier plans for that period, so as a company you have to make choices, as will programmers. Rescheduling everything is just fiction.’
That’s also true for several individual artists. ‘Postponement suggests that in the long run there will be no loss of income, but in practice it means that on those dates, I can’t do any other gigs.’
‘We are looking at a whole year’s work going up in smoke, this is a disaster.’
Moving an entire festival is even less feasible. Nevertheless, the Klara Festival, which cannot take place right now, is currently looking at all options. ‘We are looking at a whole year’s work going up in smoke, this is a disaster,’ says Greet De Grave. ‘A festival is a puzzle that you put together with artistic lines, different available halls, artists’ tours… It’s difficult to recreate that puzzle, everyone already has other bookings.’
The Klara Festival does not yet have a precise estimate of the losses, but one thing seems clear to De Grave. ‘I think there’s a very difficult period coming up for everyone. We are a creative sector, so we have to be creative now. Solidarity will become a code word, we’ll all have to see what’s possible.’
Weeks of rehearsals, production gone
Cases in which freelance employees are (or can be) compensated for cancelled productions seem to be scarce. An example is Antwerp art center De Studio: ‘We respect current employment contracts and engagements with freelancers’, promises the arts centre on its website. Freek Mariën, maker of The Wetsuitman with Het Kwartier and De Studio, expresses gratitude for this. ‘But I have lost the copyrights for seven performances in cultural centres that have been cancelled for the time being. That 600 euros is the biggest loss for me. After April 3rd we’ll lose everything.’
Hetpaleis will pay the large team of freelancers for De bevrijding van het edelhert, a production that should have premiered on Friday the 13th of March for three weeks. ‘We can also guarantee full salary for our own staff until April 3rd, but after that the situation has to be reviewed’, says Els De Bodt. For the time being, she estimates the loss at 100,000 euros. ‘But you can count on double that if we have to stay closed during the Easter holidays.’
At the Stadsschouwburg on the Theaterplein, the commercial neighbours of hetpaleis, the dozens of performers in the musical Mamma Mia! are less lucky: they see 30 planned performances go up in smoke, together with their fees. One musician currently mentions a lost income of more than 6,000 euros. In the meantime, producer Deep Bridge has already announced that the production will restart in August.
‘We rehearsed during two and a half months, for nothing.’
Smaller unsubsidized players have an even harder time keeping their heads above water. Take theatre company Tableau Nr. 1, which would premiere in the Fakkeltheater on Friday the 13th of March with Een handafhakking in Spokane. ‘We rehearsed during two and a half months, for nothing’, one of the actors reports. ‘Eight cancelled performances in March and April give zero return, and we can also forget about a performance series next season: neither our sales office nor programmers can come and see our work.’
Perforce, Tableau No. 1 has completely abandoned production, after having lost almost 10,000 euros in decor, lighting and the rent of rehearsal spaces. ‘Our money is just finished. We are paying our two guest actors part of their dues from our own pocket, but we ourselves, as a foursome, we won’t earn any money.’
One vulnerable web
The situation perfectly exposes the special character of the whole artistic live-performance sector: long-term investments in creations are offset by much (and increasingly) shorter periods of time during which they have to be recouped by sharing them with an audience. If something goes wrong, the effects are immediate.
‘In the subsidised field, I know very few players with enough reserves to absorb such shocks,’ says Leen Laconte of Overleg KunstenOrganisaties (oKo), the employers’ organization in the arts. ‘That’s what makes the damage in this sector so immense: most of our 207 organizations are rather small and have no or almost no buffer.’
’When three weeks turn into three months, we’re heading for disaster.’
After all, in the subsidised arts, income is often only sufficient to ultimately arrive at zero – with all the necessary risk entrepreneurship involved in that. ‘Loss of income therefore has a major impact,’ explains Laconte. ‘A lot of costs are incurred before the event takes place: personnel costs, production costs, legal costs… When force majeure occurs, they can’t be recovered where. And given the social and societal remit of the arts sector, it won’t be possible to recuperate the exceptional deficits of these weeks through higher ticket prices’.
So even in large settings, the calculator goes straight into the red, and not just because of the cancelled performances. ‘At Vooruit, the café and especially renting out spaces provide 48% of our own income,’ explains Franky Devos. ‘Now that the cafe and halls have to close, we have to recover the costs from the business operations, by applying for temporary unemployment for some of your staff. Another part has followed some days later. When three weeks turn into three months, we’re heading for disaster.’
After all, the exceptional thing about this crisis is that all the neighbouring sectors with which the arts interact also share in the blows. Not only the closed catering industry, but also education, libraries and the aviation sector. Prepaid hotel costs still seem to be partly recoverable, but otherwise it is very difficult to hold other sectors accountable.
‘Only the government seems able to repair the damage.’
After all, who has to pay for the cancelled school performance of a closed theatre company for a closed class in a closed cultural centre? This force majeure affects everyone. Only the government seems able to repair the damage.
Many small jobs, everything lost
Above all, this close interwovenness applies to the artists themselves. If all the testimonies at the State of the Arts hotline make one thing very clear, it is how diverse their activities are: for many, it is often a sum of small temporary assignments in museums or theatres, in residential care centres, cafes, academies, hospitals, art colleges, meeting centres, you name it. Much of that income has now dissolved in one go. Here are some revealing testimonies:
‘All the projects I’ve been working on for at least a year are falling through. With our platform Backlight Collective we had our first exhibition and event planned until March 20. I was supposed to have two more exhibitions at school that were also cancelled. At the same time, I’m working together with Het Entrepot and Stad Brugge on the Urban Art Festival Bruges on 10 and 11 April: also cancelled. Exactly in the year in which I was to develop myself as an artist… I won’t even be able to enter my studio for the coming weeks, and the shop where I work on the weekends as a working student will be closed too.’
‘I see no other way out but to stop my freelance activities altogether.’
I mainly create artwork for musical events. Since the lock down, I have received no new commissions. Besides that, I make brochures for a real estate office, one of my main sources of income. Normally that’s five to ten brochures a month at 75 euros per brochure, this month I haven’t made one yet. I’m also a DJ and of course everything is on hold there. And I’m working as an assistant producer: also zero new applications. I see no other way out but to stop my freelance activities altogether and look for a permanent job.’
‘I no longer have an income, due to the compulsory closure of the dance school where I work and the postponement of two performances in residential care centres in Ghent. It’s highly uncertain whether we will be able to do them again later on, because getting all the dancers back together again will be difficult. This will cost me 1,850 euros.’
All my activities have been cancelled: our concerts, music trainings, pre-school music sessions, babymusic, meetings for my new composition, rehearsals with my soloists for the upcoming piece: 75% less income, a loss of 10.000 euro.’
In some cases, they may not look like large sums of money, but for many artists they do make a monthly wage. That was also the conclusion of Loont passie?, a 2016 study into the socio-economic position of professional artists: they are ‘multi jobs holders’ whose net median income in all art disciplines is below the median of all Flemish taxpayers. For a quarter of visual artists, for example, that income is even below the living wage.
And not only actors, filmmakers or musicians, but also the whole creative sector around it shares in the blows. Theatre photographer Koen Broos lost a premiere at Transparant and rehearsals at LOD, among other jobs, and thus lost a full monthly salary. Also people who live off writing assignments about culture and giving introductions in cultural centres, are seeing all their assignments evaporate. One freelance stage critic notes with some irony: ‘The only replacement income I make now is from writing articles about this situation, but you can’t keep doing that.’
Many freelance technicians and light and sound companies also report major losses, such as this lighting technician, track spotter, tour and stage manager who saw musical and music performances such as Daens, ’40-’45, Belle Perez and De Romeo’s cancelled. ‘I live off this job, so does my partner, so now we both have to stay at home: independent, no income and supporting two children, we have the house to pay off and two cars… Together we currently have zero point zero income, whereas that should have been about 20,000 euros gross.’
’Together we currently have zero point zero income, whereas that should have been about 20,000 euros gross.’
Rescheduling concerts isn’t really a solution apparently. ‘Even then, we lose twice: those concerts are now postponed to the autumn, which is actually already full, so we have to find replacements for those productions and so there’s no way we can earn the amount we were counting on. Well, I really don’t see any way out right now!’
March is just the beginning?
The fact that this corona crisis has a serious impact on many cultural workers is not only due to the fact that their assignments are spread out and disappearing all at the same time. In addition, for some people, it’s the timing. Various testimonies indicate that March and April are ‘good months’, which help to compensate for other leaner months.
‘March is Youth Book Month, the peak time for lectures in schools, libraries and cultural centres: the moment in which we make our annual income as writers or illustrators. And now that’s completely gone. Fortunately, most organisers do try, as much as possible, to move those lectures to later in the year, so that my loss remains ‘limited’ to 4,000 euros gross. At the same time, however, the book fair in Bologna was cancelled, with disastrous consequences for the number of possible translations next year.’
‘This period was supposed to be the busiest time of my year, and should have cushioned the quieter months of April and May. In one go I lost 15 concerts and 5 children’s music theatre performances, together that’s 5,000 euros. And who knows what’s to come!’
‘As a sound technician and production engineer, all my activities and income have suddenly disappeared. Some of them have been postponed to a later date, but my diary doesn’t always allow that. March was a busy and lucrative month, but now I’m facing an income loss of almost 4,000 euros. April is also a good month, hopefully that won’t fall through as well.’
According to many testimonies, the cancellations already reach much further than April 3. Definitely, performances abroad have been cancelled well into May. And even in our own country the uncertainty about the duration of this crisis has financial consequences in itself. Event companies such as Amai Productions, for example, report: ‘Every order until April 3 has been cancelled, but bookings for April and May are also under pressure, because no one dares to confirm any more. Some are already starting to cancel. We are already talking about a loss of 4,000-5,000 euros gross, but that will increase to 15,000-20,000 euros.’
Cancellations keep coming in, even for the end of April and May.
We hear the same story at VOX booking office for music bands: cancellations keep coming in, even for the end of April and May. Such lost buy-outs are also immediately reflected in the personal income of those bookers and managers. ‘We mainly work on commission’, says Dieter Craeye, ‘But now so many concerts and relevant festivals have been cancelled, plus release tours postponed, that we are missing out on considerable amounts of booking commissions. There’s no safety net.’
However, Craeye is most concerned about the artistic consequences for artists. Tours, plans and strategies go to waste. At the beginning of April, John Ghost was one of the rare Belgian bands to perform at two highly regarded festivals in the Netherlands. ‘We had been working towards that with band, label and management for months. Will our bands be able to play at their next editions of 2021, when there are already 100 other artists eager to play there? What a waste! Many artists are losing their moral and are in need of a mental support. I’m very worried about the summer festivals.’
1.75 million loss for 400 culture workers
Of all the 425 cultural workers who completed the State of the Arts questionnaire before Tuesday the 17th of March (half of them from the music sector), almost 400 gave a concrete figure for their personal lost income. Together, their losses amounted to 1,757,454 euros, or an average of 4,400 euros gross. The median is 2,500 euros.
Within music alone, the first figures from Sabam show that no less than 2,822 music-related events have been cancelled for the period up to April 4 – and perhaps not everything has been reported yet. Extrapolated to artistic budgets, this means, according to Sabam, that between 8 and 12 million artistic revenues for musicians are lost every month. Also in the performing arts Sabam estimates that 400,000 euros are now evaporating from the amateur and professional circuit every month. On top of this, 3.3 million euros in copyright revenue will be lost each month.
Kunstenpunt also counts some 250 cancelled dance and theatre performances and as many concerts by Flemish organisations abroad, measured between mid-March and mid-April.
‘Impossible for the sector to cope with this crisis on its own.’
‘Those figures are downright dramatic’, sighs Tom Kestens of GALM, the Society of Artists of Light Music. ‘We have to keep a cool head, but those losses teach us that it will be impossible for the sector to cope with this crisis on its own. It will be important for the government to include the cultural sector in the economic emergency measures.’
A diversity of statutes
What such a loss of millions concretely means in terms of income and possible shelter for musicians and other artists is of course very diverse. Much depends on their precise status, and these statutes are very diverse in the arts. Some have a permanent employee contract, others a temporary contract as an actor or musician, and others a day contract as a technician or attendant.
Furthermore, there are artists with a special benefit arrangement in case of unemployment (the so-called ‘artist’s statute’), many freelance cultural workers with interim contracts, but also private limited liability companies (BVBA’s) and self-employed people with a main or secondary profession. They all lose more or less in this exceptional situation, but some are a bit better protected than others.
For many permanent employees, a lot of closed cultural houses will have to opt for the path of ‘temporary unemployment due to force majeure‘. They will fall back to 70% (instead of the normal 65%) of their average salary, paid by the RVA, with a maximum of 2,754 euros per month.
‘Now that my additional income is gone, it means saving on expenses like food and drink.’
Self-employed persons in their main profession can appeal to the special bridging regulation provided by the Flemish Community during this crisis – but given the high financial threshold for this status, they are certainly not in surplus in the cultural sector. If their activity is interrupted for a full month, they are entitled to EUR 1,291 without family charge, and EUR 1,614 with family charge. Compensation is also available for shorter periods.
In addition to the right to reduced social security contributions, self-employed artists in a secondary occupation are at best entitled to a part-time wage, not uncommonly in education. But not everyone can make ends meet on their own, as one dancer testifies. ‘The income I probably earn as a teacher at school goes entirely to house rent and insurance. With my dance lessons as a self-employed dancer, I pay off my car every month, and I live off the money from my performances. Now that that income is gone, it means saving on expenses like food and drink. What about taxes and social security? As a woman living alone, life is very expensive!’
Freelancers with an ‘artist’s statute’ can fall back on exceptional rules in unemployment, but several artists in this situation are worried about maintaining that statute because of all the missed commissions: will they still be able to meet the required minimum number of artistic working days? Someone testifies: ‘To keep my artist status, you have to work three contracts a year and nine days a month, or 156 days out of 18 months. If this situation continues into April, it becomes uncertain’.
A music producer asks himself similar questions after 14 lost day contracts. ‘I’m curious what that will mean for the VDAB, which checks every six months whether I still work enough to be “left alone”.’ Will the government also take these exceptional corona times into account for the statutory situation of artists?
Despite these various support measures to alleviate the many income losses, a lot of cultural workers still report: ‘no more income at all’, ‘lost everything’:
‘As a conductor, performing musician and teacher of instruments and solmisation- all on a freelance basis at music studios and orchestras – I was literally banned from any income generating activity. One association allowed me to continue the individual lessons of three people at their own request. Income: -94%, or a loss of 1,868 euros. Expenses: unchanged.’
‘My husband and I come up with artistic concepts for events. All our events of the coming weeks (company parties, weddings and a large four-day project) have been cancelled. After a difficult start of the event year, this is a nightmare for our company and the many freelance artists we employ. We are losing 13.500 euro and currently have no more income, until the events are restarted. What about the heavy loads that have to be paid in the meantime? For example, we rent a workshop where we make costumes and decorations as part of our home. We are currently unable to pay for that studio, which also makes our housing situation uncertain.’
‘All my planned performances in multiple productions were cancelled. As an independent trumpet player, I need every euro to pay all the bills. For me personally this is a disaster, with zero income until May.’
‘There is really nothing left! This month and next month I have NO income as a freelancer!’
Every planned trip for vernissages and finissages of exhibitions, lectures and research residencies has been cancelled for the coming weeks. My solo presentation at Art Brussels was postponed, while all investments have already been made. A commission for a new work was cancelled, and two sales of works are on hold. A direct financial bomb of 15,000 euros, and this is just the beginning.’
‘Currently, all jobs, both technical and rental, have been cancelled or relocated. The result is an empty agenda until April 18. There will be NO more income in the coming month.’
‘All my concerts have been cancelled, all my lectures have been cancelled, all my lessons have been cancelled, all the events I was going to present have been cancelled as well. My diary turned blood red, it’s a massacre. Hopefully some appointments can be postponed until autumn, but that will prove difficult. I’m trying to write songs now and cycle around once in a while, because I have to keep healthy. The problem is that March, April and May are actually the months in which I have to build up my financial reserves for the summer. I don’t know how I’m going to do it now. My income was 5,000 euros. One organisation was kind enough to pay a cancellation fee of 50% over the agreed fee, so my income for this month will now be 375 euro.’
‘All video recordings of concerts, events and festivals have been cancelled. Especially Tomorrowland Winter is a blow: ten days of work wiped out at once. In addition, ten more assignments were cancelled, totalling 12,000 euros. There is really nothing left! This month and next month I have NO income as a freelancer!’
’90% of the audio-visual sector is made up of self-employed people who cannot count on benefits.’
‘All film shoots throughout Flanders have been shut down. This means that all lighting crews, grippers, actors, recording managers, caterers, production assistants, sound people, camera crews, scriptwriters… fall out of work until the virus has gone down. Nothing can be restarted without confirmation from the government. 90% of the audio-visual sector is made up of self-employed people who cannot count on benefits. This means a financial disaster for many. I myself lose 8,000 euros in three weeks’ time, and then I don’t take material and expenses into account. What if this continues for longer and several projects are cancelled?’
For Robrecht Vanderbeeken of ACOD Culture, these testimonials not only say something about corona, but also about the arts field itself. Unfortunately, this sector is a frontrunner in the liberalisation of the labour market, which means that many cultural workers work with ‘flexible’ contracts. This group also includes the individual artists who have already had to suffer a 50% axe on project subsidies. It is these precarious statutes that once again turn out to be the biggest victims.’
Short-term contracts: still a lot of ambiguity
Many of these artists and cultural workers may not yet have been able to take steps to examine their specific rights in more detail, but in any case, not all of them will now be able to rely on a replacement income.
What, for example, about lost income from abroad? For example, visual artist Kobe Matthys (Agentschap vzw) had a lecture and a workshop in Gothenburg in the coming weeks, and another performance in Tabakalera in Spain. ‘Both were cancelled, but it is difficult to expect compensation measures from different countries. Together with another performance and an exhibition in the coming weeks we will miss out on 7,500 euros’.
Also the large group of freelancers who work for their short-term assignments via interim employment and SBKs such as Amplo or Smart are still unclear. However, Amin Dridi of Amplo states that they are also eligible for temporary unemployment. People who have been contracted through us for short assignments as employees on an interim basis, or with a project contract for somewhat larger assignments, have the same rights as traditional employees, and can therefore also receive a benefit of 70% for their average income.
On Monday, the RVA (the Belgian state institution for work) also published an information sheet about this: ‘Temporary unemployment due to force majeure applies to blue- and white-collar workers and also temporary workers during the duration of their temporary employment contract, but not to students.’
However, Dridi wonders if everyone will bother with the paperwork. Another big question mark are the cancelled assignments that had already been confirmed verbally, but had not yet been drawn up contractually via Amplo. Appointments without a signature, in other words. ‘This situation is, of course, very common in a sector like this, where a lot of work is done on a weekly or monthly basis. Can these cases also qualify for temporary unemployment due to force majeure? We’ve been stalking the RVA about that for a few days now.’
‘In other words: the freelance workers are the dupes.’
Servaas Le Compte of Artists United is much more sceptical about the possibilities of being promised temporary unemployment as a freelance employee with short-term contracts. To this end, he refers to the FAQ on the website of the Department of Culture, where question number 8 stipulates that ‘there is no question of temporary unemployment in the event of dissolution of the employment contract, only in the event of suspension’.
Cancelled contracts, for example due to force majeure like epidemics, therefore provide no basis for applying for temporary unemployment,’ says Le Compte. ‘What’s more, in our experience the RVA changes its opinion about what can and cannot be done on a daily basis. And even if there is a valid contract, there is still a lot of ambiguity and a heavy administrative obligation and uncertainty: you have to go through the entire procedure for temporary unemployment again and again for every temporary contract. In other words: the freelance workers are the dupes.’
That is why Artists United and The Actor’s Guild make the following appeal and petition to all politicians: ‘Grant the possibility of temporary unemployment without any doubt or ambiguity also to artists and technicians working with temporary or one-day contracts. Otherwise, those who are hired on a project-by-project basis, without any form of support, are at risk of running into huge trouble.’
In the Netherlands, a majority in the House of Representatives argued in favour of a support package for the cultural sector.
Also oKo and the unions are lobbying for this, according to Leen Laconte. ‘We are asking for guarantees from the RVA to accept temporary unemployment for reasons of force majeure for all employment contracts already concluded, even if they are not yet in execution. Normally that should be possible, but the RVA must be prepared to be flexible. And it has to be applied equally everywhere.’
In the meantime, Amplo receiving more and more questions from the film and animation sector. Since Sunday, measures have been taken there as well that could cause animation studios, for example, to close down’, says Dridi. On Monday morning, the first panic-stricken phone call about this came in at 7:10 a.m.’
Towards an emergency fund?
All in all, it reads like a devastating hurricane is being spilled out over the creative sector. How to limit the financial damage to culture houses, producers and freelancers alike?
OKo wants to invest in a thorough inventory and advocates mapping out the consequences for all types of players. ‘We are discussing this with organisations like Cultuurloket and Kunstenpunt’, says Leen Laconte.
In addition to State of the Arts, GALM also wants to collect more cases and figures on which to base policy advice. ‘Especially seeing as how many musicians are now badly affected, we will communicate directly to the policy makers in the coming hours and days. But we’re also looking at what we can do within the sector itself’, says Tom Kestens. ‘We are in full consultation with the management committees Sabam, PlayRight and Simim on this subject. There’s an increased state of readiness. We’re in problem-solving mode, for clients as well as members and associates.’
But the loudest call is for a ‘corona emergency fund’ for culture. Not only at oKo and ACOD Cultuur, but also with about one third of the cultural workers who testified for the State of the Arts. ‘The lockdown was a good decision to help at-risk groups,’ someone writes. ‘But shouldn’t the same vision also apply to the precarity and fragility of artists’ situations?’
Such an emergency fund has already been announced in several other European countries, also for the self-employed and freelancers. In Norway, they will receive a temporary income protection of 80% on their average income of the last three years. In Portugal, the same group has been promised paid sick leave from day one of the quarantine. In case of loss of income, they will receive a minimum of 438 euros and a maximum of 1097 euros, depending on their social security contributions.
‘Who knows, maybe the arts will be missed so much these weeks that an enormous amount of energy will be released afterwards?’
In the Netherlands, too, a majority in the House of Representatives argued in favour of a support package for the cultural sector, and the Minister of Culture Van Engelshoven (D66) will discuss this with the field. ‘I won’t let them down,’ said her German colleague Monika Grütters on Thursday the 12th of March. ‘Not only the economy is worth compensating for, also the cultural landscape itself, which has been severely affected by all the cancellations.’ More specifically, she wants to strengthen existing subsidy instruments and also free up additional budget for any negative consequences that may arise.
When will Flanders and/or Belgium follow?
Artist Kobe Matthys mainly tries to keep the spirits up. ‘Who knows, maybe the arts will be missed so much these weeks that an enormous amount of energy will be released afterwards? As artists, we can’t just sit back and do nothing. Maybe we can invent new channels during this crisis, from balcony festivals and concerts via streaming to art vitrines?’