An artist fairy who turned out not to be an artist fairy

  • commissioning and public space

Esther Didden talked to Niels Albers, artist and designer.

This series of articles is about commissioning and public space. Each time a situation is sketched from the perspective of the narrator. That may be an artist and/or a client. Everything can be discussed. With the articles and the conversations we have with both artists and commissioners, we want to sketch a picture of artistic practice: what goes well, what does an artist encounter when working in public space, and how does a commissioner work? Our hope is that everyone can benefit from the information and at the same time get to know and understand the perspective of 'the other' better.

This time I spoke to Niels Albers, artist and designer. In 2010 he obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the audiovisual department of the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. At the same academy for master's programmes - the Sandberg Institute - he also obtained his Master's degree in 2018 at the department Studio for Immediate Spaces. He is also one of the founders of Fabulous Future, a seven-person international collective that explores how to combine research and development with the construction of spaces, events and situations. Albers researches the relationship between humans and animals, fuelled by a concern for the impact of humans on the eco-system of our planet. He is fascinated by origins, play, maps and routes. In short, he translates his anthropocentric concerns into monumental architectural constructions. 

He is also the type of artist who built his own studio complex on the outskirts of Amsterdam with a few artist friends.

Albers is the type of artist who drives to a location with a caravan behind his van and stays there for weeks to build his artworks. He is also the type of artist who built his own studio complex on the outskirts of Amsterdam with a few artist friends. 

Last summer, commissioned by the Kortrijk design region, he took part in a so-called art trail on and along the water in the thirteen cities and municipalities of South-West Flanders: the Leiedal. The reason for the initiative was the sixtieth anniversary of Leiedal. Together with fifteen other artists and designers he was invited to explore the region and to reflect on and about the role of water. It was a temporary work which had to be on show from the opening in July until the closure at the end of October 2020. The client was communicative and pleasant to deal with. Albers was assigned a contact person with whom he could coordinate everything and that worked well. He was given a say in the contract which was presented to him, and his proposed changes (particularly concerning the phasing of the payments) were accepted. There didn't seem to be a cloud in the Flemish sky. Albers made a small comment about the all in nature of the budget: €30,000 including VAT, fees, travel expenses, sketch plan, accommodation, demolition of the work, etc. At first it seemed favourable, because in Belgium 6% VAT is charged and in the Netherlands 9% or 21%. Eventually the VAT became a major issue and even the reason why Albers wrote to me. He wanted to share his experience with his Dutch colleagues so that what happened to him would not happen to them. 

Albers made a small comment about the all in nature of the budget

The budget available for a work of art is generally tight. Perhaps needless to say, tight is not the same as low. A budget expresses the ambition level of a commissioner: 30,000 euros for a permanent work has a different character than 30,000 euros for a temporary work. An artist wants to make the best possible use of the available budget. He juggles with the ambition of the commissioner, his own ambition and the available budget. Therefore he has to be able to budget well and think of all possible cost items. Albers can do that. Even when Corona pushed back his construction period and the opening was postponed for a month, he kept a grip on his budget and costs. He agreed with the commissioning party that they would buy his work for 30,000 Euros, so that he would not have to return in October to demolish it. In the meantime he knows that the work is still there, and that it will be temporary for another few months. Albers was satisfied. 

Until an email arrived at the end of December 2020. Something had gone wrong with the VAT. In consultation with his contact person, Albers had passed on the VAT to the client on his invoices. The idea was that he would then not have to pay the VAT to the Belgian tax authorities himself, but that the client would do that. And so it happened: his invoices were approved and transferred to him without the 6% VAT. In the autumn it transpired that there was still an artist's fee of 1,700 euros available, which Albers had also invoiced with 6% reverse charge VAT.

In the e-mail, Albers was told that the client, Design Region Kortrijk, cannot deduct VAT because of the type of organisation it is (affiliated with the state). A solution was obvious; Albers could still invoice the 6% VAT and remit it himself to the Belgian tax authorities. Unfortunately, the artist fee paid turned out to be the 6% VAT, as a result of which Albers could no longer invoice VAT.

Do you still understand? 

To sum up: as Albers understood, there was no budget of €30,000 including VAT plus an artist's fee of €1,700. No, EUR 30,000 including VAT was available and the artists' fee that was promised later was also within this budget, which is actually the remaining 6% of VAT. Do the math: 6% of VAT of EUR 30,000 is EUR 1,700. 

Now Albers is faced with a sum of 1,700 euros that, almost a year later, he must pay to the Belgian tax authorities himself. He applied for a Belgian VAT number, but the 1,700 euros were invested in the project and he no longer has them. His contact person no longer works for the Kortrijk design region and cannot help him. Albers contacted his legal assistance insurance to ask whether they could do anything for him. They let him know that they cannot handle the case because it took place abroad. They advised him to find a Belgian bailiff, who will send a letter to the design region and possibly start legal proceedings. But all costs involved are for Albers. He doesn't know yet what he's going to do. What he does know is that this whole affair casts a big shadow over this commission.

The work that Albers made for sixty years Leiedal is called Join usIt can still be seen in the Vlaspark, Roterij Sabbe, Leiemeersdreef in Kuurne. 

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