Museums are socially engaged bodies rather than outmoded cultural institutions. Philippe van Cauteren (1969) is the artistic director of S.M.A.K. in Ghent and as a freelance curator organised two national pavilions at the Venice Biennale and, more recently, the 3rd edition of the Kathmandu Trienale. He advocates for the power of museums in battling indifference and its ability to shape engaged and motivated individuals.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c).

The most important task of a museum is to fight indifference. Museums can achieve this better than other parts of society – the media, politics, economy – and we can truly add value without talking about functionality. This is the power of the word “museum”. Let’s just say you’d be visiting my home, and I’d put the word Museum above the entrance – you’d enter with a specific set of intentions, you’d look at my belongings differently, you’d even move differently around the place. This power to validate is exceptional and remains true to this day. It goes beyond connecting with life outside the museum walls — it’s about creating a place where ideas can be exchanged. Of course, you collect artworks, which are still, in 98% of all cases, materialistic, but the most important thing is that these works represent the ideas of an artist – how he or she sees the world. An exhibition, or a collection, is also a way of battling indifference, or in this case, an art historic form of amnesia. Indifference mostly means the refusal of taking a stand, picking a side.

Verlust der Mitte, the exhibition that ran at S.M.A.K. from May to August this year, is not a socially engaged exhibition. Christophe Büchel, the Swiss artist who initiated the project and worked on it for several years, did not have this intention. The refugee crisis was just one element he worked into the exhibition, together with the history of the Citadelpark here in Ghent and its traces of colonial history. The exhibition is a very layered dissection of our world today, even though Christophe’s commitment is, in the first place, to art history in the first place, using elements from the world we inhabit, with a radicality found in few other artists today. His exhibition has strengthened my belief that we need to be even more radical in our functioning as a museum; we need to be even more generous towards artists and toward an art world that behaves like a calm brook. There is no intention, no direction, it just happens. And it’s nice! Everybody likes it. But I feel
 there has to be more than this nice picture – there has to be a direction. As an institute with a certain history, mission and vision, we can propose a different model, starting from our faith in artists. For me, that is the beginning of everything. I also feel there still is room to think more thoroughly about our responsibilities towards our audience. The barriers to entry, if you will, for people to visit a museum need to be lowered by education – everything starts there. The ministers for education and culture need to work together much closer than they do today. I don’t want everybody to visit museums all the time, that would be horrible, but I do want everybody
 to have the chance to see if visiting
a museum could be something they like. It’s part of helping people being engaged and motivated individuals.

As an institute with a certain history, mission and vision, we can propose a different model, starting from our faith in artists. For me, that is the beginning of everything.

A museum needs to allow for doubt. It’s important for the artist, the audience, and the institution to be free to hesitate. Uncertainty is very human and not a value you would necessarily connect to an institution. So one of our missions is to humanise the museum. We deal with a lot of mystification in the art world, and one of our tasks,
 as a public house, is to call things by their name and even to sometimes say “we don’t know”, because as a museum, we’re at the limits of the knowable. 
I’m sure that in the European future, art will have a much more important role to play in our society – because
all the other fields are failing. Nothing works: politics, the economy, the nuclear family – there are no answers and everybody stutters. Nobody picks
a side. Only art is able to give Europe any guarantees, and museums need to articulate this very clearly. Jef Geys once said to me: “You with your mist. You need to make it rain!” We need to be done with being cautious, we need to be braver. All of us.

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