Collective effort: Ghent’s new visual arts library takes shape


The library, scheduled to open in 2017, will bring together collections from four of the city’s artistic institutions

Down to a fine art

A new visual arts library is being developed in Ghent that brings together books and journals from four of the city’s artistic institutions. Housed in a restored medieval building on the Bijloke site, to the south of the city centre, it will offer a new resource to students, researchers and the public.

“I hope the library will work for the students in an academic way and become somewhere they can retire from the world and have a moment for reflection,” says Wim De Temmerman, dean of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (Kask) and the Royal Conservatory. “But I also hope it will be somewhere we can address the public and create an interaction with the students.”

The library will also be a resource for artists and researchers, particularly those pursuing practice-based PhDs. “Art history and the sociology of the arts will be part of the library, of course, but the focus will be on the work of the artist and the reflections and publications that come out of the arts,” says De Temmerman.

The project began with Kask’s need to improve its library facilities on the Bijloke campus of University College Ghent, its parent institution. Informal discussions with Smak, the city’s museum of contemporary art, soon led to a proposal for a joint library project, combining their strengths.

Kask dates back to 1751 and has a collection of books, journals and other documents that reflects this long engagement with the visual arts. Smak’s library is devoted to contemporary art, with a strong focus on the 1960s and ’70s, when it was created.

Perfect match

“In fact, the collections are quite complementary,” says De Temmerman. “We’ve been happy to find that there isn’t a huge overlap, and the librarians are now making decisions about what to do with duplicates.”

While this cataloguing and comparison was in progress, two other institutions joined the project. One is Ghent’s Design Museum, with a library that naturally complements the arts collections at Kask and Smak. Cataloguing its collection should be complete in the next six to eight months.

The fourth partner is the Higher Institute for Fine Arts (Hisk), a post-graduate art school that moved to Ghent from Antwerp in 2007. It has a much smaller library than the others but a valuable focus on the school’s alumni. 

The focus will be on the work of the artist and the reflections and publications that come out of the arts

- Wim De Temmerman

“A lot of contemporary artists in Belgium, and worldwide, studied at Hisk, and the library has followed their work and publications,” says De Temmerman. This includes internationally known artists such as David Claerbout, Vincent Meessen and Hans Op De Beeck, along with rising stars such as Rinus Van de Velde.

The building chosen for the library dates back to the middle ages and was originally the residence of the abbess of the Bijloke Abbey. The abbey and its hospital are the oldest parts of the Bijloke site, which expanded over the centuries with the addition of other religious and medical buildings.

The House of the Abbess also changed over time, becoming a three-storey building with a steeply pitched roof. Its last role was as a women’s clinic, part of Ghent’s medical school. 

Old building, new form

In the 1990s, the Bijloke was redeveloped as an arts complex, becoming home to Kask, Ghent’s City Museum (Stam), the Bijloke concert hall and a number of performing arts organisations. During this time, the House of the Abbess stood empty, although the covered passage that once allowed her private access to the abbey was restored as an exhibition space. Cut short by Stam’s entry hall, this long, low building will be one way into the new library.

Structural work on the House of the Abbess itself is now complete, along with a first phase of interior design. The renovated rooms are light and open. It feels modern, rather than an old building bought back to life, although some rooms in the second phase of renovation will feature original roof beams. 

The concept is that there will be a lot reading spaces, rather than one reading room and then the library

- Wim De Temmerman

“The concept of the library is that there will be a lot reading spaces, all over the building, rather than one reading room and then the library,” says De Temmerman. Recent books and journals, along with older volumes that are most in demand will be kept in the library itself, on approximately 1,500 metres of open bookshelves. The rest of the collection will be stored nearby, in an archive with 3,000m of shelving.

Furniture for the library has been designed by professor Toon Heyndrickx and student Jonas Van de Geuchte from Kask’s department of interior design. It is currently being built and will be installed over the winter. Then the books will move in, with a festive opening ceremony scheduled for the spring of 2017.

The budget for the project is €3 million, paid for by University College Ghent. The building itself remains city property, but Kask and the other partners can use it rent-free for 50 years.