Johanna Mäkelä: Belgium’s open access culture – a visitor’s view
  • Johanna Nieminen_03 parempi
15 March 2016

© VIAA. The Flemish Institute for Archiving (VIAA) strategy incorporates accessibility.

The Benelux region is a source of inspiration for many people working in the performing arts sector. I had the opportunity to enjoy time there in January during a two-week placement at our colleague organisation Circuscentrum, the Flemish Centre for Circus Arts, in Ghent. My stay was supported by the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux.

The performing arts in Belgium are flourishing. It seems they are afforded a particular space of their own, as well as significant creative freedom, within society. In Belgium, there is a consensus that art has particular significance within society and the country’s cultural history is actively used to construct its future.

In population terms, Finland and Belgium’s Flemish community are comparable entities; of Belgium’s 11 million people, 6.5 million are Flemish. In Finland, the population is approximately 5.5 million. However, of the Flemish budget, 1.5% is allocated to the arts and culture, while in Finland the equivalent figure stands at just 0.8%.

It strikes me that Belgian culture in general is characterised by an open, progressive mentality throughout, which allows the arts sector to continue to evolve and avoid becoming confined in fixed and unchanging institutions. Decisions on arts and cultural policy, too, are taken in seemingly close proximity to the practitioners in the wider field. The application system for Flemish public grant funding, for example, was redesigned to better reflect the changes that have taken place in the sector. Applicants no longer need to limit their funding applications for cross-disciplinary projects to a single funding stream and the panels taking the decisions on how funding is allocated also comprise representatives from a number of different disciplines, rather than relying on expertise in a single area. I have also marvelled at the many diverse solutions that are available to meet the needs of artists and practitioners in Belgium. And even if a solution is not readily available, there is, at the very least, an organisation dedicated to addressing the issue in question, ready to contribute their knowhow and best practice. Networking and the sharing of knowledge and information are an integral feature of how things are done.

Alongside our circus project, I was able to familiarise myself with the digitisation and archiving of audiovisual cultural resources and materials being undertaken by the Flemish community in Ghent. Founded at the end of 2012, the Flemish Institute for Archiving (VIAA) has rapidly digitised one petabyte’s worth of audiovisual material, contributed by nearly one hundred cultural memory organisations. VIAA’s concept is to digitise and archive heritage material and to make it accessible to the public. In just a few years, the VIAA has succeeded in digitally preserving a quarter of the taped audiovisual material discovered as part of its preliminary survey. Altogether, the plan is to digitise 500,000 hours of material between 2014 and 2020.

What is particularly appealing about the Flemish digitisation model is that the heritage and cultural memory organisations are not required to have the technical expertise to carry out digitalisation themselves, as the task is performed by the VIAA for free. In exchange, the VIAA is entitled to make the digital materials available for teaching and research purposes. The VIAA’s staff includes teachers working in a voluntary capacity, who select age-appropriate resources for use in schools. This means that the cultural heritage is not only preserved but also made accessible and brought back into active use.

Flanders has set itself the objective of being a top region in Europe by 2020, which would require, among other things, a knowledge of the past, present and future; research and development; innovation and creativity; efficiency, administrative speed and power; and accessibility for all. Finland might well benefit from a similar approach to improving knowledge sharing and preservation, too.

The work carried out by the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux in facilitating professional exchange visits between Finland and the Benelux countries, provides cultural organisations with excellent opportunities for networking and sharing their know how. The grass, naturally, is always greener on the other side.

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Johanna Mäkelä

Johanna Mäkelä works as a Communications Officer at CircusInfo Finland. During her exchange visit, she attended a Circostrada network meeting and worked on a collaborative project with her colleague at the Circuscentrum.

© Jouni Ihalainen

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