CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Piet Holthuis at CODART DRIE

Today, 500 years after he was born not far from here in the city of Ghent, a lot is being written about Emperor Charles V. He has been described in many different ways. Sometimes he is said to have been the last medieval man, sometimes – and this is rather contradictory – as the herald of a new age. Some believe Charles V to be in the first place a son of Flanders, while other see him – and this is not contradictory at all – as a great historical figure, belonging to the world at large.

Whoever he was, ladies and gentlemen, in 1548 Charles V brought together the countries of the old Habsburg Netherlands in the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands. To my view, that indeed was a pioneering venture in national integration. Although this construction did not last for very long – and today we will not go into the reasons why – it nonetheless was a daring and inspiring move that continues to speak to the imagination of political idealists as well as realists. In the 20th century, it was once more the Low Countries that took the lead in bringing about political consolidation in Europe. The Benelux Union was an important forerunner of the European Union. Our countries were also founding members of the European Steel and Coal Union, the direct predecessor of the European Union.

Well, steel and coal have now been piled together and divided up. So have cheese and milk, herring and codfish, and guilders and francs are coming next. As this has been going on, the relative importance of products like these – even that of currency – has been steadily declining, while that of immaterial goods has been rising. Information, knowledge and human skills are the most valuable commodities in today’s market. This development has not been lost on us at the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, and we are trying to deal with the tumultuous results as best we can.

By their very nature, these immaterial commodities are not bound to places on the map, the way coal and steel are. Therefore, governments and other organizations dealing with information and science tend to be multinational or international in outlook if not in organization. For culture, the situation is not that different in principle, but it has been lagging behind. Cultural policy is still mainly national. The Directorate of the European Union that deals with culture, DC X, is the smallest and weakest of the directorates. However, the need for international cooperation is very real.

For this reason alone, our ministry has always showed a sincere interest in the rise of cultural networks in Europe. Cultural networks, in our view, offer new models for international cooperation. They bring together experts from different countries, thereby emphasizing pragmatic forms of cooperation rather than institutional ones. Networks have various functions: the exchange of information and expertise, the development of new policy discussions, the defense of professional interest, lobbying on political levels and not in the last place the formulation and execution of common projects.

The Netherlands Council for Culture has recently underlined the important role nowadays being played by cultural networks in international cultural relations. The Council has launched a request to the Netherlands government not only to intensify its support to these networks, but also to underline their possible role on a European level, that is within the European Union Council for Culture.

I am sure that the Netherlands State Secretary for Culture, Rick van der Ploeg, is well prepared to stress again the importance of cultural networks in meetings of the European Union Council of Ministers. But earlier experiences in the European Union have taught us not be very optimistic: in recent years neither the European Commission nor the European Union member states have given much support to cultural networks. In our view they underestimate the crucial role these networks might well play in the execution of the European Union cultural program. In short, up to now the Netherlands has been in a rather isolated position in its strong support for cultural networks.

On the other hand, I must also note that recent years have shown a huge proliferation of cultural networks in various sectors of culture. On occasion different networks apply for the same kind of support for the execution of the same kind of functions. The Netherlands Ministry of Culture, standing alone in its European position on this issue and being confronted with the proliferation of networks, is stressing more and more the need of co-financing by other member states and/or the European Commission.

Needless to say, this also has meaning for CODART. Yours is a very interesting organization. It deals in a concrete and effective way with the international dimension of art from the Netherlands. The material lends itself for a network-like approach. The art of the Netherlands was always international, as much in its patronage and production as in its place on the art market, the museum world and the exhibition circuit. I am sure that each of you every day has contact with colleagues, art collectors or dealers from abroad. Moreover, the art of the Netherlands is divided more evenly over many countries than the art say of Italy. Because so much great Italian art is attached to buildings, the Italian situation is more like coal and steel, while the portable objects of Dutch and Flemish art are more like information. This is another reason for us to keep an eye on what CODART is doing. It could provide a model for other kinds of cultural networking.

CODART was begun in the Netherlands, and until now it has been funded nearly exclusively by the Dutch government, clearly on the basis of the considerations I just mentioned. The main decisions concerning this funding have been made by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs jointly. However, exactly because CODART is an international organization, we feel that in the long run it should grow into a body that is financed and administered on a broader basis than by Dutch funds alone. The first partner would be, understandably enough, the Flemish Community. Not only is the cultural material close, but cultural experts in Flanders and the Netherlands speak the same language and have a history of cultural cooperation. But the cultural heritage of the Low Countries is in many respects also a European, not to say a World Heritage. Support and commitment in CODART therefore should not come from the Netherlands or Flanders alone.

As international as our culture is, there is one Dutch habit that seems to be completely unique in the world. When a Ph.D. dissertation is defended at a Dutch university, it is generally accompanied by a certain number of apodictic statements known as “stellingen”, theses. Some of these make their way to the papers. Saturday a week ago the NRC Handelsblad printed the following stelling by Dr. E.B. Bellers of the Technical University in Delft: “Samenwerking komt eerder tot stand door een gemeenschappelijk doel dan door de wens tot samenwerking.” Cooperation is better effected by a common goal than by the will to cooperate.

In coming to Antwerp to speak of Dutch-Flemish cooperation, we know what our goals are. One goal is to strengthen the role of CODART by pleading for broader forms of support from Flanders, from other countries, from international organizations. Another goals, from the viewpoint of our ministry, is to underline the common cultural interests shared by the Netherlands and Flanders and to emphasize the need for reinforce cultural cooperation in order to mark our spot on the cultural map of Europe. To work on that cultural profile is all the more important as the European integration process continues. This creates a special responsibility to preserve the rich cultural diversity of Europe, to which the Low Countries have contributed so much.

Therefore it seems logical to me that with respect to the aims of CODART the Netherlands and Flanders will find each other in at least some form of cooperation. Taking into account the aims of CODART – to stimulate the display and museology of art from the Netherlands worldwide – we are presumptuous enough to feel that this must also be an aim of the Flemish government. We know that various initiatives have been undertaken in Flanders to further the museology of Flemish art abroad. I believe it is advantageous and also possible to pile the Dutch and Flemish interests into one basket and work on this project jointly. From the part of the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science we will give support to such a process of closer cooperation. But again, cooperation and responsibilities should not be confined to the Netherlands and Flanders alone. The basis under CODART must be broadened and strengthened. Also in that respect we are prepared to offer you support.

Ladies and gentlemen, I must say that, much to my regret, I am not able to participate in the journey you are going to undertake into the Spanish life of Emperor Charles V. It will be a beautiful and successful trip. So is the general mission of CODART: beautiful and also – as I hope – very successful indeed.