A Museum in a Garage

Art News

February 12, 2018

Already the seat of the European Union, will Brussels soon be the new hub for contemporary art? In any case, it’s what Rudi Vervoort, patron of the Brussels-Capital region, has in mind. At the heart of the project is the iconic Citroën garage on Place de l’Yser. So what are the returns on this crazy bet?

There’s no longer any doubt that with the big - and rather extravagant opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi last November, France has not quite finished establishing its cultural expertise and influence abroad. It is also clear that within the art world, the Centre Georges-Pompidou is truly enjoying the wind in its sails.

After the success of its Iberian pop-up, which ran for five years in the Andalusian city of Malaga, the Parisian museum institution has surfed a wave of recognition and new partnerships, moving into Shanghai as soon as 2019, with Brussels on the horizon in 2020-2021.

Nestled in the heart of the Belgian capital, at the crossroads between Place de l’Yser and the Quai de Willebroeck, the iconic Citroën garage has been chosen to become the future cultural and artistic hub of the “flat country”. Located on the edge of the canal, just a stone’s throw from Place Sainctelette, the garage was erected in 1933 following plans drawn up by André Citroën himself, who had ambitions to create the biggest car factory in Europe. The lovely glass palace, 21 meters tall, is characterized by a curved curtain façade, all built on 2 hectares of land. It would be nearly a century before the fate of the site changed course.

In October 2015, the land was bought by the Society of Urban Planning (SAU), a real estate concern of the Brussels-Capital region, for €20.5 million, with the intention of making it the strategic linchpin of its Canal Plan. The government has effectively given itself ten years to bring its urban ambitions to fruition, which consist of the installation of a 700 hectares perimeter, 300 hectares of which are to be public land, including a new cultural hub.

So what is it exactly? In addition to the significant reconstruction of 35,000m2 of the industrial site, the project includes the creation of two museums, one dedicated to modern and contemporary art and the other to architecture, which will have at its core the International Centre for City, Architecture and Landscape (CIVA), as well as multidisciplinary spaces and workshops dedicated to educational and recreational activities.

Beyond its urban development goals, the region clearly demonstrates a determination to create a major artistic center, “a showcase that will put the capital of Europe on the map”. The real challenge is opening a 15,000m2 museum dedicated to the art of the 20th and 21st centuries, without (at least for the time being) a collection. Brussels-Capital region has had to turn this shortcoming into an asset...

A Cultural Hub on a Global Scale

Whilst the objective of the original project was to introduce modern and contemporary works from Belgium’s Royal Museums, grizzly politics resulted in the failure to reach an agreement with the Federal Government department managing these collections.

The solution?

Appeal to the foreign “super-museums”, often quick to take on  such new adventures. Although one might have initially thought of Anglo-Saxon labels such as MoMA, the Guggenheim and the Tate, it is ultimately Beaubourg, who went on to win over Belgium.

On 29 September, 2016, Rudi Vervoort and president of the Centre Georges-Pompidou, Serge Lasvignes, announced that a memorandum of understanding had been signed committing to transform the old garage into a world-class cultural magnet.

In this edgy, industrial building with a distinctively Art-Deco style, French presence can be felt acutely with its characteristically imposing visionary cultural style. With a 120,000 piece-strong collection (the second in the world after that of the MoMA in New York), the French museum is working to enhance - in the words of Serge Lasvignes - “cultural engineering abroad, where it is able to constantly create new museums, thanks to its brand, network and skills”.

Pompidou-Brussels fits in neatly with this policy of expanding into new territories. Organized in a different way to the Pompidou-Malaga (a temporary museum generating €1 million per year for the French institution), the agreement signed with the Brussels-Capital region is deemed bespoke by the authorities involved, engaging the Parisian institution “to carry out a support mission for acquisitions to the permanent collections and development of the future museum” in addition to consulting on cultural programming and the loan of works.

However, Belgian art will feature in the heart of the project, via collaboration with collectors, galleries and art centers in Brussels.

Freshly christened Kanal, after the name of the Foundation created by the Brussels-Capital Region to realize this artistic hub, the museum is set to open its doors in the spring. In the meantime, there are various cultural events, the reconstruction of the ever-imposing “ship” and the announcement of the winner of the architecture competition is to be announced next March. A teaser to anchor the project in the city and perhaps clear doubt from the minds of the most skeptical - work is set to begin Autumn 2019!

In Extenso

“The Pompidou Centre is an inclusive place, born of a desire to propagate the arts and creativity. It has been open to the public since 1977 and is open to supporting all types of artistic expression. A celebrated multidisciplinary cultural centre, it has confirmed the key position held by France on the global arts scene.

As the Pompidou Centre has developed, it has acted as an interface with a changing society as well as representing a new institutional model informed by the energy created through interdisciplinary arts. It is also new axis of development between a historic district and urban regeneration project. On all these levels, it has been the catalyst for a new cultural approach with regard to the city, the public, artists and the world.

Today, this is something that the Pompidou Centre would like to share with Brussels and its region, by actively and passionately participating in the creation of a new, innovative multidisciplinary cultural centre. With a large network spanning both established galleries and museums as well as key contemporary figures from the art and culture scene, the Pompidou Centre contributes to our cultural fabric on a global level, notably amongst the most active creative communities, such as here, in Brussels, capital of Europe - a place fully open to global diversity.

To ensure the success of such collaborations, the Pompidou Centre wants to work closely with each prospective partner to develop proposals which relate to the artistic scene of the place in question. It is the product of experimentation, research - a process that relies on constant interaction, constant dialogue.

The Pompidou Centre mobile experience which will run for two months in Saudi Arabia and hold the first exhibition of international modern and contemporary art in this region of the world has been a key experience, as is our role consulting on cultural engineering for the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Pompidou Centre Malaga has been the first temporary branch to display works from the collection and we have worked closely with the Spanish cultural scene, thus demonstrating the international value of our practical knowledge. In keeping with this model, a proposed implementation of a Pompidou Centre in Shanghai is already underway.

With regard to future ambitions, we hope that there will be other new collaborations elsewhere, each time working closely with local industry professional, as is the case here in Brussels today.”

- Serge Lasvignes, President of the Centre Pompidou.

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Featured image: Citroën Garage Brussels, via xpats.com.