As of February 1 2016, work began to combine two of Antwerp’s most highly regarded not-for-profit institutions, Extra City Kunsthal and Objectif Exhibitions, into a single institution.
The merger, which by February 2017 aims to unite the boards and programmes of the respective institutions and eventually bring them under the same roof, will be overseen by Antony Hudek, co-founder of publishing house Occasional Papers, Curator at Large at Raven Row, London, UK, and the current director of Objectif.
Harry Thorne spoke to Hudek about the origins and objectives of the project, and the growing concerns over state funding in Belgium.
HT How did the decision to merge Objectif Exhibitions and Extra City Kunsthal come about?
AH The two non-profit institutions have been working in close contact for some time, but when I became director of Objectif Exhibitions in July of last year I was told that something was in the air.
There were a few precipitating factors, and one that we can’t avoid mentioning is the departure of Extra City Kunsthal’s director, Mihnea Mircan, at the end of last year. It was unexpected, but it actually accelerated what might have otherwise taken a long time. It allowed us to see if we could bring together our respective assets after so many years spent working in tandem.
It was an unfortunate situation, but it was also thought of as a moment to seize. The boards of Objectif and Extra City started talking and it was thought that if there were things that needed to be addressed at both institutions, then maybe this could be done conjointly, maybe more effectively, and maybe at a quicker pace.
HT You mentioned that Mihnea’s departure was particularly significant because both institutions were in the process of applying for state funding.
AH Both Extra City and Objectif are almost entirely supported by the Flemish Community, and so these applications, which are required every five years, are maybe more important than in the UK, because the actual survival of the institution is at stake. We’re seeing it increasingly across the cultural sector in Belgium: the threats are not empty; they – National Ministry of Culture of Flanders – are drastically cutting down on funding for the arts. Everyone in Belgium is currently anxiously awaiting the results of the applications.
HT As information about the merger has already been circulated, one can assume that both Objectif and Extra City are confident of receiving funding?
AH I think it would be disingenuous to say that the merger was unrelated to the politics in our sector, but it was also meant to signal that we’re not dependant on political whims: we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we feel this is the best for both institutions.
Two members of the Objectif board have been there for a very long time. They have seen the institution grow, and to take the plunge in such a way at such a politically sensitive point in its development definitely shows some confidence.
HT The combining of the two institutions is due to be completed in 2017. What is the strategy for the coming year?
AH The first move is for the boards, the staff and the director to come together into a single institutional body, and very soon after that we will begin programming together. The two institutions were talking before the merger was even mentioned, so each knows what the other is planning and therefore it should be quite organic. The final piece of the puzzle will be to work under one roof at some point in the future.
HT A lot has been made of Objectif and Extra City’s contrasting programmes. Will you aim to preserve these respective identities in the new space?
AH It’s true that because of certain historical reasons the two institutions have focused on different aspects of exhibition making. Complex, large-scale group shows were something that Mihnea and his predecessor did particularly well at Extra City, whereas the solo show has really been Objectif’s trademark, that and a testing of exhibition formats. These areas are, to some degree, complimentary, so ideally we will create an institution that can be agile enough to do both, where the two strains can be brought into play with one another.
There are certain things that have made both Objectif and Extra City special, particularly a close attention to the needs of artists. That’s something that we don’t want to lose, so we’ll be very careful in that regard, to not become a big institution that forgets its roots.
HT Can you talk more broadly about the current state of art institutions in Antwerp?
AH It’s well balanced, and many fear that the cuts will affect that ecology. M HKA fulfils the function of the museum of modern and contemporary art; then you have Extra City operating within the kunsthalle model, as a non-collecting institution, and Objectif, which is maybe more nimble – not an alternative space exactly, but something like it. Then there are other important institutions like the Middelheim Museum and LLS 387, so in fact there are a number of spaces that each has its own function.
This diversity made a merging of Extra City and Objectif possible, because while there’s maybe not enough space between the two to justify complete autonomy from one another, we can presume that LLS 387, for example, will continue to present its small but very high-quality shows, and that M HKA will continue with its mostly international programme.
HT Do you believe that this model of merging non-profit institutions could be applied elsewhere, in London, for example?
AH In Belgium, the single-source funding allows for a certain mobility between institutions, whereas a number of spaces in London that I admire – The Showroom, for example – have to rely on private patrons and numerous funding applications as well as Arts Council funding, so it’s a much more complex mosaic.
I think the model could be applied, but I would say that things are actually moving in the other direction. Increasingly, I think, we will be faced with situations that demand that we diversify, that we relieve some of the pressure from one funder, say, and seek alternatives. It’s unfortunate because it will force institutions like ours, small in terms of staff but large in ambition, to devote time and energy to secure one’s livelihood when in fact our strengths lie elsewhere than in accounting – not that we don’t account well!