The museum of fine arts today

Nico van Hout

Museums of fine art were established in the 19th century to educate the bourgeoisie or to provide models for art students. After education was democratized, the awareness grew that public support for museums was no longer as self-evident as it had once been. To reinvent the museum of fine art and adapt it to the needs of contemporary society, from the 1960s on directors and curators explored different ways of attracting public attention. Museum shops and restaurants were installed; works of art were acquired; and exhibitions were planned with a specific audience in mind. The choice of the (uncreative? traditionalist?) curator was replaced by that of an artist in residence, a public relations director, and interior designer.

These solutions were all inspired by marketing visions claiming to meet the visitor’s expectations. Satisfying the visitor became the benchmark of museum policy, and museum operations became visitor- rather than collection-oriented. In the end, rivalry between museums became even greater than it had been before. Museums now compete with an enormous variety of activities that can also fill the visitor’s spare time: “shall we go to the swimming pool, a football match, a rock concert, … the shopping mall or the museum?”

Key questions are:
• Should museum policy be collection rather than institution- or visitor-oriented?
• Is explaining art a curator’s primary goal?

About Nico van Hout

Nico van Hout studied art history at Ghent University (1989) and restoration and painting conservation at the Nationaal Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp (1991). In 1995 he received his Ph.D. from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven for his thesis on The functions of deadcolor with special attention on underpainting and other underlayers in the work of Pieter Paul Rubens. From 1994-1998 he worked as a scientific assistant at the Rubenianum in Antwerp. In 1999 he participated in the research and restoration of the Oranjezaal at Huis ten Bosch Palace in The Hague. Van Hout’s area of expertise includes unfinished paintings, underpainting, Rubens’ painting technique as well as his prints and drawings. Since 2001 he has been organizing exhibitions and working as a curator at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp.