interview with bart de baere

Bart De Baere photographed by Sarah Van Looy. Image courtesy of M HKA.

Since 2002, Bart de Baere (born 1960) is the director of M HKA (the Museum of Contemporary Art) in Antwerp. The renowned curator is also secretary-general of CIMAM and chair of its Museum Watch Committee and he was a co-founder of Brussels’ kunsthalle WIELS.

From 1986 to 2001, de Baere was curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent (now S.M.A.K.). From 1998 until 2001 he also advised the Flemish Minister of Culture on cultural heritage and contemporary art, being instrumental in the coming about of legislation for both domains. De Baere was a member of the curatorial team at Documenta IX and a curatorial consultant on the first Johannesburg Biennial and a member of the International Advisory Council for the network of Soros Institutes for Contemporary Art in Eastern Europe. Recently he is committed especially to the art scenes in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: You curated and contributed to numerous contemporary art biennials. Could we revisit the state of contemporary art biennials – perhaps we could discuss the biennial boom phenomenon.

BART DE BAERE: Well, to start with biennials have been crucially important in the worldwide eco-system of the past decades as a possibility to enhance cultural spaces. In locations where there was no established infrastructure or an active art system yet the introduction of biennials opened up possibilities, first and foremost for the mere visibility of contemporary art and reflections on its presence and potential in society. They resulted in the factual development of capacity, which can be seen in terms of organisation, in terms of communication, in terms of audiences, and also in very simple terms of raising money leading to budgets. It’s not about money on its own behalf but about being a location in which substantial amounts of money could be spent for contemporary art. Becoming the location of a budget was a very important element of biennials, in a certain way very often their basis.
The development of these specific institutions of international biennials was a game changer in quite some situations, Istanbul, for example, where was key to establishing the Turkish contemporary art field as a major scene and a space of reflection.

In terms of their proper institutional capacity, biennials offer two opposite capacities. One is that of any organisation that becomes an institution; they may become at a certain point considered to be a tradition. Many of these important biennials in this way made history – they don’t only form an expectation pattern, but also a kind of cultural project that becomes autopoetic, a reference on its own behalf, relating to developments in time. The clearest example of that, I think, is Documenta. While not a biennial, it is a regularly repeated exhibition format and as such has been of high importance on a global level in terms of every iteration but also in terms of its overall profile and narrative. Documenta concurrently continues to be a substantial tradition while at the same time changing over and again the way to look at art. In this way, Documenta may be seen as creating its version of sustainability – in a less material way compared to museums.

On the other hand, the second great capacity of biennials is their “shabbiness”, however strange this may sound. Biennials bring together capacity, diverse reflections, actors, and audiences, yet they are always happening in an improvised way and they are always to some extent out of control. To start with because time is limited, the set up irregular, and the outcome expectations are high. Biennials develop solutions and understanding as they happen. So, sometimes they may get an importance not in terms of what they initially wanted to do, but in terms of what happened in their margins, or in terms of understanding gained as they occurred. Certain incidents may become key and crucial for such moments.

LŠ: Could we revisit your experiences with biennials? You worked both on the First Johannesburg Biennial (1995) and on the one in Moscow (2015).

BDB: I have never identified myself as a biennial curator and it has never been an ambition for me. When I committed to biennials (like I would commit to any other project) it was always because I felt there was a meaningful emancipatory possibility. That there was something that might happen and something meaningful to commit to. That’s how I have been acting all of my life. Feeling that it is important not only to perform the role society expects of you but to also take a feasible amount of your capacity and then devote that to things that might at a specific place and moment in time make a difference. I refer to this sometimes as Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam. To offer something of your wealth or capacity for the common good. It does not have to be all of it but should be something real, focused, dedicated, and conscious. That was the case for both Johannesburg and Moscow Biennial – I believed there was potential to commit to.

The Johannesburg Biennale, the first in which I was involved, was launched by a marvellous woman, Lorna Ferguson. It embodied a dream in a country that was in a transitional phase, going away from the apartheid regime. Lorna had been director of the Museum of Pietermaritzburg, the only museum in the country that would show Black artists’ art during Apartheid. The biennial was a grand attempt at sovereignty, to let South Africa speak itself. Technically its main international long-lasting output was that it allowed Okwui Enwezor to launch his career with the second edition. But the Johannesburg Biennial as an entity failed to become the kind of institution that would galvanise cultural diversity – it ended in 1997.

There seemed to me to be a similar potential for the Moscow Biennial in 2015 – a possibility for Russia to go elsewhere than where it ended up going. The situation was already deeply problematic, the Krim having been occupied, but there still seemed hope for the better. We felt that societal change might enact itself and art has this power and is a medium that allows society to think differently. Such a situation of urgency may make you commit beyond what you would do as a professional. In the case of the Moscow Biennial, we made three subsequent projects in dire circumstances, with a shrinking budget in Ruble and a Ruble that was devaluating. At such times, a curator might say: “No thank you! This is not realistic.” But we chose to continue and we reevaluated the budget and the possibilities over and again. In the end, the only major budgets that could still be scrapped were transport and insurance so we decided to scrap these too. We were left with the people so we focused on those. The setup could still be performative and essentially about the encounter, so we limited its length to ten days so that the people would really meet up. Certain challenging situations bring out the best potential (laugh). We limited the space to the heart of Soviet self-representation, the central pavilion in VDNH. No, it didn’t help but the attempt might still be meaningful for the future.

I do not distinguish between biennials and other exhibitions. For me, any necessary exhibition creates a temporary genius loci – a temporary spirit of the place. A necessary exhibition is a singularity and it is never something that can be systemically repeated. A singular exhibition makes a potential visible and that emergence is situated, different from how a lot of people may then afterward start to copy and paste it and make variations on it. A necessary exhibition starts from a necessity and therewith ultimately finds its setup and identity, which leads to the actors committing to it and offering specific input.
One project I initiated in which this kind of emergence was particularly strong, was This is the Show and the Show is Many Things in 1994. It is now considered one of the first of what would become called process-based exhibitions. It introduced into the exhibition field a lot of things that are now habitual, such as a side programme of discussions or performances and the inclusion of dance into the exhibition space. Performativity. All along the duration of the exhibition artists would stay involved and make new works or change their works. Today such an approach is not unusual but at that moment it was quasi-inconceivable. The artists came with a great array of innovative solutions, including the first cafeteria built by an artist that I know of or the sophisticated manipulation of daylight shades by Luc Tuymans.

That project wanted to find a form, as biennials often do. The improvisational side of biennials makes them into a possible space of heterodoxy in which necessities and actors go an unexpected way.

LŠ: How do you see the future of art biennials?

BDB: I see it as one possible question within an ecosystem in which the real strategic questions are: How to find the places and spaces for art? How to embed art in society? How to make it visible? How to validate it? And how to enable that validation to be experienced by other people? So, in a certain way, inspired by the wider question of what is art and what curating might mean. We are talking of possibilities when we discuss biennials and depending on the situation and the location, those will be different. Biennials depend on ecosystems in which places are given and taken and there are expectations on how a space can be generated.

We do have a frightening amount of biennials, but on the other hand, we do also have a frightening amount of buildings calling themselves Museums. It does not in itself mean a lot! And we have an immense amount of events calling themselves exhibitions. The basics – the right to call yourself an exhibition – require an extreme minimum of characteristics. To be a museum you need to present something you call Art publicly in a space you call a museum, so you need to have a building in which this art is contained. And for a biennial, one needs a presentation of art every two years. That in itself does not mean much. None of them mean anything. (laugh) The question is how we (as people coming together, sometimes within the framework of institutions) succeed in articulating our commitment and in engaging the public. What added meaning do we bring to society? And how can we effectively embed art in society? That is what curating might be about.

So, the degree to which we can deal with the question of the future of biennials is grounded in a reflection on what may make them relevant or not. And that is always linked to a wider ecosystem. It is all about the relationship between continuity and change. Can we achieve something interesting within the specifics of a certain ecosystem that is sustainably meaningful or not? Or is it just a part of the mass of activities of human beings that are forgotten as soon as their moment is over? Is it an act that opens up and enhances space or not?

LŠ: You are the director of M HKA, a contemporary art museum based in Antwerp, since 2003. How has the museum developed since you joined the institution? What are some of the challenges that the institution has faced since you joined?

BDB: Well, if looked at in technical terms, it’s incomparable to what it was. When I came here 20 years ago it was factually working like a Kunsthalle, an exhibition hall. The collection was activated as a filler of holes between exhibitions. The exhibitions were fairly standardised, for example, all the works were hung at the same height. Only one type of light was used (150 Watt wall washers) which gave a fairly standardised experience. When I started, one single person was responsible for the collection and there was no inventory.
At this moment, we have a substantial collection team and we also started The Flemish Centre for Visual Art Archives, which is, I think, really important. Archives are one of the two components of art which you want to have in the public domain as a reference.

In Belgium, we have a belated development of museums due to specific political and legal circumstances. The establishment of M HKA is partially also thanks to the actions of local artists since WW2 onwards. Our predecessor institution, the International Cultural Centre (I.C.C.), an art centre, was established in the 1970s in response to their initiatives. While at the same time in present Croatia, former Yugoslavia (where you are from), Mangelos (Dimitrije Bašičević) was the chairman of the Center for Film Photography and Television, part of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb – to give a reference of a timeline. So, imagine how far behind we were.

Archive M HKA. Image courtesy of M HKA.

When M HKA was founded in the mid-1980s, the setup was rather primitive. The museum was essentially seen as a box in which to exhibit things, so that’s what they built (laugh). The present government (we are a federalized country) has prioritised the development of a new museum infrastructure. What we have been doing over the past two decades is to develop the back office functions, to articulate the collection with both a historiographic perspective and an articulated international position in the multipolar world of today, without losing touch with artistic experimentation, so as to bring the components together to make what we think a public museum like this should be. An inclusive place where contemporary art can be presented in a sustainable way.

Fluxus Hallway at M HKA. Image courtesy of the museum.

LŠ: How do you see state art museums developing in the future? Especially alongside the rise of private art museums and foundations?

BDB: Well, we can say that we are in a world that is filled with overproduction and with a certain loss of effectiveness because things are scattered, multiplied, and reproduced in a consumerist fashion. You can analyse that also in institutional terms! For me, the real difference is not between private museums versus state museums. Private foundations may also have a public mission. I think the real question is about the degree of publicness and its sustainability. So, regardless of how the system is functioning – it’s about these two elements.

What I see happening in terms of state institutions, is that sustainability is often under threat in those, because of how politics is sometimes behaving toward them. We have seen this in former Yugoslavia and the former Warsaw Pact countries over the past years.
The public space for art is an open space, and it is a sustainable space. It’s allowing for art narratives to become public. And what is the key to saying whether a museum is meaningful, be it technically state or technically foundational, is whether it has a proper art hypothesis and proposal. Essentially a public proposal about what art may be in that place at that moment, grounded in the past and open to the future. A secondary question then becomes how it succeeds in being a lived experience within its society, a challenge that is related to the infrastructure programme.

The presentation component in a contemporary art museum was traditionally seen as being binary in nature. On the one hand, it is about a collection and access to artistic references. Traditionally, this would mean having a permanent collection display.
On the other hand, we have something called exhibitions, which includes different ways to keep a finger on the pulse of art. They inject new perspectives into that long-lasting museum image.
A third component added nowadays is social space, which has a lot of functions. In addition to an array of contemporary art presentations that take on the form of events such as film screenings, performances, lectures, and discussions – it is also about anything society may want to do in a museum. I am really happy that the new museum definition was launched last year by ICOM and acknowledges the necessity of participatory governance, of museums being made together with communities.

If you are serious about this, you need to be open. I can imagine having sometimes funerals in museums. That might be marvellous. Every time I go to a crematorium and there is a service, I think: how mediocre. Museums might offer an alternative to that, for those people who’d want that, a public space of reflection that might focus on a joyful collective memory. There are many other possibilities like this. If people come with such questions, there should at least be an initial openness to those and possible negotiation.

Also part of this is the social space on its own behalf, the “third space” that has been a point of attention in recent years, or the economic elements that have been added to museums’ lobbies. Almost every museum now has a cafeteria, restaurants and/or a shop. For all these reasons this social space open to events has become an important additional component, besides the collection and the temporary presentations. The turn to take here is not to ask what museums do for society but what museums do with society!

Front desk and bookshop at M HKA. Image courtesy of the museum.
Library and reading room at M HKA. Image courtesy of M HKA.
Mark Manders, in ‘This is the show and the show is many things’, S.M.A.K., Ghent, 1994 (photo: S.M.A.K.). Image courtesy of M HKA and S.M.A.K.
Mark Manders, in ‘This is the show and the show is many things’, S.M.A.K., Ghent, 1994 (photo: S.M.A.K.). Image courtesy of M HKA and S.M.A.K.
Henrietta Lehtonen, in ‘This is the show and the show is many things’, S.M.A.K., Ghent, 1994 (photo: S.M.A.K.). Image courtesy of M HKA and S.M.A.K.
Honoré d’O, in ‘This is the show and the show is many things’, S.M.A.K., Ghent, 1994 (photo: S.M.A.K.). Image courtesy of M HKA and S.M.A.K.
Zhanna Khadyrova, Palianytsia, 2022, in ‘The Artist as a Witness’, European Parliament, 06.05–21.08.2022 (photo: Pat Verbruggen). Image courtesy of M HKA.
Nikita Kadan, The Beautiful Coloniser, 2020 and Anna Scherbyna, Landscape with Staffage, 2022, in 'Art as a Critical Attitude', M HKA, 06.05–21.08.202022. Image courtesy of M HKA.

LŠ: L’Internationale is a confederation of eight modern and contemporary art institutions. These are Moderna galerija (MG+MSUM, Ljubljana, Slovenia); Museo Reina Sofía (Madrid, Spain); MACBA, Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (Spain); Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (M HKA, Antwerp, Belgium); Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie (Warsaw, Poland), SALT (Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey) Van Abbemuseum (VAM, Eindhoven, the Netherlands) and now also The Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb. Could we discuss M HKA’s activity within L’Internationale?

BDB: L’Internationale is an outcome of commitment. It comes from people of my generation in which also the very notion of curatorship occurred. In my youth, the notion of a curator was not the reference. The reference were people called ‘exhibition makers’, such as Harald Szeeman, who were in certain ways in their work closer to artists than the present curators. The notion of curating became standardised in the 1980s, in the same way as the stock market became standardised then. Schools such as De Appel in Amsterdam, Le Magasin in Grenoble, or Bard College in the States were leading the way. Before that, it was hardly conceivable that one would make money in the contemporary art world. Curating happened to people like me, we didn’t have these schools and didn’t study to become a curator.

The praxis of our generation was the basis for the standardisation of what was to become the present curatorial practice. Some of us went into that and turned it into a profession. And some of us committed ourselves to public capacity. L’Internationale is the outcome of conversations between some of those people who wanted to make public institutions better and different. It came about in a period with radical changes in both politics and society at large. It is the period in which the hegemony of the West is finally ending and we are entering a multipolar world. The post-Second World War bipolar system, of the West versus the East – in which Yugoslavia was a part of the third component of non-aligned countries – fell apart. Things started to open up, as could also be seen in contemporary art.

L’Internationale aims to be open and international, it is a very different kind of cooperation than that of the cost-effectiveness of the travelling exhibitions of the past decades. We have been creating well-grounded exhibitions and research in local situations and have then brought them together to achieve meaningful broader images.

L’Internationale is about cooperation and reflection rather than being output–based. Over the past decade, we have often been cutting-edge and have then seen our ideas become mainstream quite fast. Our core question was that of how to continue museums, which are traditionally vertical institutions while the world of today is horizontal. Out of that came the idea of allowing society to redefine the museum – we spoke about the constituent museum. It seemed radical when we thought about it, but now the new ICOM museum definition says museums operate with the participation of communities.

LŠ: Art publishing in print has over the past decades had its ups and downs – could we argue that museums are stepping into some of the empty spaces left by the “print” publishing industry?

BDB: Well, then the whole publishing industry is changing dramatically and we as a society are just not as interested in books anymore as we did before. I think it’s a bit sad but it is a fact. It is not that books are disappearing but that they more often become disposable commodities. Books are now rather an expression of the moment, a moment of commitment you express through a financial acquisition. On the other hand, there’s always a niche of people who take past traditions as a future medium. In the end, print is still one of the important ways of distribution of understanding but it’s not the monopoly or the core anymore.

For me, the core relevance of printed art publications is where artists are using their materiality, the limits, and the specifics as potential. As for other art publications, Museums took over certain aspects of art publishing because they do have an advantage. With their exhibitions and collection displays, they have moments in which they may get a lot of people committed and these might then still decide to acquire something.

The real adventure today is much broader than that, however. You can still use the terms of traditional publishing, we can say that museums are formatting – for example, a text about an artwork -, followed by editing and distribution processes. The way these play out is less standardised than before, however. Now the challenge is about how things link up.