The Leuven Hundreds

Portraits of a city's people, today

We’ve joined forces with Leuven to highlight 100 local people, places and projects that contribute towards making the city what it is today. From artists and architects to producers and professors, these are the driving forces powering Leuven forward one ingenious initiative at a time.

Steven Vandervelden

Steven Vandervelden

Director, STUK / Chairman, Cas-co (1975)

Can you describe what you do?

I’ve been director of the arts centre STUK for eleven years running now. We’ve always dedicated ourselves to shining a light on innovation, talent development and international focus. Fearing a steady decline in our sector, we’re always looking to re-think and refresh, to find new trends and names in art. This innovation led to a firm reform two years ago, with the in-house founding of the Huis voor Dans, Beeld & Geluid, or House for Dance, Image & Sound.

In addition, after more than two decades in this city, I finally feel like a real Leuvenaar and try to contribute to the city’s (artistic) vibe in many ways: I was involved in the creation of Het Depot where I’m still on the board; whilst also attending the general meetings of Leuven 2030, Festival 20/21 and Stad & Architectuur. I’m a firm believer that besides the need for space for art institutions, something also needs to be done about acquiring (affordable) space for artists – so it’s with great pleasure I chair Cas-co, an organization that offers and co-ordinates artist organisations.

In recent years, Leuven has rapidly developed into a culturally mature and self-conscious city.

How do you perceive Leuven?

Leuven has the comfortable scale of a medium-sized city, yet the critical mass of an urban centre thanks to the University. In recent years, Leuven has rapidly developed into a culturally mature and self-conscious city. At the start of this century, there was only STUK, a cultural centre (now 30CC) and a department for Het Festival van Vlaanderen in play here. Since then, many strong cultural players have joined the table: M-Museum, Het Depot, fABULEUS, Het Nieuwstedelijk, the various organizations within the OPEK network, WERKTANK, … Meanwhile there’s a lot happening here, always top-notch quality. And to top it all off, excellent team-work!

What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

The scale is quite modest, with only about 100,000 inhabitants. But the University has a huge impact on that city, both quantitatively and qualitatively. First and foremost, around 60,000 students attend the academic year as temporary residents – this creates dynamism and youthfulness. Furthermore, this has had a clear effect on local residents, too: advanced education, an invigorating climate thanks the numerous spin-offs, a lot of openness for research and trial and error, a pronounced global influx of talent.

All of this made it possible to push the House for Dance, Image & Sound forward into an innovative and experimental direction, without losing our relationship with the public. Our festival Artefact is a perfect example: a major exhibition and arts festival focusing on contemporary visual culture, current events and social challenges, without notable names, which hosts over 15,000 visitors – a truly exceptional sight. The link with the sciences is an extra asset to Leuven’s art industry in general and for STUK – and certainly Artefact – in particular.

How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

I first studied a couple of years in Brussels, and my intentions were to go back after my time in Leuven – but that never happened! After all, I was granted so many exciting opportunities in my host city that I just kept sticking around like so many ‘new’ Leuvenaars. Professionally, Leuven’s fascinating new development in regard to its art scene ensured us at STUK that we would be stimulated enough to constantly find and re-invent ourselves. This has cemented our position as an institution, as well as serve as a constant challenge for me.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

As far as I’m concerned, Leuven’s most pressing issue and threat for a growing, exciting artistic community is how expensive it’s become to live and work here. It’s now virtually impossible to buy another house or apartment in our city with a modest or even average salary. This is a slap in the face for any strong candidate in the creative and arts sector; because often despite their exceptional talents, they tend to only earn modest wages – especially at the beginning of their career. This is why it’s imperative to support and provide enough opportunities to not only art institutions, but also the artists themselves. And this is why, in addition to my job in STUK, I am also very much in favour of initiatives like Cas-co, which offer affordable artist ateliers.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?

If you want to experience the “essence” of Leuven, combining its rich history with a modern-day drive is necessary, because that’s really the driving force of Leuven. For example, go for a walk from Park Abbey to the Groot Begijnhof beguinage just outside the city ring-road; and make a stopover at STUK’s grand café for a coffee or something stronger. In addition, make sure to check out any solo exhibition by a promising contemporary artist at M-Museum, have a bite or drink De Hoorn at Vaartkom, and end your weekend in a full circle with a free jazz performance amongst international students in the STUKcafé.

“The Leuven Model”; representing a way of working whereby the cultural actors themselves are well-equipped to determine who does what within the cultural landscape, and collaborate as much as possible, supporting each other along the way.

A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

Throughout Flanders, the Leuven cultural scene is known as “the Leuven Model”; representing a way of working whereby the cultural actors themselves are well-equipped to determine who does what within the cultural landscape, and collaborate as much as possible, supporting each other along the way. This Leuven Model works especially well if all the partners can position themselves as autonomously as possible within the spontaneous network of cultural organisations. But this also leads to an immediate, striking paradox: once the (local) government tries to (re-)direct this process, the dynamics and benefits disappear into thin air.

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