On 6 December 2013, the media sold us the opening of the Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum as the coolest thing of the decade; “Brussels finally has its Musée d’Orsay,” headlined La Libre newspaper, “A gift from St. Nicholas” announced L’Echo on its front page. Out-of-place grandiloquence, if one bothers to dig a little.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (RMFAB) bring together the Old Masters Museum, the Magritte Museum, the Constantin Meunier and Wiertz Museums and the late Modern Art Museum. BELSPO (Science Policy) is the body overseeing these museums. Its director, Philippe Mettens, with a Socialist label (PS), reports directly to the minister in charge, Philippe Courard, also PS.
Appointed back in 2005, Michel Draguet is at the helm of the RMFAB. He is also ad-interim director of the Royal Museums for Art and History (KMKG/MRAH), which include the Cinquantenaire Museum, the Chinese Pavilion, the Japanese Tower, the “Halle Gate” and the of Musical Instruments Museum. This dual role is the result of a competition held in 2010 for the management of the KMKG/MRAH, won by Draguet in a tie with Constantin Chariot (liberal Reformist Movement – MR ), who had been responsible for the launch of the Grand Curtius Museum in Liège. The competition results were released just before Belgium’s 541 days without a government. Ultimately, Magnette, then in charge of Science Policy, chose to keep Draguet in his position, creating a rather … long interim.
A cultural policy?
To say that politicians in Brussels are not interested in culture is an understatement. Just look at the disastrous state of the Cinquantenaire Museum, the Old Masters Museum… With this lack of interest in the background, BELSPO put forward a unified system based on four divisions, with the goal of achieving synergies and savings. Consequently, under the Art division, one would find the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA/), the RMFAB and the KMKG/MRAH. The draft law for the new organisation was widely criticised right from the start; it was never passed.
Yet, it served Michel Draguet’s expansionist interests so well that, with the help of Philippe Mettens, he took upon himself the huge task of overseeing everything, unchallenged. Consequently, in February 2011, he unilaterally closed down the Museum of Modern Art, opened in 1984 by the former director, Philippe Roberts-Jones, and presented as obsolete 25 years later. The closure generated a lot of criticism and led to the creation of the non-profit association Musée sans Musée. Modern art works were no longer on display. Draguet contended that there was no Modern Art in Belgium, which he argued was due to the fact that Belgian artists made a name for themselves in France, in the Netherlands, etc. However, this very internationality is a hallmark of the modernity in question.
As early as 2005, on the cultural scene, people were talking about a new Art Nouveau collection assembled by a couple of collectors, the Gillion-Crowets. The “Fin de Siècle” period (end of the 19th century) was the specialty of the art historian Michel Draguet. In fact, he wrote his thesis about it. Having befriended Baron and Baroness Gillion-Crowet, he compiled the reasoned catalogue of their collection. Upon the death of his father, Roland Gillion-Crowet, urged by Draguet, chose to settle the 21 million euro in inheritance tax by giving his collection. At the time, La Libre presented this gift as “a very considerable financial effort for the Region, however justified by the exceptional quality of the objects and paintings”. There was no mention in the press that the expertise at Christie’s was carried out by… Draguet. And no one saw fit to request a counter-expertise, which valued the collection at 29 million euro; a win-win for all the parties involved!
Another thing: allegedly, this gift of artworks included an (unwritten) requirement to exhibit the collection by the end of 2013. Strange, when you consider the state of the museum buildings, its rooms closed because of dilapidated facilities. Consequently, less than a third of the ancient art collections are visible, since the building extensions built back in 1974 along one side of the museum square have been closed for over 10 years … The list of emergency works to give the museum back to the public is already long; only someone with little sense would accept to exhibit the gifted collection under such conditions.
A sordid tale
Let’s also name and shame the Régie des Bâtiments (Belgian State Buildings Agency) which abandoned the casco extensions once the asbestos was removed, without planning to complete the works. A noxious Buildings Agency, indifferent politicians, and declining budgets triggered the story that we hear today. Throw into the mix Draguet, an art historian described as autocratic, authoritarian megalomaniac, manipulative and a bad manager by his colleagues. Put him at the head of 7 museums and dangle before him the idea of the divisions, including the prospect of that “Art” division, which would bring him glory and power.
Enough to get Georges Henri Rivière, the theoretician of modern museology, to spin in his grave; he who considered a museum as an accessible place, designed to educate and preserve. In recent years, this dual role has been undermined in all European museums, as these are subject to political pressure and forced to be financially self-sufficient. One sees the emergence of the museum event, like the iconic Bilbao Museum, or, since 2009, the Magritte Museum, established to attract tourists from all over the world.
Ever since 2005, Draguet has not concerned himself with the closed rooms, those visited by pigeons. He has not done anything about the reserves, about digitization (the great challenge of the 21st century), or the referencing of works. In 2008, because of a problem with the air conditioning system, more than 800 works from the RMFAB reserves were damaged. Who’s to blame? They say it was the fault of the external company in charge of managing the reserves. At the Cinquantenaire Museum, the reserves situation is so vague that it was not possible to date the theft of two items which had surfaced in an auction room. Still at the Cinquantenaire, Draguet dismissed one of the major curators in order to have free access to these reserves.
Having closed the Museum of Modern Art in 2011, Draguet sped things up in order to open the Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum in time to house the collection of his friends, the Gillion-Crowets. Why them? Why not the works given by the Goldschmidt couple? Why not take care of existing buildings and collections? Because his hobby-horse is Art Nouveau. Building on the “success” of the Magritte Museum, he pulled out all the stops, without seeking political consent, without consulting the public. Facing more and more complaints from the curators, in early 2012 he wrote a memo directing all staff at the RMFAB not to talk to the media.
A new museum?
The “Fin-de-Siècle” is not a new museum; it is the reopening, after destroying Roger Bastin’s beautiful architecture and removing almost the whole skylight, of 3 existing levels, which form the core of the museum. The term “redeployment”, repeatedly used by Draguet and his clique is a mask that hides the facts. This “section” now presents the works of fine and decorative arts from the late 19th century. Promoted as an economic and cultural miracle when it opened to the public (an event shunned by most curators in a bid to show their disagreement), it takes the visitor on a non-chronological narrative tour, based on the principle of a temporary exhibition. The scenography was designed in-house, while that reserved for the Gillion-Crowet collection, at level – 8, was funded by the collectors themselves. If you want something done right, do it yourself.
The showcasing is uninventive, without surprises. It seems covered in dust. Lack of light, illegible signage. One will finally be able to marvel again at the beautiful works by Belgian artists such as Stevens, Ensor, Khnopff, Evenepeol…. illustrating this turning point at the end of the 19th century: Brussels is the world’s second industrial power; new streets are being built, the bourgeoisie is commissioning works from architects, artists and artisans. Creative people have work.
In the entrance lobby, hidden behind screens, the remains of the magnificent exhibition “The Heritage of Rogier van der Weyden”, the result of four years of research by two art historians, now closed indefinitely one month after opening. Why? Water ingress, caused by the drilling of holes to affix a tarp cover on the skylight. This is in fact a serious fault in the management of a building site. Indeed, holes should never be bored above priceless works of art gathered from around the world. In 2012, the same drilling work was interrupted during the Jordaens exhibition due to the vibrations it generated.
However, with the deadline for the Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum opening fast approaching, management threw caution to the wind. The Brussels non-profit residents’ association Atelier de Recherches et d’Actions Urbaines (ARAU) released a long statement criticizing the lack of permits for the placement of the tarpaulin. As usual, Draguet deflected the blame for this latest disaster on to the contractor.
Record numbers to Magritte Museum?
The “Fin-de-Siècle” was allegedly financed by the success of the Magritte Museum. If one looks at the numbers of visitors for the RMFAB from 1997 until today, one notes a slight and gradual increase in the numbers of visitors until 2013, peaking in 1998 during the Magritte exhibition, which attracted over 300,000 visitors in 3 months. When comparing these figures with those presented as tickets sales by the Magritte Museum, there is little difference. Visitors are just spread differently (except in 2009, the year it opened). Moreover, since 2008, the annual reports of the RMFAB are no longer accessible to the public. Or how to make figures say what one wants them to say.
“The museum is a showcase,” claims Draguet. Not true! The museum is an anchor, a place where citizens are confronted with their culture, their past, and dream their future. What do they need a tunnel for in order to access the Musical Instruments Museum, which, according to Draguet should accommodate Art Nouveau? A Modern Art Museum could be set up in the Dexia Art Center, pending a hypothetical major political and architectural gesture: a new building. A waltz of works, a redeployment akin to a hoax. Where would the money come from for the project of almost 10 themed museums (see the BELSPO website)? Why not complete renovation works on the extensions, restore closed rooms, inventory reserves?
This has become such a bitter tale that one fears the worst during the elections. The planned disappearance of the museums, a great loss in itself, might be accompanied by a linguistic coup, if the Flemings decide that the French-speaking citizens are really useless at what they do. Very strong criticism is already widespread in the Flemish press.
Published in January 2014 in Marianne Belgique