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Contemporary visual arts in Flanders by Dirk De Wit
Flanders boasts an age-old tradition of visual artists who enjoyed an international career and reputation such as Van Eyck, Bruegel, Van Dyck, Rubens, Ensor, Magritte and Broodthaers. The contemporary visual arts scene in Flanders is no less outstanding. Artists such as Luc Tuymans, Guillaume Bijl, Panamarenko, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, Bernd Lohaus, Wim Delvoye, Raoul De Keyzer, Francis Alÿs, Jan Fabre, Koen Van Den Broek, Michaël Borremans, Johan Grimonprez, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Jef Geys, David Claerbout, Jan De Cock, Ann Veronica Janssens, Hans Op de Beeck, Dirk Braeckman and dozens of other artists are pursuing an international career. They hold exhibitions in the most important biennials and museums in the world, such as the Venice and Sao Paulo biennials, and museums such as MoMA in New York, the Pompidou Centre, Tate Modern, the Louvre Museum, K21 in Düsseldorf, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, and the Kunsthalle in Budapest, to name but a few. The younger generation of artists is rapidly making its international breakthrough and is showing its work in the foremost spaces.
No other region can lay claim to such a high density of dedicated collectors or corporate collections which have been built up in a highly personal manner and with an eye for quality, and some of which are considered first-rate collections abroad. Just think of the Herbert collection, or those of Van Haerents, Van Moerkerke, or Verbeke. Or consider the collection of Guy and Myriam Ullens, who recently opened a Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, or the Herman Daled collection, which was recently purchased by MoMA in New York. Likewise, the Belgacom and Dexia collections and many smaller but no less distinguished collections contain outstanding works. There is also a strong tradition of art galleries, with pioneers such as MTL and Wide White Space, and this scene has blossomed over the last decade in Antwerp and Brussels but also in other cities. This momentum has been confirmed by the arrival of important foreign galleries such as Christian Nagel from Cologne/Berlin, Almine Rech from Paris, and Barbara Gladstone from New York, and by the art fair Art Brussels, which has grown into one of the most important rising fairs next to such established events as Art Basel, Frieze Art Fair and The Armory Show. We have no less than eighty galleries which promote and support their artists worldwide, including Zeno X, Deweer, Micheline Szwajcer, Guy Pieters, Xavier Hufkens, Office Baroque, Jan Mot, Jamar, and de Zwarte Panter, among others.
Public initiatives such as museums for contemporary art, art centres, reviews, workspaces and residencies are quite recent compared to abroad but are professionalizing themselves rapidly. The museums were established in the 1970s and 1980s by pioneers such as Flor Bex (M HKA), Jan Hoet (S.M.A.K.) and Willy Van den Bussche (Mu.ZEE). The Middelheim Museum was revitalized in the 1990s. Art and exhibition centres and residencies are much more recent, but today these places are also being recognized on the international stage. Just think of Wiels, BOZAR or Argos in Brussels, Extra City in Antwerp, the Dhondt-Dhaenens Museum in Deurle, Z33 in Hasselt or Museum M in Leuven, and many other similar initiatives. Other museums, too, pay special attention to contemporary art, such as the MAS in Antwerp or fine arts museums seeking to establish relations with contemporary visual art. Internationally renowned artists are being asked to create projects for urban public spaces or in the context of events such as Beaufort and Contour. Chambre d’amis (Jan Hoet, Ghent) has certainly played a pioneering role in this respect.
Lastly, let’s not forget the Flemish curators who have scattered around the world and head important museums and art centres: Jan Debbaut, for instance, who was at the helm of the Van Abbe Museum before running Tate Modern; Chris Dercon, who is currently heading Tate Modern (and before that Haus der Kunst in Munich, and the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam), Kathy De Zegher at the Drawing Center in New York and Art Gallery Ontario, Hilde Teerlinck at FRAC Dunkerque, Philippe Pirotte at Kunsthalle Bern, Laurence Rassel at the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona, Ann Demeester at De Appel in Amsterdam, etc.
As mentioned already, the initiatives that promote, support and frame art and the public collections are quite recent, as is any policy in this respect. Contemporary art museums date from the 1970s and 1980s. In the late 1990s, the authorities pursued a development-oriented policy. Thanks to made-to-measure initiatives in the form of various grants for artists, purchases by the Flemish Community and year-long operations and project subsidies for organizations, artists and organizations were strongly stimulated. In 2006 there was a much needed budget increase in the context of the Arts Decree. The number of organizations has grown in ten years to include a varied palette with regard to scale, functions and profiles. In 2011 there has emerged an image of visual art organizations that have gradually defined their profiles and functions in relation to one another. Together they form a fruitful biotope that is emerging from a closed environment, becoming more visible socially, and entering various relations with the community.
Visual art is the art form of the 21st century: artists make use of a wide range of materials (painting, sculpture, installation, performance, video), they can operate in very diverse spaces such as museums, public spaces or in interaction with citizens, they work at a global level and operate in various countries and cultures. Visual art is thus an important form of contemporary knowledge production, of image creation and different experiences. This is why visual art perfectly meets certain trends in today’s society, which is characterized by the importance attached to knowledge and information and lifelong learning. The museums of today and tomorrow present themselves as knowledge centres where one can learn much about art and contemporary society. Artists from around the world propose a very diverse range of reflections and insights. Tate Modern is planning to expand with a building totalling no less than 11 floors and measuring 65 meters high. It will be used to present their collection and will house spaces devoted to learning and educational activities as well as social gatherings intended for vary diverse audiences such as youths, families and students. Museums and art centres in Flanders are following this trend.
The vitality of these institutions, both large and small, means that visual art is more than ever in the spotlight, with a noticeable rise in visitor statistics and increased participation. The Luc Tuymans exhibition at BOZAR, for instance, drew 80,000 visitors, while an event like Beaufort attracted 600,000 visitors and Art Brussels took in 30,000 visitors in four days, of which 35% were foreigners. The recent participation survey in Flanders shows a growing interest in visual art, especially among young adults.
The region comprising Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the North of France, North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany and even the South of England is ultimately evolving into a large single area gathering key spaces of contemporary visual art. The public can travel easily between Rotterdam, Brussels, Lille, Brighton, Metz, Antwerp, Maastricht, Luxembourg, Ghent, Cologne and Düsseldorf.
Visual art is undoubtedly one of the spearhead sectors of Flanders, and the time is now ripe to choose for it fully and to maximize its development potential.
Dirk De Wit, BAM
Flemish institute for visual, audiovisual and media art

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