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Does Brussels need the Pompidou?

19 December 2016

The Centre Pompidou is to partner with the Brussels-Capital Region on a new museum in the Belgian capital. But the project has been met with scepticism: will it just be a tourist attraction or will it enhance Brussels’ cultural scene?

Katerina Gregos

In 2015 the Brussels-Capital Region acquired the landmark Citroën building in the heart of Brussels. There was already talk of turning it into a museum but this was vague given that the region does not have its own collection of contemporary art. In September 2016, Brussels regional government chief Rudi Vervoort and the Centre Pompidou’s president Serge Lasvignes announced an agreement, whereby the Pompidou would lend some of its 120,000 works of art to the new museum, together with its expertise. The news was met with scepticism, particularly in the cultural field in Belgium. There have been recent budget cuts to the arts and there is apprehension as to why the capital might embark on a museum franchise given that the already existing contemporary collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts has languished in storage since 2011.

It’s true that Brussels, justly called ‘a world-class small-city’, could benefit from a museum. But partnering with the Pompidou is more about tourism, creation of jobs, city marketing, the allure of a recognisable brand; it doesn’t stem from a concrete artistic and political vision that would make sense for the city, the region and the country. Museums need to be grounded in the place where they are founded. In order to be meaningful, internationalist aspirations should be pursued within the already existing cultural context.

Belgium is a country with a tradition in modern and contemporary art, in terms of artistic production and collections, and it is home to many world-class contemporary artists. Apart from the untapped potential of the Royal Museum collection, it has a wealth of private collectors and institutions whose collections could be harnessed. It has great curators and scholars who could provide expertise into setting up a new museum. So why would one want to create a satellite institution? Why opt for importing a global brand rather than creating something home-grown which carries its own cultural mark? Why ignore the rich cultural traditions of Belgium and Brussels itself?

Unfortunately the project smacks of political opportunism. It makes the mistake of concentrating on catchy marketing tactics rather than on its contents and long-term planning. It is clear that the Pompidou is intended as a showcase project, to attract tourists and capital, and to help facilitate the area’s regeneration. It is a lame attempt to create a global franchise. But perhaps this is a classic ‘Belgian solution’ of uninspired compromise not helped by Belgium’s complex political organisation and the divided governmental responsibilities of the Brussels Region and the federal state, who do not agree on how such a museum might come into being.

It’s true that the project would create jobs and perhaps attract tourists. But it is unlikely that the Bilbao ‘Guggenheim effect’ can be replicated in Brussels. Why would one come to the city to see works from the Pompidou collection when Paris is so close? Brussels’ proximity to Paris and other cities in the region means that Belgians are among the most mobile Europeans. Perhaps the only way that this uninspired idea might work is as an interim solution. If the Pompidou collection is available, the many private collectors in Belgium might be convinced to donate or lend their collections to the new museum. Yet Yves Goldstein, Vervoort’s former Chief of Cabinet who is now responsible for drawing the outlines of the project, has no background in art or museum policy. His expertise in city marketing indicates the direction the project will take.

For those living in the Belgian capital, it is a nuisance that Brussels so often comes second to Paris. Brussels, as the Belgian and European capital, with private and public collections, and important internationally respected artists, should finally get its own modern and contemporary art museum, instead of being content with a French museum brand. What will follow is more political squabbling, half-baked solutions, and uncertain outcomes. The money would be better spent in support of already existing institutions in the city whose finances are in dire straits.

Katerina Gregos was artistic director of Art Brussels (2012–16) and curator of the Belgian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015.

Does Brussels need the Pompidou?

Image: Will Martin

Laurent Vermeersch

It seems Brussels will at last get a museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art. The Belgian capital has signed an agreement with the Centre Pompidou to turn a Citroën building into a cultural hotspot by 2020. The announcement has been met with excitement but also with many raised eyebrows, especially in the city’s large artistic community. The project, even though the details are still subject to negotiation, seems to be more about political ambition, attracting tourists, and spurring development than about culture and art.

The response is unsurprising given that minister-president of the Brussels-Capital Region, Rudi Vervoort, the political father of the project, has no cultural responsibilities but is in charge of territorial development and regional tourism. With the help of a strong international brand like the Centre Pompidou, Vervoort is looking for a Bilbao effect. It is hoped that the museum will be the new must-see venue. The project is a major investment for the city, but it is supposed to pay for itself by way of spending in hotels, shops, and restaurants. The new museum could indeed bring more visitors to the city; the local tourism industry has suffered from recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels.

But unlike Bilbao, Brussels already has a thriving international arts scene. While the national collection of modern art remains largely locked up in a basement waiting for political consensus, many small galleries and exhibition spaces do regularly show modern and contemporary art. Several art fairs are attracting more buyers every year and a growing number of artists from all over Europe and beyond are calling the city home. For all these reasons, many international media outlets have dubbed Brussels ‘the new Berlin’.

So what about all those artists, gallery owners, and the surrounding economy? Wouldn’t it have made sense to invest in the existing structures and collections, instead of hiring expensive experts from Paris for a project that may eclipse local dynamics? Brussels has been looking to imitate Paris ever since it suddenly became a European capital at the beginning of the 19th century. But the problem is also political. In bicultural Belgium, cultural policy is divided along language lines, but most museums in bilingual Brussels are still owned by the federal state. Just like that disintegrating state structure, those buildings are crumbling. In this context of political fragmentation and lack of will to cooperate across regional, linguistic and political divides, Vervoort has no choice but to look abroad to cement his ambition. Given the strong French presence in the city’s arts scene, Paris is the most obvious place to look for collaboration.

Vervoort’s ambition cannot be cultural given his lack of competence in this field; and there is no support from other political bodies in charge of cultural matters. Still, the project has other goals besides simply attracting visitors to spend money. The Citroën museum is expected to speed up regeneration in the city’s canal area. This former industrial part of town has already been undergoing quite a makeover. Situated around the future museum, many old warehouses and factories have been replaced by upscale housing or have been renovated into lofts in recent years. And many other refurbishments are planned. The arrival of the Centre Pompidou probably won’t alter this existing situation of urban renewal; it will only speed up the process. This is, in fact, a process that risks pushing out the many artists who currently live in the area. The museum project could not only outshine, but also directly harm the existing art scene.

The likely gentrification is also contrary to another goal. The museum is supposed to bridge the gap between both sides of the canal; the waterway is a symbol of division. Towards the southeast lie the city’s upscale neighbourhoods, areas that are home to many of Europe’s political institutions. Most people living in the areas to the northwest are struggling to make a living. Infamous Molenbeek is, for example, just across the canal from the Citroën building. Any social ambition of the museum will be obsolete if it pushes out the people that it is supposed to reach.

Laurent Vermeersch is a journalist based in Brussels.

From the January issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.