Antwerp’s M HKA reopens with new look and direction

Summary

After an architectural overhaul, the exhibition space is being relaunched as a leading institution for contemporary art

The heart of art

With a festive weekend at the end of April, the Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA) in Antwerp has reopened following a period of renovation.

Visitors are now welcomed in an entrance hall that functions as an open library, with free access to a selection of art books. A long wooden table and various shades of brown have replaced the cold white usually associated with contemporary art.

The reading room was arranged by Antwerp gallerist and designer Axel Vervoordt, who also invited Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki to draw up a small permanent presentation of the M HKA collection. Inspired by the tokonoma, a space in traditional Japanese interior decoration devoted to highly appreciated art objects, Miki has designed a grey-coloured labyrinth that makes full use of a fairly limited surface area.

In this intimate, warm-hearted setting, Flemish artists such as Panamarenko, Jan Fabre, Lili Dujourie and Luc Tuymans can be found next to Gordon Matta-Clark, Cindy Sherman and other international artists from M HKA’s own collection. This permanent selection is complemented by two temporary set-ups in which works from their collection will interact. 

Self-confidence

Both the library and the presentation of the collection can be visited for free, in line with what Vervoordt wanted the new M HKA entrance to express: “I want people to feel welcome and say: This is my museum!”

With the architectural overhaul of its entrance, M HKA has also formulated a new mission. “We’re at long last taking another step towards becoming a museum, a real institution for contemporary art,” says general director and artistic leader Bart De Baere. “For the past 10 years, we’ve been an exhibition space, but we want to be part of a turn towards fully fledged museums of contemporary arts in Flanders.”

I want people to feel welcome and say: This is my museum!

- Axel Vervoordt

De Baere sees M HKA playing a vital role in this catch-up operation. “Historically, Flanders has trailed behind in its development of museums,” he says. “In the past few years, museums of fine arts and municipal history have caught up, and now finally museums of contemporary art are being given opportunities to develop as well.”

With the library as a “new heart of art” and their self-confident positioning (“M HKA has the most important collection in Western Europe of contemporary art from the former Soviet sphere,” according to De Baere), M HKA wants to link local and international interests. It’s no coincidence, then, that M HKA’s new mission depends on support from the Flemish government’s departments of both culture and tourism.

The renovation is the first finished project in the “Flemish Masters” programme, which will in the not-too-distant future also include the reopening of the Fine Arts Museum in Antwerp, the full restoration of the Van Eyck brothers’ “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” in Ghent and other projects intended to attract tourists from across the globe.

Evolution and evaluation

This international focus is not new, of course. In 2009, when the one-time grain warehouse had its previous renovation and MUHKA dropped the “U” from its name, then-minister of culture Joke Schauvliege called it “a lighthouse beaming far across our borders”.

But, then again, at the time De Baere described M HKA as “a really fresh museum”, and not an exhibition space, while lauding its new coat of (white) paint…

Taking a next step in their constant process of evolution and evaluation, the M HKA team can justly boast about the new look. They realise, of course, that with this renewal comes a daunting task. 

Museums of contemporary art are finally being given opportunities to develop as well

- M HKA director Bart De Baere

“We don’t want to become a franchise, like Liège, where huge infrastructural investments weren’t met with a strong curating policy,” says De Baere, referring to La Boverie, the city’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which outsources its programming to the Louvre.

In the meantime, discussions about M HKA possibly having to move to another location in Antwerp, or expanding at the current one, aren’t entirely off the table, even though the reopening is also the start of the Flanders Centre for Art Archives there.

This project, which will be fully operational in 2019, will function as both an exhibition space and a hub of knowledge for archivists and administers of artists’ estates. Who better than Flemish artist Jef Geys, who turns archives into art, and back into archives, to inaugurate this new section with newspaper clippings, drawings and other items from his archival box Golfoorlog 1991 (Gulf War 1991).

M HKA’s second floor is still reserved for large exhibitions and currently welcomes A Temporary Futures Institute, a group show of contemporary artists and professional futurologists. The screaming colours painted from top to bottom on the museum walls seem to be fishing rather obviously for a flair of renewal.

Make no mistake, M HKA has a bright future ahead.

A Temporary Futures Institute, until 17 September, M HKA, Leuvenstraat 32, Antwerp