A proper museum of modern and contemporary art in Brussels? Everyone’s dream. We were already discussing it here back in 2014. In late September, the media started spreading news which took all kinds of colours like the autumn leaves. The Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region Rudi Vervoort has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the Centre Pompidou to establish a museum in the former Citroën buildings by 2020. Good or bad news? Let’s examine the situation more in depth.
Who is responsible for cultural affairs in Brussels?
First of all, we have to acknowledge that culture in Brussels suffers from an almost incurable malady: multi-layered government decision-making. Indeed, no fewer than 10 ministers are in charge of the various aspects of culture in Brussels. On 30 September, Le Soir newspaper published an astounding photo of the first meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Conference (CIM) on Culture which was “held in BOZAR at the initiative of Flemish Minister for Culture Sven Gatz and Minister for Culture of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation Alda Greoli.” Seven ministers make up the group portrait. “Even though Didier Reynders, Jean-Claude Marcourt, Philippe Muyters and Maxime Prévot were unable to attend, seven of them had managed to gather around the table for this premiere: Sven Gatz, Flemish Minister for Culture, Rudi Vervoort, Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, Pascal Smet, Minister in charge of Culture within the Flemish Community Commission (VGC), Isabelle Weykmans, Minister for Culture of the Government of the German-speaking Community, Elke Sleurs, Secretary of State for Federal Science Policy, Alda Greoli, Minister for Culture of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation and President of the CIM, and Fadila Laanan, Minister for Culture at the French Community Commission (COCOF).”
While Sleurs is the Federal Minister responsible for Science Policy, which includes federal museums, Vervoort, as Minister-President of the Government of the Brussels-Capital Region in charge of Local Authorities, Space Planning, City Policy, Monuments and Sites, Student Affairs, Tourism and the Port of Brussels, is responsible for tourism in Brussels. This is without counting Alda Greoli, who replaces Joëlle Milquet, as Vice-Minister-President and Minister of Culture and Child Care in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.
While one minister aims to attract tourists to Brussels (excellent goal), the other holds the keys to the museum buildings, and the latter decides on the main lines of cultural policy in Brussels and Wallonia. And we’ve only named three. What’s more, in the WBF, Jean-Claude Marcourt is in charge of Promoting Brussels in its economic aspects, while Rachid Madrane is also responsible for Promoting Brussels but on a cultural level. Are you following? This multi-layered government is supposed to decentralise policy making, yet it creates ministers whose portfolios are incomplete and whose powers are therefore also split. This is enough to freeze or even impede any progress.
Where can one find contemporary art in Brussels?
While dozens of galleries, including a large number of international galleries, as well as public or private art centres (WIELS, BOZAR, Centrale for Contemporary Art, but also CAB, Maison Particulière, Boghossian Foundation, etc.), local or Brussels-based international private collections are deploying formidable efforts to show contemporary art. While the Art Brussels fair has gained recognition beyond national borders, there is no contemporary art museum in Brussels. Neither is there a contemporary art acquisition policy worthy of the name. You might recall that, since 2011, the (federal) collections of modern art of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts (MRBA) are no longer being displayed, following a decision by MRBA director. We wrote about it here. Consequently, contemporary art is in the hands of galleries and private collectors.
One year ago, the Brussels-Capital Region bought the Citroën building from the French automotive group PSA for 20.5 million euros. “The deed is done. The French automotive group PSA, the Brussels-Capital real estate company SAF (Société d’acquisition foncière) and the Brussels government signed the notarial deed which made the Region the new owner of the huge 45,000 m2 building housing the Citroën workshop and showrooms by the canal. Part of the site will house a museum dedicated to contemporary art, while the remainder will be converted into housing to ensure the whole project will remain profitable,” stated an article on the website of French-speaking broadcaster RTBF in October 2015. A magnificent and huge venue in need of renovation, even though the MRBA annexes have been vacant for years. An interesting geographical situation in the city, which could revitalize the canal district. Just one little problem: The Brussels-Capital Region does not own any modern or contemporary art collections. The federal government does own a few, hidden in the reserves of the MRBA. However, the word is that there are interruptions spanning several years in the chronology of these collections, because there is no consistency in the follow-up and no art acquisition policy other than cronyism. Nor is there a budget.
Yet, it is common knowledge that large banking institutions such as ING and Belfius have beautiful collections. On the other hand, private Belgian collectors are praised everywhere except at home. You might remember, for instance, that splendid exhibition on Belgian collectors around Kortrijk which was organised at the Tripostal in Lille. It featured an impressive number of masterpieces of museum quality. As for works, there certainly are many. By Belgian and international artists. We could definitely draw from these reserves.
And yet, Pompidou…
Minister-President Rudi Vervoort has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Centre Pompidou. A good idea? Admittedly, the Centre Pompidou enjoys global visibility and influence. On Sunday, October 2nd, the TV programme Les Décodeurs de l’info judiciously explained that Pompidou is a brand, an international brand. Indeed, by opening a branch in Brussels, this brand is able to showcase its collection, while the new host city can benefit from the visibility of this brand. The Bilbao annex of the Guggenheim established in 1997 has been struggling to break even. An extension of the Louvre will open in Abu Dhabi in 2017, at the request of the United Arab Emirates. But in Brussels? Does Brussels really need a sponsor?
Our first fear, which judging by articles published in the Paris press may be justified, is that we might be eaten alive by the French! That the Centre Pompidou will come with its – awesome – collections and that today’s and yesterday’s Belgian artists will slip into oblivion. That this project will further hamper the reopening of the modern art collections at the MRBA. That the arrival of a foreign actor will complexify our multi-layered decision-making process even more so.
As for being eaten alive, we refer you to the headline in the French newspaper Le Monde of September 30th: “A Centre Pompidou in Brussels by 2020”, the day after Director and President of the Centre Pompidou Serge Lasvignes and Rudi Vervoort signed the agreement. “It will be the Centre Pompidou. Brussels has found the perfect partner to fulfil her ambition, that of setting up a major museum of modern and contemporary art which will aim to become the “cultural vessel” of the city-region, according to its Minister-President, Rudi Vervoort. When asked to describe the project, Centre Pompidou President Serge Lasvignes does not mention the decentralization of his institution to Metz or its establishment in Malaga. Rather, he compares the agreement reached with the one governing the Louvre Abu Dhabi: a boost to help set up a great institution, followed by the latter’s acquisition of its own collections.” Ouch.
The Figaro newspaper wrote: “The Paris Centre Pompidou will open a museum in Brussels. Under the terms of the agreement, the Centre Pompidou will put part of its collections, totalling some 120,000 works, of which only 10% are shown to the public, at the disposal of the future Brussels museum.” Again, ouch!
“The Centre Pompidou, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in January, will put part of its collections, totalling some 120,000 works, of which only 10% are shown to the public, at the disposal of the future Brussels museum. It will also “contribute to the life” of the institution by helping it to “set up a collection” of its own and obtain loans from major international museums, explained the head of Centre Pompidou, one of the world’s most visited museums with more than 3 million visitors in 2015. The new venue will also have the mission of developing the local art scene, with the help of collectors and other institutions,” Vervoort was quoted as saying in Libération. This is some relief.
Paris in Brussels?
But in Brussels, is this necessary? Belgians must have an inferiority complex. Why the hell do we need France to present modern and contemporary art? Isn’t Brussels a major art hub? And hasn’t it been so for centuries? Shouldn’t Belgian artists be praised?
The situation is perfectly summarised on the web magazine Daardaar (October 10th) by Flemish journalist Steven Van Garsse. “It has just taken a single handshake for Brussels to become a Paris annex, as it were. Indeed, the future museum of modern and contemporary art, which will be set up in the former Citröen showrooms along the canal of Brussels, will welcome part of the Centre Pompidou’s vast and sumptuous art collection. In fact, the latter’s bosses didn’t waste any time in announcing on Twitter the opening of the new Centre Pompidou Bruxelles. […] At the end of the day: total nonsense, which is typically Belgian. True, in a few years, Brussels will have a very nice collection which will attract large numbers of visitors but which will have been selected by Paris, while the Belgian collection of modern art will be collecting dust in an obscure basement.”
The key word? Synergy!
Which Brussels museum collects and exhibits the works of live Belgian artists? The Musée d’Ixelles, a small municipal museum whose efforts are on a par with a major institution. And if not that one? Nobody. Why is it so, while most contemporary artists are struggling financially? Couldn’t this perennial problem be resolved if real political choices were made? A selection committee? A desire to give visibility to the living actors of contemporary art?
The people of Brussels have no reason to feel inferior because of their art history! Quite the opposite. They hold enough trump cards to create their very own museum of modern and contemporary art. The city needs it. Admittedly, we need resources and more artworks. But what we lack is mainly vision! And legislation giving major Belgian collectors more leeway, as they would be delighted to lend over the long term some of the works their own. Real synergy between the different levels of power. Decisions that are not focused solely on profitability but also on promoting our cultural heritage. The choice to open a museum for our citizens and not only to attract tourists. Because a museum is not just an economic incentive; its role is much broader and more interesting. The choice to support contemporary artists consistently, among others by implementing a genuine acquisition policy, and the desire to offer citizens a 21st century museum where artists, visitors, prescribers, students, and schools will gather to enjoy modern art and the art that is being created today. Easier to write about it than to make it happen?