But M is able to keep its head above water. I am far more concerned about beginning and upcoming artists. They are in a genuinely vulnerable position. Exhibitions are being cancelled or postponed, productions are at risk, residencies cannot take place, and acquisitions have been terminated. Visual artists are often forced to combine their artistic practice with part-time or full-time jobs to survive and to afford studio space to create work. They are in a vulnerable position as freelancers, part-time freelancers and volunteers with an artists’ status or via one-day contracts.
Because they are located in such liminal zones, a considerable number of them are not eligible for compensation measures from the government. Recent studies by Kunstenpunt, OKO and State of the Arts demonstrate that thousands of zero-hours contractors have been left with nothing. I have heard first-hand that some have signed on with social services and have been forced to cancel the rental contracts of the studio spaces. I have seen cries for help on social media, in which artists offer their work for sale at cut-rate prices. I have also heard of several exceptionally talented artists who have (temporarily) stopped their artistic practice due to this crisis.
How is it possible that the status of the artist in the sector is so precarious when artists are such an essential link in the chain? Without art there are no institutions, exhibition, artworks or presentations. They create space for imagination, their alternative perspectives broaden our horizons, especially in our current context of uncertainty and loneliness. Their many voices shape artistic developments and the art that we want to exhibit in our arts institutions tomorrow and into the future. Their multiplicity is essential.
We must therefore urgently develop a decent status and higher compensations for this group of creative makers. This issue is more urgent in the sector now than ever before. It is a responsibility we all bear, and a right for future generations. Campaigns such as ‘Right is Right’ emphasize their vulnerable role and demand fair agreements. Over the past few months, direct support initiatives have been taken, such as SOS Relief, but in this crisis we also have to shift into a higher gear.
I am therefore launching an urgent appeal to policymakers, but also to all cultural and arts centres, arts training programmes and associations to explore ways in which we can ensure that the upcoming generation of artists has the necessary breathing space to continue working. Do not continue to look on paralysed from the side-lines, but give them a future perspective. Do not let our fertile soil become desolate. Ask yourself how we can support their oeuvres. Reimagine the role that artists can play.
But what can policymakers, museums and arts institutions do? Many of us are searching. And yet inspiring initiatives do occasionally appear. The Bruges Museums launched a number of creative commissions centred on Bruges’ heritage. The City of Antwerp provided a budget for the acquisition of works by local artists for the M HKA Collection. At M Leuven we likewise endeavour to support artists at various points in their careers, from residencies to first exhibitions, texts, publications, lectures and performance to retrospective exhibitions by famous names. We will continue to expand this role throughout this crisis and bring it into sharper focus where necessary. Indeed, we have noticed that even those who were doing relatively well have been hit hard by the crisis.
M Leuven is also launching an initiative, in two ways. First, a budget of 100,000 has been made available by the City of Leuven and Cera. This will enable us to acquire artworks by upcoming artists who work in Belgium. Unique voices who need our support more than ever, names who have already developed an exceptional oeuvre. Their work will enrich the collection and will be exhibited at M in 2021. By purchasing the woks directly, we hope to provide breathing room, in the first place financially, but also by offering public visibility at M. A committee of four experts in contemporary art will cooperate in making the selection. This committee consists of myself and Valerie Verhack from M Leuven, Hicham Khalidi, Director of the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Maastricht and curator Louis-Philippe Van Eeckhoutte from Brussels.
In addition, we sense that (the lack of) art is a pressing concern in society. In Leuven, we have received messages from residents asking how they can help in the current crisis in our sector. Through the museum fund M-LIFE, M’s fund managed by the King Baudouin Foundation, we are launching a crowdfunding campaign, appealing to public involvement and with the aim of increasing the acquisition budget. Through this combined initiative, we hope to support about twenty upcoming talents who are currently active in Belgium.
This initiative may appear to be a drop in the ocean, but we nevertheless hope to help a number of vulnerable artists survive this crisis and to prevent them from throwing in the towel. Let us all work together to provide a secure safery net.
Curator of Contemporary Art