Melanie Deboutte

We catch Melanie on a Friday morning while she’s explaining her evening plans to a friend on the phone: going to Social Harmony to see the Matthieu Ronsse weekend show and to an opening in Convent, a former convent school now turned into an art space by Wouter De Vleeschouwer and Jeroen Staes. Melanie is a freelance curator who has just opened the exhibition Charivari in the Church of our Lady of Pamele in Oudenaarde, a contemporary appendix to the historical Adriaen Brouwer exhibition at MOU. In the past Melanie has worked with Jan Hoet on DE ZEE, for S.M.A.K., at Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, as a studio manager for Dirk Braeckman; now she’s working part-time at Kristof De Clercq gallery. Although only 30, she gained a lot of experience and developed an interesting vision on the local scene in Ghent.

Interview by Herlinde Raeman
Photos shot by Tiny Geeroms at Kristof De Clercq Gallery
current exhibition : Jeff McMillan – Dark Parade

What galleries and art spaces are you keeping an eye on in Ghent?

I always like going to KIOSK, they’ve done very interesting things in the past years and the location is very beautiful. I try to attend the openings at Convent who also create small but surprising and thoroughly made presentations. Tonight is the first time I’m going to Social Harmony – after planning to go for so long! – because I fiercely support the smaller initiatives. I hope these artist-run spaces will pop up more often since I believe we are a little bit behind compared to, let’s say, Antwerp and Brussels. Antwerp has a long history of experimental art spaces and Brussels has a much more international feel. Ghent is small, it’s more like a village where everyone knows each other. However, I see a young generation of artists ready to cross borders. I hope we can stimulate a flow in between the three cities, and, even better, beyond the national border.

You see, I saw all corners of the art world in Belgium before ending up here

How long do you work here at the gallery?

Only since the beginning of this year, but I was already helping out last year once in a while. The gallery is growing. Kristof opened in 2012, combining a separate exhibition space with the private kitchen of his home, where the exhibition usually continues. That gives a friendlier and more intimate atmosphere, and we feel visitors like that. The openings here are always crowded; we have a regular audience showing up.

About two years ago I started my own projects next to my regular ‘job’, like writing texts for young artists, curating exhibitions like PASS and Charivari and digging into archives, specifically the personal archives of Jan Hoet. After his passing I maintained a good rapport with his family. Shortly thereafter I collaborated with Katerina Gregos on her project Cabinet d’Amis at Art Brussels in 2016, where we brought together archival documents and artworks from Jan’s private collection. I realised early on that the ‘chaos’ Hoet left behind actually contains sources that lead to important Belgian art history.

Those were the years when Jan Hoet was battling for his ‘own’ place

Amidst this whole research project I wrote a text for the catalogue of the current James Lee Byars exhibition The Perfect Kiss in M HKA. In 1980-1981 Hoet had a plan to organize a solo show for James Lee Byars at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent and I found a lot of letters from Byars to Hoet stating his proposals and ideas for the exhibition. I searched for the exact reasons why that show didn’t happen, which turned out to be tremendous expectations from the artist versus a terribly small budget and strong headwinds from the city administration. The estimate for the production of the show was the same amount as the budget for purchasing artworks in one whole year. Those were the years when Jan Hoet was battling for his ‘own’ place: from 1975 to 1998 the Museum of Contemporary Art was located in the back rooms of the Museum of Fine Arts. Hoet had to defend every exhibition project separately to the city government in order to get the funds, and you can feel his driven engagement in the letters. In my text I made a reconstruction of the whole story: from the first meeting between Byars and Hoet in 1976 until the final decision of the director of the culture department of the city of Ghent to nullify the plans in the spring of 1981.

I believe people don’t realise how interesting this city was and still is

There has yet to be any nuanced peer-reviewed research conducted about Belgium’s recent contemporary art history, except for the work that has been done by the stubborn and laborious team of De Witte Raaf, as well as the great publication from Wide White Space gallery in Antwerp produced about their own history. In the 1970s Ghent was very avant-garde; the first museum of contemporary art in Belgium was founded in Ghent in 1975. I believe people don’t realize how interesting this city was and still is. Especially for a younger generation who, I believe, should be informed about the roots of their own artistic production and interests. The art scene was much smaller and more compact than it is today. In the late 1960s, American artists like Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and James Lee Byars arrived on European grounds and an extremely interesting exchange happened with artists like Jan Dibbets, Daniel Buren and Marcel Broodthaers, to name only a few. This avant-garde scene was traveling between Düsseldorf, Eindhoven, Amsterdam, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp, with only some of these ‘hotspots’ in Western Europe. I feel more and more people from my own generation find their way to this partly unwritten history and I dearly hope this will result in future research and a thorough exhibition and a publication – something I very much hope to be part of!

In the meantime, I enjoy working with Kristof De Clercq. This is the kind of gallery that chooses to work very closely with artists, personally and thoroughly, instead of presenting a group show with works that do not hold any similarities save for a certain visual language. For example, Kristof presented Honoré ∂’O in a quite legendary project called VIBRATIONS OFf. He transformed the gallery into an atelier where Honoré and other young artists were free to fill up the spaces from floor to ceiling. This way of working is my personal breeding ground: it all happens there. What artists are doing, where they are going, how they are exchanging and influencing each other, conflicts, discussions… Artists are always in the front line to pick up on new evolutions in the art world, as well as to comment on society. The rest of the art world follows (or should follow) artists: that is just the way it is. Antwerp, for instance, is currently a fascinating hotspot with many good artists gathering there.

I feel the responsibility to show and to defend the work of the younger and lesser-known or ‘forgotten’ artists. When you consider the art world in Belgium today, you first see artists who are still determining everything, like Berlinde De Bruyckere, Michael Borremans and Luc Tuymans, artists who have been in the spotlight for years now, and for clear reasons. It is difficult for a new generation to enter the scene and get the chance they deserve since everything seems to be driven by market interests. You see the same phenomenon elsewhere, like in museums: most of the artistic directors have been sitting in on their ‘throne’ for decades and are there to stay, without really introducing new approaches or horizons.

It is difficult for a new generation to enter the scene and get the chance they deserve since everything seems to be driven by market interests

The new generation is battling for positions and funds and since they so often fall by the wayside, they open their own art spaces with very limited funds. I think it’s very important to pay attention to this environment, where there is still room for free experimentation, and to have a taste of the art of tomorrow. We need to support our young artists, and so does the government. Young artists tend to look for a gallery as soon as possible in order to survive; I think it should be the other way around. Galleries need to follow artists. What sells today is not always what is most interesting, but these thoughts are influencing the work of young artists nowadays. Art education should be supporting the young to find their own voice without making any compromises, so they can tell their own story, and at the same time be well-informed about art history. Therefore places like Social Harmony, Convent, In De Ruimte and Gouvernement are very important because they work bottom up. They also bring people from different scenes (art, design, photography, music,…) together in one place and this a breeding ground for interesting crossovers.

The people from 019 & Nucleo and the new Kunsthal Gent, based in the former Caermersklooster, are taking up an exemplary role in this. I’m looking forward to finding out what shapes and size this new ‘Kunsthalle’ will take on. They have a very interesting vision when putting an exhibition together. Their way of working is very hybrid; as a collective they work with artists, graphic designers, musicians,… things are brooding there. There is action and reaction. That’s very important: reflection. If you can share your visions openly, whether they be positive or negative, you can really re-think and start to react. In a time where art criticism has died a slow death, we absolutely need critical voices to step forward, instead of always patting each other on the back.

I feel a younger generation with a much more critical pen is ready to put everyone on their toes again

The only thing you read about in newspapers today, are the major blockbuster shows in the institutional museums, and it seems journalists are taken care of very well by the ‘art elite’ since they are always so positive about everything they see. I hope for and actually feel a younger generation with a much more critical pen is ready to help create a new discourse on contemporary art and to challenge the art world much more, to put everyone on their toes again.

as always, the changes will be appearing bottom up

I really believe in a bright future for Ghent when it comes to contemporary art. I was born in West Flanders but I feel very connected to and at home in this small but fruitful city. You have a lot of art schools and the university. There is S.M.A.K. and Design Museum Gent and there are art spaces big and small. Going further, the lovely Leie area is only 20 minutes south of Ghent and includes Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle and other art spaces in East Flanders such as Loods12 in Wetteren. Some people claim that the exciting avant-garde times for Ghent are over, that nothing really happens here anymore and one should move to Antwerp or Brussels to really plunge into the center of contemporary art in Belgium. I couldn’t agree less, although it is true Ghent has retreated a bit to the ‘margin’ the past couple of years. But I refuse to abandon the ship, as I feel that there is a fertile soil for artists to start interesting and experimental projects here. Ghent is ready for a breath of fresh air and as always, the changes will be appearing bottom up.

Gent Matinees takes place on 21 October from 11u – 18h. Most of the galeries, off-spaces and musea in Ghent are opening their doors for free. Take a look at the website to see the participants.