By Anne van Oosterwijk, Assistant Curator, Groeningemuseum and the Flemish Research Center for the Arts in the Burgundian Netherlands
To the congress theme of “Old Masters: Old-Fashioned?” the participants in CODART 21 will unhesitatingly say “No!” Their answer goes right to the heart of the problem facing the museum world at this point in time. Such is the passion for the Flemish and Dutch masters among those attending this Congress that many may find it hard to acknowledge that the average member of the public feels no such passion. Yet the fierce rejection of the premise also confirms that the lack of interest among the general public has nothing to do with the art itself, and everything to do with the communication surrounding it.
Bendor Grosvenor’s lecture on his successful TV show “Fake or Fortune,” in which artworks are examined to determine their authenticity, and Dutch TV shows such as “Oog van de meester,” in which the artist Charlotte Kaspers and a group of experts try to copy masterpieces, illustrate the public’s interest. These shows set out to answer the question: “What is that makes masterpieces so unique, and above all, why can’t everyone do this?” The mystique in which the great, peerless masters are shrouded is also clear from the blockbuster exhibitions that have been held in recent decades on Rembrandt (Berlin/ Amsterdam/London, 1991/2; London/Amsterdam 2015), Hans Memling (Bruges 1994 and Rome 2014), Johannes Vermeer (Washington/The Hague, 1995/6), Jan Van Eyck (Bruges 2002) and recently Michelangelo (New York, 2017/2018).
Events like these fall outside the usual pattern, however. First, there have been very few blockbuster exhibitions since the 1990s. Indeed, most museums cannot mount shows of this kind, either because of a lack of funds or infrastructure, or because of a lack of artworks in their own collection. The great challenge facing our sector is therefore not how to showcase the great masters, but how to introduce the public to lesser-known artists – how to retrieve them from obscurity by presenting new research and expertise. This calls for a concentrated effort on the part of exhibition makers and visitors alike. So the real challenge facing our field is to find ways to highlight the relevance of these lesser-known or even unknown masters to the experiences of our visitors.
There are countless ways of doing so, and many of them were discussed at the CODART Congress. They included the examples presented by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA) and the Frans Hals Museum. The KMSKA has adopted the strategy of working in part thematically in its new museum, thus steering visitors in a particular direction in their experience of the artworks. The Frans Hals Museum has decided to add contemporary artworks as interventions in its permanent collection, which will prompt new ways of looking at the Old Masters.
Although these initiatives will certainly add value to the visitor’s experience, I remain a committed advocate of in-depth, intelligent information. We must avoid insulting the public by limiting or “dumbing down” the information we disseminate. By providing information in layers, we enable visitors to decide how far they want to go. By building it up one step at a time, we can guide visitors through research findings, and – also important – we can bring up research questions that have only recently arisen or that remain unanswered. I am convinced that this provides a more enriching visitor experience, which is precisely what many visitors hope to achieve by going to a museum. Such an approach can fulfill those expectations.
But this is precisely the problem. The congress participants have all visited the exhibition Haute lecture by Colard Mansion at the Groeningemuseum, and some may have seen the one that preceded it, Pieter Pourbus and the Forgotten Masters. Both these shows highlighted lesser-known artists with remarkably impressive oeuvres that are important to art history. It may be easier to put on exhibitions like these in Bruges, with its steady stream of visitors, than elsewhere. The exhibitions are illuminated by informative pamphlets, thematic sentences for each cluster, object labels with extra explanatory texts, and an audio guide. In addition, both exhibitions were accompanied by scholarly catalogues, and for visitors who wanted more information but for whom the scholarly catalogue was too detailed or too expensive, there was an issue of the magazine Openbaar Kunstbezit Vlaanderen. These are the kinds of exhibitions that Musea Brugge and the Groeningemuseum want to make, and that are greatly valued – as visitor numbers and surveys bear out – by our target public. However, it is precisely these exhibitions, which take on such a dominant role, that constantly push the museum’s permanent collection into the background. Compared to such exhibitions, the information provided to the public about the permanent collection is meager and merits an update.
Musea Brugge stands on the threshold of a reorganization within which the way we inform the public about our permanent collection is an important point of emphasis. This will be one of the main tasks facing the new Public Affairs Department, which will set out to provide the public with layered information on research and facts relating to our collection, based on the information supplied by the new Collection Department. That this issue cannot be debated without the input of museum education officers, who have been trained to address different sections of the public, is clear from the important steps that have been taken in the information provided at the Gruuthuse Museum. This museum will be reopening in 2019 and will serve as the flagship and example for information and participation within and beyond Musea Brugge.
Finally, it is also important to take another look at the training of art historians. Many congress participants have expressed their concern that ever fewer students feel a strong connection with pre-modern art, and that the number of students majoring in this field continues to fall. Museums have a part to play in “making converts” to pre-modern art. Each one of us who completed an internship as part of our training will agree that this was a major formative influence. In the best cases, it confirmed that a particular major or specialization had been chosen wisely. In other, less fortunate cases, it led to a change of specialization or even to a different major of study. So it is essential that museums continue to offer internships within different departments and to actively recruit interns, to help create a new influx of gifted and enthusiastic museum professionals.
In addition, museums must dare to take on the role of training art history students. The theoretical courses provided at universities frequently provide little space for object-based research. Museums are the perfect places in which to conduct research of this kind. For this reason, Musea Brugge and the Flemish Research Center for the Arts in the Burgundian Netherlands have launched two initiatives: the Summer Course for the Arts in Flanders and the Musea Brugge Research School (MBRS). The Summer Course for the Arts in Flanders is a collaborative project of the Rubenianum, Ghent Museum of Fine Arts (MSK Gent), Museum M, KMSKA, the Catholic University of Leuven, the University of Ghent, and the Flemish Art Collection. It is intended for international PhD students, who come to Flanders for ten days, during which time they visit a great many different locations, meet specialists, and are immersed in lectures, debates, and workshops. In a five-year cycle, each of the main schools of art in Flanders is highlighted. This year, the focus is on fin-de-siècle art. In 2019, the sixteenth century will take center stage, and in 2020 it will be the turn – for the second time – of the Flemish Primitives.
Of even greater relevance in the context of this congress is the Musea Brugge Research School (MBRS), which will attract undergraduates and students in the early phase of their Master’s degree, who have not yet finalized their choice of specialization. Two intensive weekends will focus on the Flemish Primitives in the collection of the Groeningemuseum and the St. John’s Hospital Museum (Sint-Janshospitaal). By starting out from a specific object and going through all the information one step at a time (materials, archives, iconography, historical data, function, etc.) students are introduced to the detective work that constitutes object-based research. This generates real enthusiasm for the Flemish Primitives among the students, who come from the entire Benelux region, as well as from France, Germany, and Britain. Now that the course has run for two editions – and a third is planned for the autumn of 2018 – we can say that the majority of the students, partly through the experience gained at the MBRS – are opting to specialize in the art of the Old Masters. A few have even chosen to continue to study the collection of the Groeningemuseum. This example shows that it is sometimes that one extra experience outside the beaten path that can lead a young art historian to develop a real commitment to the field. These are the ambassadors who will convey the message to subsequent generations that there is nothing whatsoever “old-fashioned” about the Old Masters.