We all know that the cultural sector is suffering greatly from the corona crisis, but we usually think of the theatre and music sector. That many visual artists are also at risk of going under is less well known. With the campaign ‘Art belongs to everyone’ and the exhibition ‘The Constant Glitch’, M focuses attention on this issue and supports emerging artists.
If nothing is done, a whole generation of artists will disappear.
At the end of 2020, M joined forces with the City of Leuven and Cera to purchase work by contemporary artists who have a link to Belgium. The museum also launched a crowdfunding campaign through its own fund M-LIFE. The selection was in the hands of a committee of four experts: Eva Wittocx and Valerie Verhack from M, Hicham Khalidi (director Jan van Eyck Academy Maastricht) and Louis-Philippe Van Eeckhoutte (independent curator from Brussels). They explain the project.
How do visual artists make a living in normal times?
Louis-Philippe: “That depends on the course of their career. In the beginning, grants and subsidies are often important. They give artists a chance to get started. As attention grows, sales follow, and commissions for public spaces or institutions follow. Many artists also teach.”
Eva: “Or they have another job to support themselves, for example in the catering industry. Actually, only the happy few can make a full-time living from their art.”
Louis-Philippe: “For many artists, the financial situation was not easy to start with, but because of corona, their income stream has completely dried up: exhibitions are cancelled, purchases are put off or postponed. Creating new works also becomes more difficult, because the money to buy materials and rent a studio may no longer be there.”
Valerie: “We notice that some artists quit, or take a break. They look for another job, just to survive. They have lost all perspective.”
Hicham: “It has been completely disruptive, on all levels. You sometimes hear that there will be a generational gap, a generation of artists who will fall by the wayside.”
“Corona has brought into focus an issue that has been debated for a long time: how do you pay artists. Can they do the work they want to do, and still make enough money at the same time? In the 1970s and 1980s, this was solved by the government buying work. That way, everyone ended up getting paid, but that’s not a solution either.”
“This art purchase by M is a very good signal. The museum is thus paving the way for further reflection on remuneration. Because what we have always taken for granted may not be the best way.”
It is not easy to select works of art if you are not allowed to visit a studio or if you cannot put your heads together. How did you go about it?
Eva: “Through online meetings. We wanted to select interesting voices, with a fascinating body of work and a relevant theme. Artists also who could do with some support – who are at a point in their career where we hope we can make a difference. Each of us submitted names based on our own expertise. We discussed this and came to a longlist of about forty artists. The next step was to turn that into a shortlist, look at the works in a little more detail and delve even deeper into the background information. Finally, we looked at which works of art were suitable for acquisition.”
Valerie: “The project is about supporting artists. So we always start from oeuvres that we find relevant. Only then do we look at the individual works that are available for purchase.”
Louis-Philippe: “You don’t necessarily have to go and see them in a studio, the four of us. There is always one of us who has seen them in real life. That is also the richness of selecting with the four of us: we each have our own network, from which we can bring things in. Conversely, we have all four become better acquainted with oeuvres and artists we were less familiar with.”
This art acquisition by M is a very good signal. The museum is paving the way for further reflection on the remuneration of artists.
What criteria did you have to arrive at the shortlist?
Eva: “There were almost no real formal criteria. The link with Belgium had to be there, and of course we paid attention to quality. We mainly tried to inform and convince each other. But it is always about existing works. It is not a creative assignment.”
Louis-Philippe: “There are no restrictions on the medium either. Everything is possible: painting, sculpture, film, installations... It is a very free and open project.”
Hicham: “We do take care to respect balances: people from different backgrounds, roughly equal numbers of men and women...”
Valerie: “We also focused on what the acquisition means for M. The works will end up in the museum’s collection and Cera’s, and they will be shown in M. You make a choice at the moment, you offer financial support, but what does it mean in the longer term?”
One of the core values of M is that we work directly with artists. We engage with them and see how we can play a role in their careers.
So do the works have to fit into M’s collection?
Valerie: “M has a very diverse collection. We preserve and display the Cera art collection – mainly Belgian works from the 1950s to the present day. There are also contemporary works that the Flemish Community has loaned to the museum. Then we have the collection of M itself. It consists of 52,000 objects, mainly ancient art, including utensils, coins, printed matter... It is difficult to fit them in one by one.
Eva: “One of the core values of M is that we work directly with artists. We mainly present monographic exhibitions, with work by a single artist. We talk to them and see how we can play a role in their careers. This acquisition project fits in perfectly with our policy: we choose artists, trajectories, oeuvres...”.
How many artists have you been able to support?
Valerie: “Once we had made the selection, we started talking to the artists. In the end, we were able to acquire works by 19 artists, thanks in part to crowdfunding through M-LIFE.”
How did you compose the expert committee?
Eva: “Valerie and I looked at who best complemented our knowledge and networks. Louis-Philippe has a background in the gallery business. He visits a lot of studios and knows the young Belgian generation very well. He has also made some great exhibitions around them. Hicham has a slightly more international profile and has more links with art schools – so with beginners.”
Valerie: “We thought it was important to open up the project. We could have kept it within M, but that would not have been a good idea. As a museum, we don’ claim to have all the expertise in-house.”
How would you describe your own profile?
Eva: “Art is more than our work, it is our life. In our free time, we visit many exhibitions and studios, we follow national and international current events, we know what is happening in art schools.... It’s kind of our biotope. That’s why we knew how hard the corona crisis had hit the artists’ world.”
Finally, are there already concrete plans with the 19 acquired works?
Eva: “From April to September, we are running an exhibition in which we present the new works: ‘The Constant Glitch’. We hope to be able to organise a corresponding programme of lectures. That will of course depend on the circumstances.”
Valerie: “Afterwards, the works will also be shown in our collection presentations – at M, these are transhistorical: they contain old and contemporary art. So the purchase is also a commitment on our part: we will continue to show these pieces.”
Where does the money come from?
The City of Leuven and Cera each supported the project with 50,000 euros. Almost 200 people together deposited another 15,000 euros via the M-LIFE crowdfunding campaign – an incredible success! Thanks to their donations, M was able to support additional artists. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the project, also on behalf of the artists.
How can I help?
The crowdfunding campaign has ended, but it is still possible to support M-LIFE and make other projects possible. All donations are welcome; amounts from 40 euros are tax deductible.
Who are the artists?
Works by Leyla Aydoslu, Younes Baba-Ali, Béatrice Balcou, Christiane Blattmann, Aleksandra Chaushova, Dieter Durinck, Alexis Gautier, Hamza Halloubi, Olivia Hernaïz, Vedran Kopljar, Katja Mater, Hana Miletić, Meggy Rustamova, Mostafa Saifi Rahmouni, Kato Six, Gintauté Skvernyté, Ken Verhoeven, Oriol Vilanova and Anna Zacharoff have been acquired.