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Where the art is: We head behind the scenes at Bozar

Nov 17, 2017
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Four members of the Bozar team give an insight into life at the Brussels cultural institution, from behind the scenes to front of house

‘I love opening people’s eyes’

Since 1995, exhibition guide Béatrice Van de Kerchove has been leading tours at the Ixelles Museum, Villa Empain and the ING art centre, as well as Bozar

“As Bozar isn’t a museum and doesn’t have a collection, its exhibitions change constantly. I really like that because I get to dive into so many different subjects, from Indonesian art to Picasso. I wouldn’t want to be a guide in a castle, where you repeat the same lines over and over. I don’t have to work anymore at my age but I’m still doing the Bozar tours because it’s such a special place; very lively and contemporary. With each new show we study the topic, read the catalogue, research, discuss it among the guides, sometimes meet the artist… and then we get to share it all. I love opening people’s eyes, provoking an exchange. Many guides studied art history, which enables us to put things in context and create links. It’s important that it’s not just a simple description. It should be interactive instead of academic; it’s not a lecture.

One of the biggest challenges is choosing which works to include in the visit. Every guide makes their own selection, meaning a visit with me will be very different from a visit with another guide. The curators give us a tour in the beginning and give us some ideas to work with, but otherwise there’s total freedom. Everybody looks at it with their own eyes, sensibility and background. It’s very personal. And you need to be flexible: I don’t think there’s any guide who’s done the same tour twice. You always need to adapt, depending on what kind of group you’re dealing with. Some are intellectual while others have never set foot in a museum before. A good guide has a feeling for that.

The most difficult visit is always the first one, because you need to figure out how to manage your time and the space. The night before, I don’t sleep much. Do you organise the visit chronologically? Thematically? There are so many things to consider. It’s important to be very attentive during the first tour and see how people receive it. You can see in their faces if it’s working or not. I find this job so rewarding because it’s all about sharing. It’s so satisfying when someone says ‘Without you, I would never have understood the show’.”

‘Everything has to be perfect’

Matthieu Vanderdonckt, who studied photography in Tournai and Brussels, knows Bozar from the bottom up. Having started as an exhibition guard in 2003, he’s climbed the ladder to become field coordinator

“I’m responsible for everything to do with reception and welcoming visitors in the widest sense. About 100 people are involved in this, from cultural mediators to the people who scan the tickets, meaning a big part of my job is planning: who is needed when and where, how many staff will be needed and what this means for the budget. One of the teams I supervise is the cultural mediators, formerly known as exhibition guards. While in the past they used to sit on a chair and read a newspaper, telling visitors not to touch things, we now train them in content. I want them to interact with the public as much as possible. For the current hip-hop exhibition, for example, I hired students who are part of the hip-hop scene.

By now I know the building by heart. I know where there’s a 16-amp plug, where you can find a bin, and how the public should be directed to a certain hall. Which zones are already taken? Where should we put the signs? My teams and I deal with all kinds of practical problems. For example, we just put up trees in pots outside, as part of the swimming pool project. But the trees keep falling over, and so we need to find a solution. Everything has to be perfect, which is why I do a lot of quality control. During an evening event, everyone has my phone number. You need to be a people person: you have to be able to chat with the guy who cleans the dishes or a bank director organising a private event.

The biggest challenges are the high-security visits by people like the Dalai Lama, Salman Rushdie or Barack Obama. I still have goose bumps thinking about that. Not because the people themselves excite me but because it’s such a complex and complicated endeavour, with everything timed down to the minute. It’s a great feeling when it all goes smoothly. Sometimes I’m so caught up in my job that I forget how amazing it is to work in this exceptional building, a flagship work by Victor Horta. Or when you want to take the lift and the door opens and you see Gilbert & George standing there – that’s really something.”

‘The key is to stay friendly and calm’

Chantal Matthys has worked for various cultural organisations, including the Theatre de Ville in Ghent, Kunstenfestivaldesarts and Ghent Film Festival. She has been box office manager at Bozar since 2012

“Each morning I check the numbers of tickets sold and pass them on to the programmers. Afterwards, I pass by the box office to see if everything is going well. We’ve just moved to a new space across the street, which is so much nicer, bigger and more inviting. It’s a place to welcome people and give out information. Sometimes tourists drop by who have no idea where they are, so we have city maps available too.

A lot has changed since I started. While before we didn’t sell much online, that’s now 40% of sales. My goal is to reach 70%. One way to achieve this was introducing a new ticketing system that we manage ourselves. I want people to be able to buy tickets at any time on their phones, even a few minutes before the start of a concert. This year we also began scanning tickets on phones, which enables us to keep an eye on how many people have bought tickets but haven’t arrived. If there are a lot, then it’s probably a traffic problem and we will wait. Or if we notice lots of free tickets are not being used, we can resell them.

I’m also working on improving the payment flow. How can we sell tickets during an off-site event in a church? How do we get wifi there, which machines and mini-printers do we need to order? As well as the technical things, I also deal with people. Sometimes visitors ask for the manager and I have to go and calm things down. People can encounter some discomforts, that the hall is too hot, or that they want to be reimbursed. The key is to stay friendly and calm. No one ever dreams of becoming box office manager when they’re little. It’s something you do because you love culture. When you’re at Bozar on a Thursday night and there’s something going on in the studios, in all the halls, the exhibitions are open late, and it all goes well – that’s a great feeling.”

‘I’m adding something to the city’s texture’

World music programmer Tony Van der Eecken has worked for pirate radios promoting alternative music, toured the globe with African artists and organised world music concerts and festivals in Belgium before joining Bozar in 1999

“My definition of world music might be a bit different from the usual one. I want to give attention to non-Western classical music, not just any band combining Indian instruments with African drums. When I’m programming around 60 concerts a year, I focus on the communities living here in Brussels. We regularly do sufi nights, present West African kora music, Colombian singer-songwriters or Congolese rumba, or we invite mosque singers from Damascus. They all have large audiences here. We did three sold-out concerts with Marcel Khalifé from Lebanon over eight years and one with the Lebanese classics. People even came on a bus from Italy. Bozar is a special place, which makes it the perfect spot for symbolic activities. For example, we did a concert to celebrate Congo’s 50 years of independence with 50 years of Congolese music. The big stars, they all came. So the concert for the independence of Congo happened in Brussels, in Bozar, and not in Kinshasa!

But sometimes it can be a challenge to mobilise the different communities. My job is about much more than presenting nice music. You have to know the subtleties. I also need to think about how to break down barriers. Sometimes this means I have to make tickets available in a Turkish-speaking restaurant, or make posters using African designers. At the same time you need to find a balance, because people also want to be seen as Belgian citizens, and I want people outside these groups to discover the music.

My job includes lots of research and contacting people. For example, I want to do a concert featuring the Congolese Kasai language, which is incredibly rich in proverbs and meanings. But I only know about it because I toured with an artist who spoke it. Now I’m in contact with a professor from Ghent University about it. Over the years you build up this vast alternative knowledge. I have wish-lists but programming is all about seizing opportunities, some of which you have to shape yourself. I really want to bring music from East Turkey to Bozar, so I travelled there to create these opportunities.

What I love most is when I see the way concerts really touch people. After one event someone said ‘Now I can stand staying in Brussels for another year’. I think I’m adding something to the social texture of the city and helping people to feel more a part of it, which is beautiful. It really is a dream job.”

This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2017. Browse the magazine here, pick up a copy in newsagents or subscribe today...

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