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The museum director, the culture minister, and more trouble in Brussels

23 January 2017

A long-running feud between the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels and Belgium’s federal government got personal in December when the institution’s director general, Michel Draguet, filed a legal complaint against Elke Sleurs, the minister who oversees the museums. The complaint comes as Draguet enters the final months of his mandate as director. His reappointment beyond April seems unlikely, to say the least – although in a further twist his work was ranked ‘excellent’ last week in an official evaluation of his tenure.

According to L’Echo, which broke the story on 20 December, the complaint alleges that Sleurs has obstructed Draguet in the performance of his duties, with the collusion of a senior civil servant. Speaking on RTL radio on 26 December, Draguet declined to go into the details of the complaint, but insisted that it was a personal matter rather than a question of policy or politics. ‘It’s connected to day-to-day experience, to a way of working,’ he said. Sleurs’ office has talked to the press, rebutting several of the points raised, from issues of procedure to the more trivial question of why she does not attend exhibition openings. It’s not that she doesn’t care, De Morgen reported, rather that Draguet has not sent official invitations.

The Jacob Jordaens room at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium.

The Jacob Jordaens room at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium belong to a small group of Belgian cultural institutions that report, bizarrely, to the federal government’s science policy office. Most other art museums in the country depend on the regional, local, or language-community governments. The ‘museums’ themselves occupy a complex of connected buildings in central Brussels, with two small museums elsewhere in town devoted to the 19th-century artists Constantin Meunier and Antoine Wiertz.

The most public aspect of the feud has been the Fin-de-Siècle Museum, which Draguet opened in 2013. This refocused the sprawling 19th-century collection into something more tourist-friendly, with galleries of paintings complemented by period furniture and objets d’art. Space was found within the complex for this new ‘museum’ by clearing out the Modern Art Museum, the contents of which were put into storage. In December 2014 the newly appointed Sleurs announced, without consulting Draguet, her intention to close the Fin-de-Siècle Museum and restore the Modern Art Museum. She also rejected the idea that the modern art collection might help set up a new museum planned by the Brussels Capital Region. The Centre Pompidou has since stepped in.

Landscape with Fall of Icarus, (n.d), Pieter Bruegel. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium

The attribution of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (n.d.) to Pieter Bruegel is now doubtful, but is still one of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium’s best known paintings.

Even so, two years on the Fin-de-Siècle Museum is still open and the bulk of the modern art collection remains in the basement. In this respect Draguet appears to have got his way. Where Sleurs has had the upper hand is in keeping the museums on a tight financial leash, enforcing rules that insist they work within their operating budgets and not draw on reserves for restorations or acquisitions. For example, when a bid to buy work by Flemish painter and sculptor Rik Wouters (1882–1916) was blocked by the government’s inspector of finances, Sleurs declined to refer the decision on to the budget minister for a second opinion.

Often considered as, at best, indifferent, to the work of the museums, Sleurs did add her voice to recent celebrations of a successful crowd-funding campaign for the restoration of Gauguin’s Portrait of Suzanne Bambridge. But what she liked, commentators were quick to point out, was the possibility this opened up for raising funds without stretching the museums’ budget.

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