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Brussels city profile | city data



Brussels is an international transit hub and when the European refugee crisis worsened in 2015 many came to the city, living in makeshift tents and shelters in Maximiliaan Park in the Northern Quarter. At its height, the park became home to more than 1,000 people waiting to register with the Belgian Immigration Department. Although the arrival of refugees has produced political tension across Europe, in Brussels it also led to support networks springing up for refugees – offering practical support in terms of a place to sleep and advice in dealing with bureaucracy. Simultaneously, some creatives have offered a cultural welcome to the city, through Cinemaximiliaan, which offers film showings to refugees in a variety of settings.

Cinemaximiliaan is coordinated by Gwendolyn Lootens, a visual artist and documentary maker and Gawan Fagard, an art historian and film programmer. In September 2015 the pair brought film equipment to Maximiliaan Park and with the help of volunteers, offered film showings every night. The screenings became social occasions, and citizens stayed in touch with refugees after they were moved to asylum centres around Belgium. Now the screenings have extended to asylum centres, which today are where many new arrivals first encounter the work of Cinemaximiliaan.

Screenings have also spread to homes around Brussels. A citizen’s solidarity movement, which offers spare rooms and political support to refugees, now has a Facebook group with 27,000 members. Offering home cinema evenings is an extension of this welcome, which also involves sharing dinner and making social connections. The project has now expanded to include other activities such as music performances, debates, lectures and workshops. Eighteen months into the project, Cinemaximiliaan is now developing plans for a film production house. Based in a large house in Molenbeek, it offers film recording and editing studios and a setting for a wide variety of people to work together as camera operators, costume designers or make-up artists as well as film-makers. Film production is on a voluntary basis, with everyone working together on an equal level. In December 2017, the Hakimi family from Afghanistan made the first film to emerge from this project in collaboration with directors Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami and Julie De Clercq.

The project has ambitions to create a sense of ‘family’, which in ten years will be able to provide support for a new generation of incomers. In order to create a sustainable model, Cinemaximiliaan has recently become a not-forprofit so that it can seek more structured funding. In 2015, the project won the Flemish Culture Prize for Sociocultural Work with Adults. It was judged outstanding in addressing an acute social problem with a project which has gone beyond the local context of the city to have a countrywide impact. A 2018 World Bank report shows that 80–90% of forcibly displaced people live in towns and cities, meaning that dealing with large numbers of refugees is most often an urban issue. The Cinemaximiliaan experience may therefore offer useful lessons for many other cities.



As Brussels diversifies, its institutional cultural scene does not always create work relevant to the variety of urban realities or capture the rich cultural references of its neighbourhoods. At the same time, it is important not to programme cultural work that reduces people only to their ethnic, cultural and religious background. In response to these issues, the public policy research organisation Demos has created a new kind of multidisciplinary arts event: ENTER Festival BXL. It involves the public across the city in curating cultural events, and choosing which parts of a multi-district festival should be performed in their neighbourhood.

The participative process begins with a call, in three languages, for suggestions of artistic productions which involve citizens in the creative process. In 2018, the fourth edition of the ENTER Festival, 209 proposals were received, which were sifted down to 80 by an 18 person editorial board of creatives. The longlist of options was then presented to residents in four very different areas of Brussels: Haren, Laeken, St. Peter’s Woluwe and the Begijnhof neighbourhood, which formed the four festival zones of the city. Residents were then given a budget and invited to choose which of the artistic options should take place in their neighbourhood.

Demos, the organisation behind the festival, has a broader strategic aim of engaging a wider group of citizens in the democratic process and empowering the public sector to work for the common good. It is working with government bodies, including the City of Brussels and Brussels- Capital Region, as well as neighbourhoods and local people to achieve this. ENTER offers a blueprint for future participative art festivals and continues to develop methods of putting art into the hands of the public. The 2018 festival was followed by a debate event, discussing participative formats in the arts and exploring how these relate to wider issues of diversity in the city.



Brussels has a lively street art scene, ranging from music to contemporary sculpture, festivals, events, performance art and graffiti. In the past few years the City authorities have developed a tolerant and light-touch approach to overseeing this. Although its management processes aim to create well-organised use of urban space that does not cause a nuisance to citizens, its policy is designed to allow challenging art and prevent censorship, recognising graffiti in particular as a legitimate urban form.

For public sculptures, the Urban Art Committee looks at what new pieces should be acquired by the City, the maintenance of existing works and how public art integrates into the urban landscape. Works include Alexander Calder’s abstract spiral shape in a fountain ‘The Wirling Ear’, Lucile Soufflet’s ‘The circular bench’, which mixes practical street furniture with art, and Jean- François Octave’s ‘My gay mythology - a monument to everyone’ that bears some resemblance to a street information point but lists inspirational gay figures. This variety of forms, materials and subjects expresses the progressive values of the city.

Since 2014, the City has also invested €100,000 each year to creating new murals on its streets. Its ‘call to walls’ invites private owners to offer up their buildings as a canvas for art works. Sometimes art is produced to order, but there are also ‘walls of free expression’ where artists can paint what they like. As long as works do not incite hatred, the City does not impose censorship, and subjects that might be challenging to some are on display. Five years into the project there have been more than 50 partnerships bringing together public cultural and educational organisations, private individuals, non-profits and urban artist collectives, producing nearly 100 frescoes. Brussels offers a dedicated website mapping these street art locations and visitors can follow trails on a particular theme through the City.

Brussels also hosts 300 cultural events each year, managed through a simple form. Although the Cultural Department will often propose adaptations of an organiser’s original plan, such as moving location, the intention is to approve and support events and 95% of applications are agreed. Street performers are also welcomed, and the number of places where music or other sound is allowed has expanded. At the same time, no sound can be louder than 60 decibels and performers are forbidden to perform out of hours. This balances the needs of local residents with opportunities for entertainment. ‘Non-sound’ performance can take place anywhere in Brussels, provided it is agreed with the Culture Department.

This approach has positioned the City as an enabler of Street and Public Art, growing a street scene that has become an attraction in itself, and creating an atmosphere where artists are welcomed rather than restricted. This in turn signals the tolerant and diverse nature of the city to visitors and citizens.