Dhondt-Dhaenens Garden Party to fund expansion


The museum in rural East Flanders was founded by lovers of Flemish modernist painters, but that hasn’t stopped it from exhibiting more experimental work

Ahead of its time

After a long career as an entrepreneur who started off selling potatoes, Jules Dhondt wanted to create a public forum where he and his wife, Irma Dhaenens, could display the art they had accumulated since the 1920s.

Dhondt was born in 1889, when French was still the dominant language in Belgium. As a patron of the Flemish Movement that argued for the region’s greater autonomy, he strongly believed that art could “culturally uplift” the Flemish people.

“My wellbeing is due in part to the people of Flanders,” he once said, “so I have to give a part of it back to them.”

In the 1960s, matters related to culture officially came under Flanders’ jurisdiction, but none of the larger cities like Ghent or Antwerp could boast a contemporary art museum of their own. Dhondt, however, asked the young architect Erik Van Biervliet to design a museum on a plot of land by the Leie river in rural Deurle, now part of Sint-Martens-Latem, near Ghent.

The Dhondt-Dhaenens Museum was Van Biervliet’s first major commission. Inaugurated in 1968, the modest brick building stretched out on an extensive field of grass, with glass windows letting in plenty of natural light.

Dhondt didn’t get to enjoy it for long. He died less than a year later, leaving the management of the museum in the hands of his wife, who passed away four years later.

Branching out

For decades, the couple had collected mainly Flemish artists, with a preference for painters from the School of Latem. Those included Valerius De Saedeleer and Gustave van de Woestyne, who established an art colony in Sint-Martens-Latem in the early 1900s.

Escaping the hustle and bustle of city life, these artists were looking for mystic modernism informed by the art of the Flemish Masters. In tune with the tranquil environment of the museum, they painted peaceful landscapes around the Leie.

In later years, artists Constant Permeke and Frits Van den Berghe, among others, came to the village, bringing their own interpretation of Flemish expressionism. Dhondt and Dhaenens’s collection of Flemish modernists soon grew to also include the likes of James Ensor and Edgard Tytgat.

Santiago Sierra temporarily removed all of the museum’s windows to show what would happen if the building was exposed to the elements

In the build-up to the museum’s opening, contemporary artists joined the mix as well, including abstract painter Jozef Mees, who helped select the  collection, and Pol Mara. In recent years, the museum has also added works by Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Koen Theys and Raoul De Keyser.

Initially, the collection focused on Flemish modernist and contemporary art, with a handful of international work added later. Today, the museum doesn’t shy away from displaying these pieces alongside more experimental ones, as evidenced in the latest exhibition, Walther Vanbeselaere: Verzamelaar voor de staat 1948-1973 (Walther Vanbeselaere: Collector for the State 1948-1973).

In collaboration with the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (KMSKA), currently closed for major renovations, the exhibition features works curated by Vanbeselaere, who was KMSKA’s head curator between the years in the title and greatly influenced the collections of other museums as well.

Sushi blood bank

Paintings by James Ensor, Léon Spilliaert, Edgard Tytgat, Jean Brusselmans and Rik Wouters – artists beloved by Dhondt and his wife – sit alongside international artists of the time, including Edgar Degas and Ben Nicholson.

In recent years, the Dhondt-Dhaenens has shown no intention of slowing down on featuring experimental 21st-century art. In 2002, Spanish artist Alicia Framis installed the “Bloodsushibank”, a sushi bar paired with a blood bank (complete with a nurse), where visitors received a piece of sushi if they donated blood.

A few years later, her compatriot Santiago Sierra temporarily removed all of the museum’s windows, to show what would happen if the building was exposed to the elements. More recently, visitors to the exhibition by Scottish artist Karla Black received an envelope with a piece of toilet paper.

Besides challenging its visitors with exhibitions that break the traditional mould, the museum is also exploring the fine line between public and private interests. At its heart, Dhondt-Dhaenens serves to preserve the works of some of the most important Flemish artists from the 20th century, but it also regularly provides space for private collectors and residency for contemporary artists.

Photo: Kristien Daem

Summer garden party

In recent years, the Dhondt-Dhaenens Museum has grown, with the addition of a garden pavilion designed by Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout. It now plans to renovate and expand its main building, mostly left untouched since it was built in the 1960s.

A new wing will be added to accommodate the permanent collection, doubling the overall exhibition space. To raise the necessary funds, the museum has been organising annual auctions with the help of Christie’s auction house and, more recently, the online auction platform Paddle8. The 11th edition opens on Monday and closes with a fundraising garden party on 2 September.

The auctioned works were donated to the museum by artists, galleries and collectors. In addition to the veteran abstract painters Jack Whitten, Kees Visser and Jerry Zeniuk, there are many young talents, including Antwerp-based French video and multimedia artist Laure Prouvost, who won the Turner Prize in 2013.

Also up for auction is a three-day trip to Oslo and its museums, under the expert guidance of Dhondt-Dhaenens director Joost Declercq.