In the autumn, the Bozar art center chose a relatively unknown Belgian from the museum and music city of Vienna with Christophe Slagmuylder to succeed the late managing director Sophie Lauwers. ‘I don’t have a radically different project in mind.’
Unexpected, but logical. That was the general mood in the Belgian cultural world when the arts center Bozar revealed the name of its new managing director in October. Unexpected, because Christophe Slagmuylder (55) rather bears the stamp of a manager on the fringes of the cultural world. As head of the international Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels – first as assistant to the legendary founder Frie Leysen, later as director for twelve years – he never managed a large cultural center. He has never been a man of clever words or grand theories of art. Not to the outside world, anyway. The amiable festival curator was happy to leave the spotlight to the artists he chose. In addition, Slagmuylder had disappeared from view in our country after its promotion in 2018 to the prestigious Wiener Festwochen.
Nevertheless, his return to our country, after barely five festival editions in Vienna, feels logical. For starters, the bilingual Brussels resident returns home to the city where he was born, studied and worked almost his entire life. The interdisciplinary nature of the country’s largest art center should also suit the future managing director like a glove. As the chosen master of what was in the making a theater festival, he never allowed himself to be limited to the performing arts. In addition to theater makers and choreographers, he was just as happy to bring visual artists, filmmakers or musicians to Brussels. In recent years, Slagmuylder has tried to apply the same interdisciplinary formula, with sometimes radical choices, in Vienna, where he will leave a year before the end of his mandate.
Prestige in Vienna
‘I couldn’t let the train to Brussels pass,’ he says when we pick him up from a Teams meeting with the exhibition department of his future employer at the headquarters of the Wiener Festwochen in the music city’s busy museum quarter. When the photographer has done his work, we move to a typical Viennese coffee house, where we imagine ourselves among marble tabletops, lampshades, plush sofas, pool tables and newspapers in the book ‘The World of Yesterday’ by Stefan Zweig. In these magnificent surroundings, where coffee drinking is elevated to an art form, he looks back candidly on his Viennese years.
My work here is not done. I underestimated this job. Vienna is a beautiful city with an enthusiastic and curious cultural audience. There is no city in the world today that invests so much in culture. The Festwochen – although they only last five weeks – are a household name in the city. In the first months of my mandate, I was constantly approached on the street about the festival. Everyone had an opinion about the programming. The festival is also figuratively an institution: a large structure with sixty full-time employees, heavily subsidized (10 million euros from the city of Vienna, ed.). That’s what made the switch so interesting. In Brussels, resources were much more limited. Here I realized one project with the full annual budget for Kunstenfestivaldesarts.’
At the same time, the prestigious nature made it difficult to get the institution up and running and to break up the programming. He admits that he was not successful with the latter. Vienna can be very conservative. ‘It’s something typically Austrian: it’s hard for them to accept here that something can disappear or change.’
Could he not have known? His mentor Frie Leysen left the Festwochen after a year because she thought the context was too rigid and conservative and no change was possible. ‘There is a big difference between knowing something and actually experiencing it. I was 50 and felt ready to take a leap abroad. It’s a shame, of course, that after almost five years I still feel a bit of an outsider. But it is also my own responsibility. I was not sufficiently familiar with Vienna and its political sensitivity and spoke too little German when I arrived here. The city was also locked up for more than a year and a half, not ideal circumstances to get to know a new environment.’
People should not be afraid that I will suddenly turn Bozar into a theater. I have seen enough theater performances for the rest of my life in the last twenty years.
‘But I was able to break things up, both in the organization and in the programming. I am very proud of some artistic projects. I think I can say that Festwochen is better prepared for the future than they were five years ago. I have been able to realize a number of large interdisciplinary projects that link the classical music repertoire to contemporary themes and sensibilities, with artists for whom this type of project was completely new. I can’t wait to see the premiere in May of the last major project I initiated: a staging of Alban Berg’s opera ‘Lulu’ by the Cape Verdean choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas.’
He would have liked three more years to complete his work, but the train to Brussels came faster. Two experiences made the jump to Bozar seem more natural to him than a few years ago. In Vienna he learned to manage a large institution and a team he did not know. In recent years, he also had the opportunity to immerse himself in contemporary and classical music. Until his move to Austria, these worlds were still the Achilles heel of his cultural interests.
Christophe Slagmuyler (55) will become head of the Bozar art center in February. The Brussels resident is switching from the Wiener Festwochen. Before that, he directed the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels, an annual international arts festival with contemporary theatre, performance and dance in various locations in Brussels. He studied art history at ULB.
He will start his assignment at Bozar in February. Until the summer, it will happen in combination with his work in Vienna, because the 2023 edition was already almost on track when Bozar headhunted him last summer. And he will end his story here in beauty. This is the main reason why he is silent about his plans for the future with Bozar. “Vienna still fills every available millimeter of mental space in my head.”
But he realizes time is running out and the staff asks for clarity. Bozar’s ship has sailed in troubled waters in recent years. After Paul Dujardin’s mandatory retreat, which had been disputed for years, the cultural center was in operation for almost two years. His successor Sophie Lauwers was too short to set herself big goals.
After some insistence, the new CEO will say this: ‘I don’t have a radically different project in mind. It’s not like Bozar doesn’t have his feet in the 21st century. During this afternoon’s call, I was impressed with the exhibition program for the coming years. People should not be afraid that I will suddenly turn Bozar into a theater house. (laughs) I’ve seen enough theater performances in the last twenty years for the rest of my life.’ And the music program? Is it fresh and contemporary enough? “I hear that criticism, but I have yet to look into it.”
Abstraction of art
Like her predecessor Sophie Lauwers, who was a neighbor and friend, the next director of Bozar does not come from an environment where culture was important. His grandfather had a shop on the rue des Bouchers. His father, a Dutch-speaking Brussels resident, was born in that shop. He worked in the pharmaceutical sector. His French-speaking mother was a housewife. Before moving to the center of Anderlecht with their three children, the family even lived in social housing for a period. “But don’t imagine Dickens situations,” he laughs.
The abstraction of art helps me in my dealings with concrete reality.
For him, culture meant the way to absolute freedom. He painted, but not very well. Although he wasn’t necessarily encouraged to do so at home, Slagmuylder loved to read and went to the movies as a child, usually alone. His first exhibitions – in, yes, the Art Center – he visited with the school.
‘Art has played an important role in my social mobilization. I am very grateful to a few teachers for that. Because of my humble background, I did not understand everything I saw, heard or read. That’s why I think I would take it so hard. That’s how art still works for me. When I feel that something is beyond my comprehension, I consult a work of art or an artist. The abstraction of art helps me in my dealings with concrete reality.’
Tomorrow: Sophie Cocquyt, head of the Collegium Vocale Gent