The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
The Kunsten Festival des Arts, making Brussels a center generating new trends in contemporary art
Christophe Slagmuylder
Next I would like to focus on what the festival will be like now that you are at the helm. First of all would like to ask you about some basic facts. Concerning the managing system, your festival takes the form of nonprofit association, doesn’t it? Who are the association’s directors?
  The directors are people from the arts and the intellectual communities, and all of them are Belgian. Naturally, we are careful to make sure that the makeup of the board of directors is well balanced in terms of members from both the French-speaking and Flemish –speaking communities. We even have two presidents. All of the directors are completely independent of any political affiliations or responsibilities. For that reason, we may not be able to use them as political contacts or information sources, but on the other hand they are completely free from any political pressure. I think that is very important. We have about four meetings of the board a year and the directors serve as a form of control organization. They never interfere in the festival programming or try to pressure me in any way, but they are very important people for us and I consult with them for opinions before I announce the festival program. And, each year after the festival is over in June we review it together and have them present for the evaluation. So, for me the board serves as a control organization as well as being an important reference source. Some of the directors are people that Frie Leysen gathered at the start of the festival in 1994, and some are new members who have joined since then.

Next I would like to ask you about your office team. You have a co-director who helps with the administrative side, don’t you?
  Yes. I have a co-director named Roger CHRISTMANN who is in charge of the financial and administrative aspects of the festival. This co-directorship is very important because, by concentrating on the fund-raising and the organizational aspects of each project, he allows me to concentrate on the artistic side and the festival programming. Roger joined the KFDA team before me, back in 2001, and I began working with him as co-director from June of 2006.

Besides you two directors, how many people are on your full-time staff?
  That is a difficult to answer. There are a number of people that we have working for us nine or ten months out of the year, and although they are not 100% full-time staff, they work for us on contract for a given period of time. There are only six of us, including Roger and me, who are full-time, as opposed to working on short-termed contracts. Four more work nine or ten months out of the year. These ten people constitute the core of the festival staff. In addition, we have a lot of people working short term from January or February until the festival in May.

KFDA always publishes thick programmes with all texts fully translated in French, Flemish and English, and you always issue press releases before performances with texts that are very complete in both quality and volume. What’s more you always have full French and Flemish subtitles for all foreign performances. How do you handle such a large volume of text production?
  First of all, one of our central team members is in charge of the programme publication and editing our website. She collects all the information and contacts all the artists. We outsource the writing of the programme to freelance writers, and I write some of the texts myself, and we form an editorial team of her, myself and the freelance writers. And here again we run into the language problem (laughs). We produce all our publications in the three languages, so we hire freelancers for the French and Flemish and we hire a separate translator to do the English.
  With the performance subtitles, we have one translator we have been working with for quite some time. He is a translator who specializes in theater subtitles, and he does the subtitles for other festivals as well. Since this is an international festival we have to deal with a number of languages. These include a wide variety of languages, such as Japanese, Portuguese and Croatian to name a few. When we need subtitles for a production in one of these languages, we first go to consult our translator and then he goes out to find a translator for the language in question that he can work with. Also, for all the works we deal with, we try to translate directly from the original language it was written in. So, it becomes quite a volume of work. Furthermore, when we use subtitle we always discuss things thoroughly with the artists to decide where the subtitles will be projected and the relationship with the set components. At times, we asked to have several rehearsals with the subtitles before a production’s opening. For example, in the case of Tosiki Okada, it was the first time that his production had been performed overseas and it took a long time to get the volume and timing of the subtitles right. This great volume of work is one of the choices you make with an international festival. It is important that an international festival make use of a wide range of means to deepen its audience’s understanding of works in a foreign language.

Next I would like to ask about KFDA’s budget. Compared to other major festivals in Europe, it seems to be a rather “modest” budget (laughs).
  Yes, it is modest (laughs). The festival’s total budget is 2,700,000 euro. And we work to dedicate more than half of the budget to the artistic aspects like production of works. And we try to devote a large part of this budget for the artistic aspects to support collaborative works. This is because one of the big prerequisites we have set for ourselves is that ours be a creation type festival. Of course, we do invite existing works, but more than half of the works on our programme are ones that we have participated in supporting the creation of. So, our outlays for the artistic side of the festival takes up a large part of our budget.

I would like to ask you more about the collaborative works you do later on, but before that I want to ask you if you have any kind of specific strategy behind KFDA’s operation on the administrative and financial sides. Could you tell us about your basic approach and methods for keeping the festival going and developing?
  First of all, as I said earlier, we work to get funding from both the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking communities. This is an ongoing and universal priority for KFDA, and if support from one of the two communities would ever be cut off, we would have to close down our festival. That is how essential this issue is to our festival’s existence and our reason for being. We have multi-year contracts with the cultural affairs bureaus of both communities. We have a five-year contract with the bureau of the French-speaking community and a four-year contract with the bureau of the Flemish-speaking community, and both are renewable. These contracts guarantee us the same amount of funding each year of their four- or five-year durations. In the final year of each contract a review is made of the results of the contract period and we make proposals for the programs we want to engage in the coming contract period and then negotiate concerning the amount of funding the ensuing contract will entail. The funding we receive through these two contracts constitutes our festival’s basic operating budget, and other than these we don’t have any other grants guaranteeing multi-year support. The support we get from the two bureaus accounts for close to 60% of our total revenue.

Do these two cultural bureaus have any say in the contents the festival programming?
  They are not involved in choosing the programme contents. However, since our relationship with the bureaus is based on contracts, we have to define missions and goals for the respective four- and five-year contract periods and initiate plans to accomplish them. We also have to file evaluation reports every year. In addition to a financial evaluation we also have to cover the contents of the, including things like critical reviews. And we have to submit longer-term reports on the four- or five-year results and documents defining directions for activities over the coming contract periods. This is not only true for KFDA but for all the larger companies and artists receiving government agency funding in Belgium.

Do companies also have four- or five-year contracts? And do arts organizations also receive multi-year support?
  Yes. It is a good system, isn’t it? Particularly in the Flemish community, all the companies come up for contract renewal during the same period, so it provides a good opportunity for the government to consider where we want to be four years down the road in terms of the arts in Belgium and make decisions based on long-term visions. That means the funding can be applied based on long-term visions of the larger picture, rather than just doling out funds project by project on a one-up basis.

That is good. I would definitely like to propose to the Japanese government that it base its support for the arts on such a multi-year funding system (laughs). Besides government funding, what other sources of revenue do you have?
  The non-government funding we get is basically on a year-by-year basis. The sources are the region Brussels is in and the city of Brussels. There are also grants that are applied for on a yearly basis, but there is no guarantee that we will receive these, and we often don’t hear whether our applications have been accepted until just before the festival, or sometimes even after it is over.
  From 2008, we have received our first 5-year contract for support from the EU. This is support for collaborative projects by six festivals including KFDA. Our partners are the Rotterdam, Lisbon, Estonia, Gothenburg, and Bordeaux. We will be working together on collaborative projects over the next five years. KFDA is the leader among the five other festivals in this project and we are serving as the intermediary with the EU.
  But, within this system of public funding, I have the feeling that we are near the ceiling and there aren’t many prospects for increasing the amount of funding we can get. So, we are now studying ways to gradually get more funding from private sector foundations. That said, the private sector foundations in Belgium are not functioning on a sufficient level and I think we have to be careful in looking to them as a source of funding. This may be partially because I believe that, more than anyone, it is the governments and public sector that should be supporting the arts.
  Also, I think that perhaps we need to question whether or not we should be trying to make the festival any larger than it is now. In the last few years our festival attendance at KFDA (ticket sales) has grown from around 20,000 to 25,000. In particular, the last four festivals have been very successful, with an attendance rate of over 90% capacity for all of the programme performances. We need to discuss whether we should be trying to grow our audience or whether we should be trying to put on larger-scale productions. Of course we don’t want to get any smaller. That point is clear. As I mentioned earlier, I want to see us get plenty of funding to produce new original works, but I have doubts about whether we should be grow the scale of the festival in general. I feel that our current scale of 30 works over three weeks is just about right, and since the population of Brussels is only one million, I wonder if there is really much more audience size potential that we can develop, even if we are able to bring in many people from other countries. For example, I have doubts whether or not it would be good to double the number of works on our programme to 60 and try to draw a total audience of 50,000. I believe it is important to get a good picture of what the most suitable scale is for the size of our festival.
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