Kunstmuseum aan zee Collecties van
de Vlaamse Gemeenschap
Stad Oostende

about Mu.ZEE

Phillip Van den Bossche - Mu.ZEE - “The place where art is kept is also the place where it disappears”

“As a form the museum is so worn-out conceptually and as an organisation it is so vulnerable. I can only imagine the future of the museum as a state of permanent crisis.”
(Christian Bernard, Director Mamco, Genève)

In 2007 Mu.ZEE embarked on an exploratory mission that can be summed up briefly as: how to become more of a museum. Besides three temporary exhibitions annually, we constantly do new presentations of the collection and look actively for dialogue between the two basic functions of the museum. Mu.ZEE is building up a research collection and we are actively looking for the memory of the collections of the Province of West Flanders and the City of Ostend. 
History relating to the visual arts is always ‘past imperfect’, the museum has the potential to organise and renew history on an ongoing basis. But time moves on, history is also “a silken thread of what you remember above an ocean of things forgotten” (Milan Kundera in “The Joke”, 1967).

To a certain extent we live according to a particular repertory of images, but that doesn’t mean that everything has become image culture. The museum of the 21st century is a house with different rooms for and by artists. It collects their ideas and searches, by trial and error, for ways to present and establish links between the collection, the temporary exhibitions and the collection policy, between public participation and the specific, well-argumented choices of the museum.
The enormous supply and great fragmentation of artistic production mean that these days it is as good as impossible to take stock of contemporary art. Or, to paraphrase the words of the art critic Anna Tilroe: contemporary art has become so multiform that the idea of an orderly overview is an illusion. Nobody believes in a single all-embracing account of art history today.

Art is ultimately a journey, an invitation to go on a journey. Artworks have the potential to create a feeling of ‘abroad’ in the mind of the viewer and that is what we want to continue to build on at Mu.ZEE with audience-friendly exhibitions. We travel together, artist and audience and speak the same universal language. You don’t have to speak the language to understand it. In fact the artwork is continued in the mind of the viewer. In imitation of the fathers of modern art, Marcel Duchamp (1878-1968) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), the audience finishes the artwork. But as the American conductor Marin Alsop quite rightly states, really listening to music and looking at art is a sophisticated process. “You have to unroll it” she says in an interview: “It’s like looking at the Mona Lisa, you don’t immediately see it in its entirety either, but in all its wonderful different aspects. From that point of view art is not for people who like black and white. It is precisely in the nuance and the evolution that the perception of art is to be found.”

“Like artists’ lives the lives of their creations only appear to be free. They don’t mirror the artist’s spiritual life, nor are they a materialisation of purely Platonic ideas of existence, rather they are ‘fields of force’ between subject and object.”
(Th.W. Adorno, Valéry Proust Museum)
“The empty box of the museum is the carrier of this field of force between subject and object. The museum room, therefore, symbolises not the inner private domain of the artist, as Proust supposes, but just the opposite: the public condition of the art. Being public is a necessary condition for the production and reception of visual art. The museum is the culmination of that publicness, the place where the public condition of the art unfolds completely.”
“Museum visitors often behave rather absent-mindedly or confusedly. Their permanent agitation is not without significance. However full of objects museums may be, they will always give the impression that things disappear.  At the meta-level the rooms always remain empty. The place where art is kept is also the place where it disappears. The artwork as an author’s intentional ‘project’ disappears into the immeasurable gap between the high ideals of culture and the low, material, hyper-concreteness of matter. This is the despair that Paul Valéry describes.”
(Camiel van Winkel, from the concept text for the group exhibition at the Valéry Proust Museum, autumn 2011, Mu.ZEE)

“How the museum of the future should look is as yet unclear. But in all of this there is one thing that should not be forgotten (…). Art continues to be the crux of the matter, and whatever form the museum of the 21st century takes, without art museum policy is impossible.”
(Janneke Wesseling, NRC Handelsblad, 30 April 2010)


Mu.ZEE is a fusion of two structures: the collection of the Province of West Flanders and the collection of the City of Ostend. We have examined and defended the complementarity of these collections. In the meantime, an agreement has been concluded between the two managements and the fusion is in the final phase now. 

A complete renovation of the museum began on 8 May 2008. Nothing remains of the original layout. 

At the end of April 2010 Mu.ZEE became a non-profit organisation (a ‘vzw’) that will operate with an annual subsidy. Today this non-profit organisation comprises three collections:
* The Province of West Flanders
* The City of Ostend
* A new collection that contains only one artwork at the moment (the new collection of vzw Mu.ZEE)

Mu.ZEE has a relatively high budget for purchases because two investment subsidies have coincided. So it is now possible to build up a reserve and save for an important purchase.

The collection started in 1957. The provincial deputation of the time decided to buy work from young Flemish artists. This was part of a tradition of buying art that had previously been aimed at decorating offices. 

In 1959 a purchasing commission was appointed with a view to setting up a museum. In 1960 Permeke’s home was bought. The Permeke collection cannot be separated from the rest of the museum because the artworks travel between the two places.
From 1962 the collection was exhibited in Bruges and Ypres. Only in 1984-1985 did the museum move into the former warehouse of Gaston Eysselinck in Ostend. In 1986 the PMMK – the Provincial Museum for Modern Art – opened. 

The history of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ostend goes back to 1885, when a private collector donated a considerable collection of artworks to the city. Eight years later the city council decided to set up a museum in one of the rooms of the old city hall on Wapenplein. In 1897 the father of Constant Permeke became the first curator. As a result of his efforts important works by, amongst others, James Ensor were bought. During an aerial attack in 1940 the archives and the library of the museum were completely destroyed. Around 400 paintings and prints were lost. After the Second World War efforts were made to build on the core of the collection with works by the Ostend artists James Ensor, Constant Permeke and Léon Spilliaert. In 1958 the museum moved into the brand new “Feest- en Cultuurpaleis” on the Wapenplein.

The collection

The museum’s mission is to develop a unique collection of Belgian art from 1850 to the present. The province has always laid the emphasis on young art. The highlights of the collection are pieces from the late 19th and early 20th century, by James Ensor, Léon Spilliaert and Constant Permeke. The collection is much more than just the artworks. At the ‘Visiting Ensor’ (‘Bij Ensor op bezoek’) exhibition, for example, documents, letters, photos and even his former library were on show.  The Mu.ZEE collection contains paintings and drawings as well as prints by Ensor.

With a total of 3500 inventory items, the collection of the museum comprises important ensembles by Léon Spilliaert (160 works) and by Constant Permeke.

The collection also shows the development of expressionism, with works by Jean Brusselmans and Paul Joostens (over 350 collages). There is an unfinished painting by Brusselmans, too, which makes it possible to show the public how he composed his works.

Amongst others, the museum possesses works by Georges Vantongerloo, Roger Raveel, Raoul De Keyser and Panamarenko, which were shown in the ‘Xanadu’ exhibition at the S.M.A.K. in the summer of 2010. Including loans from the Flemish Community the museum has fourteen works by Tuymans in the collection from the early 90s. Between 25 and 30 % of the collection is on display. The public are informed that they can always see work by certain artists: Luc Tuymans, Léon Spilliaert, James Ensor, Constant Permeke, Panamarenko, Roger Raveel, Raoul De Keyser, etc. At the Museum we work actively with the collection as well as organising temporary exhibitions. Museums have become exhibition machines that are constantly engaged in something new. After all, you don’t draw crowds with presentations of the collection. At Mu.ZEE we can continue to show the collection and we can keep on changing the way it is arranged. Collecting drives the museum because it is the link between the temporary exhibitions.

The collection consists for 30 to 33 % of purchases, and originally or historically grew from an equal percentage of gifts. One of the great advantages of these gifts is that it is not only the big names of Belgian art history that are represented but also their contemporaries, which is a very interesting discovery.

The collection plan is the basic document for every organisation that manages a collection and contains a description of the (collection) history, the size of the collections, the classification of the sub-collections, as well as an evaluation of the collection and a description of the core collection. Based on this plan choices are made and a collection policy is devised for a specific policy period.  The collection plan leads to an accentuation of the collection profile, helps set priorities, offers common issues for fine-tuning with peer organisations, shows up backlogs in the management of the collection and motivates action. In addition it can be useful as a basis for drawing up subsidiary plans such as a digital registration plan and policy priorities concerning conservation & management, including restoration projects for different parts of the collection.

In our collection plan our intention is to set out as clearly as possible our policy priorities for the period up to and including 2013 with regard to the collections of the Province of West Flanders and the City of Ostend, as well as for the new Mu.ZEE collection that is still to be developed. We also examine the historic context of the two collections, including the complementarity of a good many of the elements, and develop a new forward-looking policy.

Mu.ZEE is THE museum for Belgian art with a maximum of openness and accessibility, and functions as an active space for both artists and the public. Mu.ZEE recounts its narratives with a unique collection of Belgian art from 1830 to the present day, and engages in dialogue with the international art scene via its authoritative exhibition programme and collection policy. 
In addition, Mu.ZEE strives to achieve more breadth through hospitality and more depth through research.

Collection criteria:

The collection plan is an extension of the mission and the strategic objectives (see management agreement) of vzw Mu.ZEE. For the upcoming policy period Mu.ZEE would like to recommend to the Board of Directors an ambitious purchasing policy, backed up by art theory and based on the ten collection criteria described below:

1. The purchasing policy of vzw MU.ZEE is based on ‘thinking in ensembles’. In others words, we will endeavour, in the course of an extended policy period, to acquire a number of artworks by one and the same artist.  It is our conviction that an individual artist’s own area of inquiry only opens up to the public when the artist’s oeuvre is taken as a common thread;
2. In addition to its ongoing focus on the whole collection, which consists of artworks from the mid-19th century to the present day, Mu.ZEE also wants to promote young Belgian artists. It is important to (continue to) give new talent a place in the new collection and make the historic links;
3. The museum is looking into whether the definition ‘Belgian’ art in the 21st century could be extended to include artists who live and work in Belgium;
4. The lacunas in the collections of the Province of West Flanders and the City of Ostend, including as regards the sixties, seventies and eighties of the 20th century, require extra consideration over the next few years;
5. In the next policy period special attention will also be given to the quantitative underrepresentation of female artists in the two collections;
6. The same goes for the broadening of artistic media and the underrepresentation of photography, film and video art in the various sub-collections;
7. In addition, we will pay special attention in our purchasing policy to the continued development of the art historical context of the early years of the twentieth century; we can further consolidate our unique  position with regard to the development of modernism in Belgium in the first two decades and strengthen it with important purchases;
8. With the Constant Permeke sub-collection in Jabbeke, vzw Mu.ZEE is in charge of a rather complete overview of the oeuvre of this historically important artist. Should a unique opportunity present itself to acquire a top work  or loan some works long-term from private individuals, we will study the possibilities thoroughly;
9. The same should apply to the key figures from the collection of the City of Ostend, including James Ensor and Léon Spilliaert; to the extent to which the art market allows, we shall make repeated attempts to acquire new and important assets;
10. Mu.ZEE’s collection policy is geared to its exhibition policy; this includes gearing the temporary exhibitions to the various presentations of the collection, whereby Mu.ZEE not only ‘purchases’ art objects but also gives some thought to acquiring more archival documents; this will enable us to provide a context for historic artworks as well as constantly reconsidering the definition of contemporary art and fine-tuning it where necessary.

The criteria mentioned above are art historical instruments with which we can legitimate our purchasing proposals.  They are a first conscious definition of our frame of reference. Contemporary art has become so multiform that the idea of an orderly overview is an illusion. No one today believes in one all-embracing account of art history, to quote the art historian Janneke Wesseling. We must therefore make choices based on an analysis of the collection and the available resources.
Obviously several criteria can be combined and may overlap with each other. It is equally obvious that we will pay special attention to artistic positions that may be considered to meet more than one criterion.  Exactly what our priorities will be will also be determined, as already mentioned, by the exhibition policy, and the discussions that will be held both internally and externally on purchasing policy. But artworks that do not meet one or more of the criteria and that have no relation to the collection history of Mu.ZEE’s sub-collections will not automatically be considered for possible purchase.

The collection policy is linked to temporary exhibitions. There is always a link with purchases, both of the works of young artists and with a view to presentations of the collection.
Large ensembles are developed within the limits of the available budget (e.g. Brusselmans).

It is important to think about the museum of the 21st century.

“The question that occupies us is the same as the philosopher Bart Verschaffel posed: is it true that since the seventies we have memories not of history but of current affairs. If that is correct, if everything has become current affairs, what are the implications for the collection and exhibition of modern and contemporary art? How can we reactivate art historical discourse and reintroduce doubt as a concept?”

There is a direct link between Bart Verschaffel’s proposition (the reintroduction of doubting as a concept) and the project with Camiel van Winkel in 2011 (how, as a museum, do you deal with history if there is no history any more). That has to do with the whole debate round museums’ authority. As an organisation you must be aware of your authority and responsibility. As a museum you make choices; you cannot collect and show everything. You have to assume authority and defend it to the public. Visitors expect a clear statement and clear choices. You have to show what you stand for as a museum. How do you deal with freelance exhibition organisers? How do you make it clear that it is your own decision? 

Artists are fundamental and it is important to build good contacts with them. Artists always have an international context. What are the solutions if you cannot collect internationally? In presentations you can show work within an international context.

A museum is a house with different rooms, in which you collect concepts. You develop different ways of presenting art and reactivating the original context. 

At Mu.ZEE our approach is based on a belief in art history and ways of re-examining and re-interpreting it. How can you re-examine and re-interpret it?
In 2008 there was an exhibition of work by Marc Camille Chaimowicz at Mu.ZEE. There is constant playing with history in his work, something that goes back to the theme of Mu.ZEE’s policy plan.

In the collection presentation ‘Luc Peire and his contemporaries’ we took as our starting point the idea of making a reconstruction of an exhibition. In 1957 Luc Peire organised the exhibition ‘Forms of Today’ (‘Vormen van Heden’) with the design critic Karel Elno at the Casino in Knokke. It was a daring confrontation between the visual arts and the living culture of the 50s. The collection presentation at Mu.ZEE referred to this high-profile exhibition of 1957 but is not a copy of it. There were works of contemporaries in the exhibition for example. Thinking about collecting also has to do with thinking about exhibitions as archival documents.