The wonder of Belgium

From the Netherlands, there is a touch of envy as people observe the international success of Belgian art institutes, some of which have only been around for a few years and have already achieved successive celebrated exhibitions. It is not just the relatively young Wiels in Brussels or Museum M in Louvain that are attracting attention. At almost every level in the Belgian cultural sector, whether the organizations are experimental or museums, they seem able to come up with solid programming that moreover reveals a healthy connection with society at large. The gulf between art and the rest of society, which currently plays such a role in the Dutch art world, seems to be absent in Belgium’s strongly interconnected art scene.

It is time to take stock, from the perspective of a conviction that the Netherlands might be able to learn something from this, certainly in the current dark times. But, before we do that, how was it again that all this is put together? Belgium became a nation in 1830. In 1993, following a series of progressive steps, it definitively became a federal state. That federal state holds important powers in the areas of foreign affairs, defence, justice, welfare and the economy. In addition, the Flemish and the Wallonian regions each have their own independent governments, which determine policy in culture, media, education, public welfare and economic affairs, amongst other things. This means that this article is not so much about Belgium, but about Flanders and Brussels. Where the art climate in Wallonia is concerned, I refer readers to the special ‘Dossier Wallonië’ edition of Rekto:Verso, published in 20101.

My own tour begins in Antwerp, the city where I was born, a place where I now, having shed my Antwerp accent, am considered a ‘Hollander’ (the Belgian word for the Dutch). In Antwerp, I spoke with Marc Ruyters, founder and editor-in-chief of Hart, a tri-weekly magazine that reports on art in Belgium and elsewhere, in Dutch, English and French. In Brussels, I then spoke with collectors Wilfried and Yannicke Cooreman2, as well as with Jos Van Rillaer, administrator general of the arts and heritage agency Kunsten en Erfgoed, a government department that awards grants and stipends. There were also conversations by telephone and e-mail with Bert Anciaux, former long-standing Minister of Culture for Flanders and the man who was at the inception of the Kunstendecreet (the Arts Act, an organizational framework for awarding grants)3; Phillip Van den Bossche, director and curator of the Mu.ZEE in Oostende; Dirk De Wit, director of BAM, the Flemish support centre for professional contemporary visual, audiovisual and media art; and Jonas Žakaitis of the Tulips & Roses Gallery in Brussels. Their reactions, statements and intuitions are arranged according to five themes that help explain the success of Belgian art, as well as occasionally bringing it into perspective.

 

Place

It all begins with the place: a tiny geographical area (Flanders would fit into the Netherlands three times) that enjoys a wealth of art institutes, museums, galleries and artists4. This in itself gives a good sense of a well-nourished, flourishing artistic climate. Actually, with the major Flemish cities all so close together, it is difficult to speak of different scenes or centres. It is more like a single metropolis. You can drive with ease in a single day from Antwerp to Brussels to Ghent, and then on to Oostende. Another effect of this small area in which people operate, as Wilfried and Yannicke Cooreman explain, is that there has always been a self-evident need to break out, to travel, to look beyond the immediate borders. International orientation and openness are taken for granted. London, Paris and Amsterdam are all just a stone’s throw away, or in the words of Guy Duplat, head of culture at La Libre Belgique, in the special edition of Rekto:Verso, ‘You just blink and you are already in a different country.’ The working territories of many of the Flemish institutions and artists are therefore also inter-regional, encompassing northern France, the southern provinces of the Netherlands, Nordrhein-Westfalen and Luxembourg, and beyond.

Thanks to its geographical location, Belgium is also a ‘through country’, a transit country between North and South. ‘It lies at the intersection of different cultures,’ as Wilfried and Yannicke Cooreman point out. Phillip Van den Bossche calls Belgium an in-between area, culminating in Brussels, where, ‘A jungle feeling reigns, in both the positive and the negative sense.’ A consequence of this is that there is no single dominant culture. As Jonas Žakaitis adds, ‘We really liked Brussels because of its clumsiness and patchiness – in a way, it is one of the most open places in Europe right now, not least because of a complete lack of any national majority. It really was very welcoming.’ Dirk De Wit confirms that Brussels has a real power of attraction for artists, curators, theorists and gallery owners (the prestigious New York gallery, Barbara Gladstone, has its only overseas location in Brussels), ‘despite the fact that this city has no arts policy of its own and no major attractions, such as museums of contemporary art, residencies or higher institutes, and despite the fragmentation and un-streamlined initiatives and activities.’ Perhaps it is exactly this unstructured character that holds the attraction for new influx and new initiatives.

Not only is a generation of Belgian curators serving top functions in other countries, but foreign curators, artists and galleries are welcomed in Belgium. They are seen as an enrichment, not as a threat. For them, in addition to the openness, the attractive price of housing also makes Belgium appealing. Sometimes it can be as simple as that. According to Wilfried and Yannicke Cooreman, the openness and the fragmentation of Belgian culture is also visibly reflected in Belgian architectural styles. They are diverse, fragmented and pluriform: chaotic and ugly, according to many Dutch, but according to others, open and synonymous with an appealing lack of restraint. The frictions and tensions that are inherent to the fragmented and hybrid character of Belgium are experienced by many artists as stimulating. In this sense, the sorrow of Belgium is also part of the success of Belgium.

 

Support

One striking factor is the broad social support for art and culture amongst Belgians in general. More than half of the people living in Flanders and Brussels claim to have some personal engagement with culture, and two-thirds underscore its importance. There is love for art amongst both the populace and the politicians, something that is confirmed by everyone I speak with. Wilfried and Yannicke Cooreman suggest that this could have to do with Catholic, Burgundian culture and tradition, in which art and culture have always been a self-evident element.

There is, however, a more disturbing explanation, according to Jos Van Rillaer. When Belgium became a federal state, the Flemish wanted to put their language and their culture on the map. Culture was embraced as a promotional medium, as the flag-bearer of a culture and a language that had been snowed under or suppressed for too long. Flemish artists have rebelled against having to play cultural ambassador, a role that has been imposed on them. Today, people are warning against such provincial nationalism. Nonetheless, since federalization, support for culture amongst politicians, from left to right, has been considerable.

For those of us on the other side of the border, there is another, equally disturbing explanation, mentioned by both Marc Ruyters and Jos Van Rillaer. In Belgium, whether or not they have any understanding of art, politicians have always wanted to meddle with culture. There is no question of delegating policy to funding institutions or foundations, in a regency culture such as that practised in the Netherlands. Cultural policy in Belgium has always been very close to politics. This might very well lead to an undesirable politicizing of the decision-making process, or simple scheming and intrigue, but what is crucial is that it has also meant that the government is not estranged from art, that there is considerable engagement and therefore also broad-based support.

Such intrigue was recently referred to by the professor of literature and essayist Geert Buelens as ‘Flemish fiddling’, in a conversation with the Minister of Culture, Joke Schauvliege5. Everyone who has ever lived in Belgium knows that there are lots of loopholes in Belgian law. Getting a loan for a house can be easier if your mother and the bank director both happen to buy their cutlets from the same butcher. It is a question of being receptive to the pliability of the law. There is also ample space for this ‘Flemish fiddling’ in art and culture, because they are not, as in the Netherlands, removed from politics and placed under the jurisdiction of autonomous intermediaries. Decision-making is interwoven in managerial and political structures in such a way that it is difficult, if not impossible, to take the axe to it in the way that Halbe Zijlstra has done in the Netherlands. Buelens sighs: ‘Isn’t it rather extreme that we are forced to defend the more attractive aspects of Flemish fiddling?’

 

Self-reliance

Flemish government policy for art and culture is still very young. At the end of the 1990s, the Fine Arts Commission was formed under the inspired chairmanship of Jef Cornelis, and a policy was drawn up to support artists and the development of a range of organizations with diverse functions. This arrangement became part of the Arts Act that came into existence under Bert Anciaux. This decree, which went into effect in 2006, laid the foundation for more structural support for artists and art institutes6. Previously-existing institutes were now able to rely on serious, long-term support. Certainly in the beginning, setting up new organizations was also a possibility. This meant that an infrastructure, a tangible circuit, could be formed.

There are different aspects to this late formation of policy. It was possible to observe how things were done in neighbouring countries, and indeed, to decide not to delegate policy to  foundations, as is the case in the Netherlands. It also meant that institutions and artists were long accustomed to fending for themselves, and that this self-sufficiency was and still is taken for granted. Hard work and serious struggle are still what keeps the sector afloat. Marc Ruyters characterizes the success of Belgian artists as follows: ‘It is evident that the standard of contemporary art in Belgium remains high. Other countries (France, the Netherlands) are loudly asking where all that talent keeps coming from. One explanation might be that the drive to develop yourself, both artistically and internationally, remains a palpable presence, because the local situation is too limited. Although the authorities do make an effort to support art, it is certainly not enough to create too pampered an environment. This is a paradox that we should continue to foster.’ 7.

 

Artists versus Institutes

Another effect of this young policy, and one associated with the fact that many museums were only established in the 1970s and 1980s, is the fact that the Flemish visual art landscape is relatively un-institutionalized. Because government policy was slower to get going, the pressure to professionalize and to institutionalize were, until recently, not very great. Artists – and let us not forget collectors – are consistently identified as the most important factor. They are the driving force behind the current boom in visual art in Belgium. According to Dirk De Wit, ‘For decades, art has been carried by artists and the private sector (primarily collectors, but also the galleries).’ As Phillip Van den Bossche puts it, ‘The most important “ingredient” in the (present) Belgian art climate are the Belgian artists. The institutes are in second place. That is not an unhealthy starting point, despite the fact that in recent years, “institutional discourse” on the part of our institutes is increasingly coming to the foreground as a form of marketing.’

Jos Van Rillaer and Marc Ruyters point out that institutionalization is indeed increasing under the influence of the Arts Act (every advantage also has its disadvantage). In Flanders, as elsewhere, one hears the call, in the words of Van Rillaer, ‘to weed out these institutional thickets and rein in the rampant growth of structural elements’. Dirk De Wit also believes that ‘Institutes must not be overly preoccupied with themselves, but able to relate to other players in the field, to the artists, the private sector, the public, and to our changing world.’ Institutes are obviously an absolute necessity for the field. They help in the production of art and the mediation between art and the public, but they must not become more important than the core – the art. Artists are the flour and yeast of the entire sector, not just the cherry on the cake. It is precisely for this reason that Flemish artists are dissatisfied about the fact that in the current subsidy arrangements, only a small portion of the funding goes to the artists. Institutes are expected to allocate half of their budgets to artists, but in practice, this does not happen.

There is also another side to the coin. The circuit of institutes in Belgium is young. Consequently, the division of the roles played by museums, small institutes and the private sector is not yet fully formed. As Dirk De Wit describes it, ‘In the last few years, museums were being towed along by a mixture of solo exhibitions, collection presentations, theme exhibitions, discursive work and smaller project spaces, and as a result, they have not yet really become museums. In Flanders, the museum mentality still lacks a strong tradition. A vision of what one can do from the perspective of a museum, with a collection, with research and within a social context, is still being developed. This reflection on the function of the field of visual arts in Flanders is necessary, because the big exhibition spaces and smaller art spaces that fill in the gaps by generating museum projects and exhibitions are not yet adequately set up for the task. Most of all, the current generation of Flemish artists had their first major solo exhibitions, the shows with which they broke into the international scene, in other countries – not here. Such shortcomings have come to light in recent years and considerable effort is now being made to create a new, close bond between institutes, galleries and collectors.’

There are, of course, also voices of dissatisfaction. The grass is not all that green. The lack of young Belgian curators with international allure is one example. International promotion of visual art in Belgium could be better handled. The museums are perhaps not doing their work as they should be, and budget cuts also have to be made in Flanders.

 

Goesting

One has to seek the reasons behind the Belgian success in a unique combination of strong artists, a cultural tradition of serious private collectors, its geographical location and open culture, and the specific, late-blooming cultural policy. There is also one final, hard-to-define ingredient that is inherent to the nature of the people of Belgium, for which only the Flemish language has a word: goesting. Bert Anciaux wrote that ‘government must perform in a way that creates space’. He meant this not only in the literal sense, but also in a ‘mental’ sense, by ‘having goesting and respect and affection for art’. In contrast to the Dutch national pastime of complaining, the Flemish rely on goesting liking, desire or appetite. Unlike the insatiable Dutch compulsion to force the make-ability of things, Belgians tend to view such persistence and tenacity as malevolent. These are not just exercises in semantics, but true differences in mentality that lead to different working methods and different climates. Intrinsically profound content is driven by engagement, passion and a healthy dose of self-criticism. After all, nothing is self-evident. Everything has to be fought for, with a great deal of enthusiasm – goesting – and a certain amount of je-m’en-fous, a laugh and a tear. When it goes wrong, you just shrug your shoulders and carry on.

  1. ‘Dossier Wallonië’, Rekto:Verso nr. 41 (May-June 2010). See http://www.rektoverso.be/dossier/wallonië 
  2. Selections from the collection of Wilfried and Yannicke Cooreman were presented in 2009 under the title When the Mood Strikes at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle. See http://www.museumdd.be/nl/verleden/t22 
  3. In the summer of 2011, at the height of the conflict over Dutch culture, the former Minister of Culture suggested in an article in De Morgen that newly displaced Dutch artists be offered refuge in Flanders. See Bert Anciaux, ‘Asiel voor Nederlandse kunstenaars’, De Morgen, 12 July 2011 
  4. In 2008, Marc Ruyters and Eva Wittocx produced a clear overview of the most important Flemish players, entitled Arts Flanders 08: Visual Arts, under the auspices of BAM. See http://www.bamart.be/pages/detail/nl/2862 
  5. Wouter Hillaert, ‘Dubbelgesprek: cultuur in tijden van besparingen’, in: Rekto:Verso nr. 49, (Nov.-Dec. 2011). 
  6. For an analysis of the formation of an arts policy in Flanders, see Valerie Verhack, ‘Het Vlaamse beeldende kunstbeleid’, in: Frisse lucht, lange adem: historiek, cijfers en scenario’s van het beeldende kunstveld in Vlaanderen, BAM, Ghent, 2011. For an extensive comparison of Flemish and Dutch cultural policies, see Quirine van der Hoeven, Van Anciaux tot Zijlstra: Cultuurparticipatie en cultuurbeleid in Nederland en Vlaanderen, Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, The Hague, 2012. 
  7. Marc Ruyters, Eva Wittocx, Arts Flanders 08: Visual Arts, BAM, Ghent, 2008