Do we really need new museums of contemporary art? The Brussels case

Piero Bisello  -  April 18, 2017

These are the days in which many eyes in the international artworld are pointed to Brussels. Like every year the so called Art Brussels week is ready to kick off with multiple contemporary art fairs and dozens of exhibitions. Yet unlike every year, this is somewhat of a special time for the city, since it was recently announced that the realisation of a new, large scale and public museum for contemporary art is finally underway: the Citroën Cultural Centre.

To those who are even slightly involved in the local art scene, “will Brussels ever have a museum for contemporary art?” sounded as a kind of repetitive mantra. Books could be written about the myriads of political impasses that led one of the culture capitals of Europe to lack a permanent space for a collection of 20th and 21st century artworks. Some important points on the issue would certainly be in those books, but an outsider reader would find them so tedious that she would likely think there is nothing important about a museum in town. On the contrary, the topic is a perfect case study to enrich the broader and uncontroversially relevant discussion about the role of contemporary art museums, which in the case of Milan for example, has shifted towards how such role can be taken up by private institutions instead of public ones.

As mentioned, the last few months have been loaded with further confirmations that the mantra “will Brussels have a museum for a contemporary art” might stop being sung. News has it that the final decision has been made and Brussels will have its museum in 2020: some public money has been allocated, some project managers have been appointed, the architecture competition for the renovation of the spaces will soon be launched, the ambitions are high.

Temporarily dubbed the Citroën Cultural Centre from the car showroom and workshop building that will host it, the museum will partner with Centre Pompidou to manage the content, spanning the curation of a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. The entire project will also include the redevelopment of the nearby area, which promises to create jobs as well as new public spaces and businesses. According to the official communication, the Citroën Cultural Centre is not only aimed at local populations who might benefit from the opportunities of a new cultural and business hub, but also at raising the international reputation of the city, which admittedly has suffered from the recent terrorist attacks. So far so good? Not quite…

Many members of the local art scene have expressed concern about Citroën Cultural Centre and much of the recent news has been received with scepticism. Some arguments we have heard are simply against the idea that Brussels needs a museum for contemporary art at all. They say that a celebration of Brussels creativity (one of the missions stated by the board of the Citroën Cultural Centre) is incompatible with the museum itself, since the value of the local community of artists lies in its grassroots origin and small scale rather than large institutional projects. There are many reasons to see these arguments as well grounded. Yet the problem is that a celebration of Brussels creativity is only one among other missions of the museum. There is a clear sense in which the Citroën Cultural Centre will need to be beneficial also to those who are not already involved in culture, outsiders whose interest the existing artistic scene needs not be concerned with in the same way a large scale, publicly funded institution does.

Other arguments we have encountered are not directly aimed at the museum itself but they rather delve into the ways a museum should be properly envisioned. The curatorial team of art centre Wiels has been particularly involved, organising an exhibition that opens this week titled “The Absent Museum”. The press release focuses on the “purposes” of a contemporary art museum in general, asking questions such as “which issues should a museum propel into the realm of careful consideration? Which absences or lacunae in museum collections should be redressed? Which new or parallel histories should be told? Whose identities should be represented, shaped, or confirmed?”. One problem with these questions is that they are, well, questions. We think that if a proper critique of the purposes of a museum in general and Citroën Cultural Centre in particular is to be advanced, it should be more propositional and less obscure. One might say— like former curator at Art Brussels Katerina Gregos in a recent article —that jobs, tourism, and increasing international reputation are not proper purposes for this museum. At this point, one should show why that is the case and whether other purposes are more beneficial for the city of Brussels at large.

Besides the problem of the right purpose, other two reasons have been given to object to the Citroën Cultural Centre. One has to do with the fact that all the official talk of redeveloping the area and tightening the urban and social fabric might hide a more dangerous problem, that is some form of unethical gentrification. Gentrification is indeed a real risk, but to complain about Citroën Cultural Centre from that perspective, one should show that gentrification would not take place in that particular area unless that particular museum were built. Moreover, what makes gentrification unethical is the fact that it is linked to increased wealth inequality, forced relocation and exploitation of tenants, all of which are complex phenomena that require much empirical research in the already existing conditions of the inhabitants (for example, what is the demography of landlords in that area?). The point here is that one should postpone any argument from gentrification until empirical data is used to back it up.

Lastly, a “sovereignty-based” argument has been advanced, which says that locals should have priority in deciding about the content of a local museum they are paying with their tax instead of a foreign institution such as the French Pompidou. One could say that the sovereignty of the citizens of Brussels, including those who are part of the local art scene, has been respected insofar as they voted for the democratic government that decided for Pompidou instead of local curators. Some say this government had no authority on cultural initiatives but only on tourism and territorial development. Yet the main point of Citroën Cultural Centre is exactly to boost tourism and improve the neighbourhood. It is hard to see why this plan is incompatible with proper cultural development, especially considering that the content of the museum has been delegated to the expertise of an internationally well reputed centre such as Pompidou. And if outsourcing to Pompidou is rather a problem of not preserving the local identity, this seems at odds with the fact that Pompidou was chosen because not enough consensus among local communities was found.

In conclusion, all these arguments to object to Citroën Cultural Centre either don’t seem to be well grounded or require a much more extensive development, which we hope will come in the near future. Nonetheless, from the question of “will Brussels have a contemporary art museum?”, we have moved to a more fruitful one: “what is really wrong, if anything, with the contemporary art museum Brussels will have?”.