People of Flanders: Engagement Arts and Anneleen Lemmens
When Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement came onto the scene, a tidal wave of change started. While the cause started in the US in 2006, it became a global phenomenon in 2017. Collectives based on #MeToo began to grow, and Engagement Arts was Flanders' response to the issue in the world of culture.
Sexual harassment in the arts is not new, but creating safe spaces for people to come forward is. “Engagement Arts is an artist-led movement tackling sexual harassment, sexism and abuse of power in the Belgian arts field," the group’s mission statement reads.
Anneleen Lemmens joined the non-profit organisation in 2020 after its founding by Ilse Ghekiere. She soon became a member of the board of directors.
“It’s important to realise that when Engagement Arts started, there was no conversation about what was happening in the field. This group contributed to putting this on the agenda and keeping it there,” says Lemmens. “Of course, there are more initiatives talking about these topics now, but in 2017 there was nothing.”
Flanders is no stranger to misconduct in the art world. Flemish artist and choreographer Jan Fabre was convicted of violence, sexual harassment and sexual assault after 20 people came forward to talk about their experiences in 2018.
Lemmens, who grew up in a small town outside Ghent, attended the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound (RITCS) in Brussels for three years and felt drawn to contributing to the art world in a more meaningful way. She covers many tasks within the organisation. She is responsible for the group's general coordination, meetings, logging people who come and go while managing their own careers, communication and fielding emails from the artists who contact the group to share what they have experienced.
A large part of how the non-profit raises funds is through workshops and lectures on transgressive behaviour at work. While sexual misconduct is rampant in other businesses, the arts lend themselves to situations with more potential for crossing lines.
“Our field makes transgression and the specificity of what we do more difficult to address,” Lemmens says, “There is not only sexism in our work, but artists are vulnerable to competition, hierarchical structure, romantic cliches of 'the artistic genius' in rehearsal and so on.”
Workshops and lectures range from the female nude in art history and how that translates to the stage to helping people gauge situations objectively based on consent and nuance. Engagement Art's website also provides extensive resources and literature.
Government funding for such organisations can often prove difficult, and Engagement Arts is no exception. While initial funding helped support it for three years in a governmental action plan against transgressive behaviour under then Culture minister Sven Gatz, that money was cut. His successor, Jan Jambon, gave Engagement Arts a grace period of one year in 2022, but the organisation has not received a renewal of its funding.
Lemmens believes in the power of having a space for conversations as an in-between for people suffering from sexual misconduct. “Instead of going directly to a court situation, which of course, is necessary in some cases, people can come to us and have a seat at the table in conversations aimed at moving the arts forward. We are a bridge for those people,” she says.
In May, Engagement Arts was invited to speak at the European Parliament on recommendations for how to fight sexism and transgressive behaviour in the cultural field. While grateful for the exposure, Lemmens says five minutes is hardly enough time to address the issue.
True to the group's motto, “We will no longer be bystanders. We will engage!” Lemmens and the other members have no intention of slowing down, even when government funding has come to a halt.
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