Reopened art house Extra City aims to live up to its name

Summary

The Antwerp art space has just opened its latest exhibition, with the ethos that contemporary art should be accessible to everyone and reflect recognisable urban themes

Art for all

There were 1,500 people at the opening weekend of Extra Citizen, the new exhibition at Kunsthal Extra City. It’s a new start for this art space in the Antwerp district of Berchem.

The day after the opening, I meet its satisfied director, Adinda Van Geystelen. Only four years ago I was sitting in the same spot with the previous director, Mihnea Mircan, to talk about – indeed – the restart of Extra City.

Since it opened in a former grain silo in the Antwerp port in 2004, its history has been one of fits and starts. Housed since 2013 in a former industrial laundry – a mighty building that still needs some more refurbishing – Extra City hopes to finally be sailing on smooth waters.

Van Geystelen took the reins in September last year, but was already part of the repositioning team. “The three directors that Extra City has had in its history were great curators who set up shows that were well talked-about – but mostly internationally, not in Flanders."

Out in the cold

There was a concern that the centre would lose its subsidies from the Flemish government. The board decided to dismiss Mircan and reposition the institution within the visual arts landscape in Flanders.

It was then that Van Geystelen entered the picture. Trained as an architect, she has a background in cultural organisations – as director of artistic policy at Brussels fine arts centre Bozar and general manager of dance company Rosas – and was an advisor to the former culture minister Bert Anciaux.

“I’ve always been very interested in the visual arts, but I’ve become incensed at the fact that people without a professional education in art philosophy or theory have been left out in the cold,” she says. “They often don't have the tools to be able to understand what contemporary art is about.” 

We wanted a space that shows contemporary art that – even assuming it might be difficult art – tries to find a larger audience

- Adinda Van Geystelen

It was one of the reasons that, as a volunteer, she wanted to invest time in repositioning Extra City.

A quartet was formed, with, among others, art sociologist Pascal Gielen. The group met weekly to brainstorm.

“We wanted a space that shows contemporary art that – even assuming it might be difficult – tries to find a larger audience, and certainly not only emanating from the art world itself,” Van Geystelen explains. “Communicating will be an essential tool in doing so. If necessary, we’ll even do one less show a year.”

Kunsthal Extra City receives €380,000 a year from the Flemish government, €50,000 from the city of Antwerp and has 15% own revenues. That’s a very moderate budget, Van Geystelen points out, compared to similar organisations abroad. “We can’t compete with them; that’s why we decided not to cover the whole field of contemporary art anymore but to focus on a thematic approach.”

Mission accomplished

With a name like Extra City the choice was easy: Art that relates to current urban topics. It’s a way for the centre to build a bridge to a non-professional audience, showing them that contemporary art often deals with issues they encounter day-to-day.

At that point, one issue still needed to be tackled. “In its short history, Extra City has been through three directors. They were great curators, but in the end they were judged on their qualities as directors of the centre.”

That’s why this time they decided to implement a more horizontal structure and a co-ordinator who would safeguard Extra City’s mission and vision, and who collaborates with the curators and artists. “It’s also a statement against the idea that still reigns in lots of other art places that one artistic director decides what interesting art is,” Van Geystelen says. “It is very important that art centres give space to dissenting visions and encourages a tolerance for disagreement. They should be places that celebrate dialogue.”

It is very important that art centres give space to dissenting visions and encourage a tolerance for disagreement

- Adinda Van Geystelen

This means that Extra City works with an artistic trio that changes every three years. Enter Antonia Alampi and iLiana Fokianaki, who are established curators, and Brussels-based artist Michiel Vandevelde.

The three are not full-time employees, but judging by the first exhibition, Extra Citizen, that’s isn’t a problem. The show gives the spotlight to their main theme for the next three years – citizenship. It’s a combination of radical political art criticising migration policies, and more witty works.

But there’s also space for art that on first viewing doesn’t have a connection with citizenship, like paintings by the two Flemish participants, Bram Demunter and Philippe Van Snick. It forces you to think to find the relationship.

It’s an effort that makes you an active viewer, but it never gives you the feeling of being too dumb to understand the show. At least one mission accomplished.

Extra Citizen, until 12 December, Extra City, Eikelstraat 25-31, Antwerp

Photo: Marinella Senatore’s “Protest Bike” (2016)
©Mark Rietveld