MuHKA’s Bart De Baere on the contemporary art institution’s recent expansion

It’s been a month since MuHKA added two new spaces to its building in Antwerp Zuid: an entrance hall which functions both as a library and research centre, and a modest space to show a selection of MuHKA’s permanent collection. These additions are said to finally address MuHKA’s mission to become a museum worthy of its title. These recent improvements in MuHKA are just the first steps, inspired by Flemish Minister for Culture Sven Gatz’s decision to finally install a “real” museum for contemporary art. In the months to come, a location and an architecture competition for this new institution will be decided upon. We talk to Bart De Baere, the museum’s director since 2002, about their choices and visions for the future.

On the defining characteristics of a museum

“The expansion of surface area – the possibilities those extra square metres will offer – is what will finally make a museum out of MuHKA. Precisely because a museum needs a permanent space to show its collection and elaborate its take on the concept of looking at art. Furthermore, a permanent collection presentation lets us contextualise national artists within an international context. Additionally, it allows for the development of a forum, something museums all over the world are aiming to install — even the MoMA in New York tore down another museum in favor of this.

We are looking for slowness and profundity. It’s what our society needs.

“Museums nowadays are intent on creating a social place of gathering. At Tate for example, you can go visit the museum and ironically not see a single work of art. That’s not necessarily what we’re aiming for at MuHKA, but it does indicate that if you want a museum to function as such, you need to develop those kind of capacities. This means that we need to invest in long-term plans.

“We are looking for slowness and profundity. It’s what our society needs. The constant search for profit is neither sustainable nor efficient on a long-term basis. Without sustainability, you’re just wandering about without purpose. I see this often with new museums: as soon as the building is done, the museum is dead, all as a result of short-term thinking. We want to avoid this. By already re-calibrating MuHKA now, what we start up are the future functionings. At the same time, we’re already re-writing how society perceives our institution.”

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov

About the choice for a permanent framework for contemporary art

“Our long-term responsibility is to start thinking about the software of this future museum — that’s what’s at stake now. Four years ago, we held a series of meetings at MuHKA to identify the things that are impossible for us to do right now. We distinguished three big shortcomings. Firstly, we are unable to show a permanent collection. Secondly, we lack the capacity to accommodate our visitors, which hinders our ability to function as a forum. Finally, the experience of the passing of time during a visit to our institution is that of a Kunsthalle, and not that of a museum.

“An important question to ask yourself is: what kind of public space do you want to install for contemporary art? Only setting up temporary spaces is a possibility, allowing art to appear with a certain urgency. To me, this is the best-case scenario for an exhibition — to have a sense of urgency.

In a world where it’s getting increasingly difficult to create something from scratch, Flanders has made the ambitious decision of building a full-scale museum for contemporary art.

“Or should we as a society create a framework for contemporary art instead? Do we come up with our own proposals, or do we implicitly build upon the reference models of our neighbouring countries? With these questions in mind, Flanders is stuck in a rather absurd situation. On the one hand it has a great track record of being internationally relevant; of even being trailblazers now and again. On the other hand, we’ve never really had a sustainable institutional structure for contemporary art.

“In a world where it’s getting increasingly difficult to create something from scratch, Flanders has made the ambitious decision of building a full-scale museum for contemporary art. I take it that when the government chooses to enhance the infrastructure of MuHKA – where the need for improvement is most pressing – there will eventually also be room to upgrade the S.M.A.K. in Ghent as well, so that Flanders is equipped with two full-scale museums for contemporary art.

“In the months to come, we will be hosting an architecture contest for the museum, and we will also be deciding on a new location. We have a clear, ambitious yet realistic programme of demands: to double the surface area of MuHKA, which for the time being remains half of what’s designated for the projected Centre Pompidou in Brussels.”

Jef Geys (left), Michelangelo Pistoletto (centre), Luc Tuymans (right)

On intimacy and the fine-tuning of the museum codes

“The last time our museum was re-worked, top-notch architectural firm Robbrecht en Daem were responsible for the re-design. For our new move now, we wanted someone very different but equally qualified. Axel Vervoordt, together with architect Tatsuro Miki, proved to have the answers. I feel that what Vervoordt does today is more than merely being qualitative and interesting — he has fundamentally broadened the space in which art can appear. Luckily for us, he was keen on collaborating; as a gift to society and to his home city of Antwerp. The fact that he chose to involve Tatsuro Miki, under the same conditions, made it even better.

“For the new spaces in MuHKA, Vervoordt made a few radical choices. The experience of the visitor towards the new entrance hall as well as the exhibition room for our permanent collection is very intimate. This effect is not only achieved by the way the artworks are installed; but also through the labyrinth structure Miki designed, through the dark colours Vervoordt selected and through the sparse, precise lighting.

We’re at the centre of interesting developments in contemporary art, but we’re also forced to improvise because we lack an infrastructure. Coincidently, we understand the codes found in contemporary art very well.

“We chose to go with this intimate presentation because we want to evoke the feeling of showing a complete collection, even if it’s really only one room. These are not necessarily the most important pieces out of our collection, but instead function together as a condensed version of it.

“The switch towards becoming an actual museum is reflected just as well in our exposition programme. Starting this autumn, we will show three survey exhibitions of artists that were very present in the Antwerp art scene of the 1960s. We begin with Joseph Beuys, who will be followed by Marcel Broodthaers, and concluded with James Lee Byars. There has never been a substantial exposition on Beuys in Belgium apart from a show of drawings in Ghent in 1977. Antwerp used to be very important for Beuys, but unfortunately the city never acquired any of his works. At the end of the 1960s, Wide White Space – a seminal gallery run from 1966 to 1976 by Anny De Decker and Bernd Lohaus – was located literally across the street from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. If only the director at the time would have crossed the street and bought a work from every expo, we would now have a world-class collection of contemporary art. Sadly, this never happened, and now these works are scattered in other museums across Europe.”

The Flemish sense of improvisation on the codes of contemporary art

“I come from the period preceding even the present so-called ‘proto-museums’, the ‘almost-museums’, the ‘can we do it for cheaper?-museums’ in Flanders. Therefore, the question of what the role of contemporary art is to be – how it can be made accessible – is an important one for me. I think we are well-adept here at MuHKA at combining poignant professional insights with improvisation. We’re at the centre of interesting developments in contemporary art, but we’re also forced to improvise because we lack an infrastructure. Coincidently, we understand the codes found in contemporary art very well. You see the same thing with our internationally successful artists: they know the rules of the game by heart and succeed in combining this knowledge with unexpected actions.”

The fact that we put our library in our reception hall – at the centre of our museum – implies that we place reflection as the literal starting point for the institution.

“The same phenomenon can be found when we talk about institutions. Here, too, the codes of the contemporary art world offer comfortable guidance; they are clear, effective and rigourous — consider the idea of the white cube as an exhibition space. Upon entering, the visitor immediately understands that he or she will be looking at art. Personally, I feel art is most at its place in life itself: there is nothing better than seeing a work of art in someone’s home, or, in the case of older art, the place where it was intentionally made for. This feeling is reflected in our entrance hall. We wanted to create a warm and welcoming space, while at the same time creating a special context to show some smaller works we’ve put up there.

“The fact that we put our library in our reception hall – at the centre of our museum – implies that we place reflection as the literal starting point for the institution. And that’s important; otherwise a museum would not be necessary, and a Kunsthalle would suffice. The library is a time machine: we want our visitors to feel like they have all the time in the world. And a library does exactly that — it envelops its visitor in a slower timeframe.”

The trauma of the Second World War and the importance of history for moving on

“It’s very important to be historical in a lucid way. We are very naive in our thinking when it comes to the future: either we cling on to a growth scenario, or we have a disastrous view of what’s to come. As such, it’s so important for a society to compare the many, many possible scenarios in a structural way. I’ve been quoting the futurologist Maya Van Leemput for several years now; she once said that you need to have at least fifty years’ worth of history in order to be able to think about the future adequately.

It would be horrific if we now give up a separate focus on contemporary art and therewith this historic sense of doubt. That would imply that we have forgotten all about the horror of the war, while simultaneously giving up on the future.

“Contemporary art was a direct consequence of the Second World War. Before this war, there was already the notion of modern art – the idea of something new after a bourgeois era – while contemporary art specifically has its roots in the European societal suicide that was the Second World War. From that, we’ve become very critical of our own way of thinking, and aware of the necessity to remain so. We can never be sure, we must never be sure. Doubt has become vital for our society, to ascertain something like the Second World War never happens again. It would be horrific if we now give up a separate focus on contemporary art and therewith this historic sense of doubt. That would imply that we have forgotten all about the horror of the war, while simultaneously giving up on the future.

“The choice between whether or not to give contemporary art a public role within our society is symbolic of this consciousness. To me, negating this choice would mean that Flanders is giving up on its ambition to be a part of the possible future of the world.

“The plans for a Centre Pompidou in Brussels are to me a logical expression of a society which is painfully aware of its lack of a proper capacity to establish a museum for contemporary art, yet still demands one. In this case, you need to invest a lot of money into somewhere or somebody who still can instead. To me, that’s understandable, because building an institution like that is extremely complex. Flanders has precisely the foundations for such institutions, and decided to go ahead and develop them.”

Jan Henderikse (centre), Panamarenko (right)

Centre and periphery

“Flanders is central — we’ve never been really good at rising up to the potential this positioning brings about, until now. We have to critically think about the mental space we want for our society. I say: let’s not forget about Beuys. Let’s not act as if Broodthaers is a foreigner. Let’s not forget that artists like James Lee Byars or Gordon-Matta Clark, who made their fame internationally, felt Antwerp to be their home turf. If we let this awareness become part of our public mental space, it will become easier to handle this very big world we’re part of. Because what we’re doing here is all about art that takes a stance for openness. Entartete Kunst, if you will.

What we’re doing here is all about art that takes a stance for openness. Entartete Kunst, if you will.

“You ask if it’s a shame that the proposition for the new location of the museum in the North of Antwerp – a more difficult part of the city – has been dismissed so rapidly. I do feel we should think about this as a society. Nowadays, we only act focusing on short-term outcomes. We fail to convince our politicians that certain conditions need to be met in order to install a new museum. This needs time, to start with — you can’t expect immediate results. What our society becomes depends on all of us, and not just on our chosen representatives. Again, this has to do with the mental space we all share, consciously or not, and with the way in which we deal with the future. We’re not asking what things will be like in 20 years time. We just hang in there.”

Marlene Dumas (left), Jan Fabre (centre), Otobong Nkanga (right)

Constructing our future

“Building a museum is a complex operation. It entails the ambition to exist and to continue to exist, also internationally. In order to do so, you have to draw up a business plan, together with your government. Five years on, we’re supposed to have started building — but that alone will not be enough for me to be happy. I never believed in bricks alone. Together with our government, we need to assess what we need in terms of expertise and how best to use the finite time to develop that expertise. In this way, the structural work on a building that follows international standards is then backed up by a structural development of our capacities, also on an international level. If we can achieve this, I’ll be happy.”