Fighting for art

Remembering Jan Hoet (1936 – 2014)

“I don’t know what art is. Art itself will tell us what it is. Not me. I can only offer a ticket for the journey of discovery.” (Jan Hoet in De Morgen, 1991)

Jan Hoet passed away five years ago today. He was a larger than life curator, an untiring promotor of the arts and an exceptional human being. “The way he connected art to every aspect of life and how he fought for art, made a lasting impression on us,” say Nikki Gonnissen and Thomas Widdershoven, who collaborated with Hoet on numerous projects.

“Our work is deeply inspired by Jan’s vision of bringing art into society.”

Jan Hoet first gained notoriety in 1986 with Chambres d’Amis, an exhibition of art in private homes throughout Ghent. Six years later he curated Documenta IX in Kassel, presenting hundreds of works by 190 artists from 40 countries. In 1999, Hoet inaugurated the new SMAK (Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent) which he had founded in 1975 by participating in a boxing match. The amateur pugilist and outspoken fan of heavy weight champion Mike Tyson took on American artist Dennis Bellone. His opponent was half his age, but Hoet stood his ground. In the end, as always with Hoet, art won.

Whilst doing research for Sonsbeek 9 Hoet visited publishing house Plaatsmaken in Arnhem and bumped into Gonnissen’s graduation work. He called her and said: “I’d like to work with you”. “He invited us to come to Ghent,” remembers Gonnissen. “We brought along two bags of work, but he didn’t need to see it. He commissioned us two magnificent projects: Over the Edges, the large scale outdoor exhibition that took place in Ghent in 2000 and Sonsbeek 9 a year later.”

Over the edges, S.M.A.K.
Ghent, Belgium, 2000.

“At times Sonsbeek was Jan’s worst nightmare,” remembers Astrid Schumacher, his personal assistant at the time. “He had a hard time accepting that nobody in Arnhem recognized him, a Belgian celebrity. And he was constantly at loggerheads with the municipality. ‘I will not budge for politics,’ he repeatedly stated. But in a way, Jan also needed friction and opposition. If things went too smoothly he wasn’t interested.”

While engaged as the artistic director for Sonsbeek 9, Hoet was also heading the SMAK museum and laying the foundations for MARTa Herford. “That’s typically Jan,” says Ann Demeester, the current director of the Frans Hals Museum and a curator at the SMAK from 2000 to 2003. “Everything was always mixed up: personal and professional, various projects in different countries. Working at the SMAK was like being part of an extended family. Nobody really wanted to go to Herford, but Jan charmed me into being his boots on the ground. He said: you’re enthusiastic, you’re stubborn and you speak German so you’ll be fine. I’ve never met anyone so dominant and extremely generous at the same time. My relation with him was a constant push and pull. It taught me to substantiate my opinions really well and defend them with the same fervour he had.”

Herford, population 70,000 is a conservative town heavily invested in furniture production. Not the obvious location for a museum designed ‘Bilbao style’ by starchitect Frank O. Gehry. “The museum was the answer to nobody’s question,” says Demeester. “Only two people were fired up about it: Herford’s mayor and Jan, who really wanted to work with Gehry. Besides overseeing construction my task was to ready the minds of the locals by organising exhibitions at the local post office. We were like Jehova’s witnesses trying to convince a taciturn audience while they went to market. It’s a miracle the museum is still operating today.”

Marta Herford, Heroes Exhibition, catalogue, 2005

Around this time Hoet started suffering from kidney failure. “Jan was a machine, drawing on endless energy reserves. When he became ill he felt really betrayed by his own body,” recalls Schumacher. “When the doctors forced him to slow down he really got into cooking. He lived from breakfast to lunch to dinner. I remember him once bickering with Ann’s mother about the proper way to prepare pancakes. He could get extremely emotional if not proven right. But with his best friend Ronnie Heirman, whom he also created a comic book with, he could get so boisterous and loud, it was simply infectious.”

Thonik was invited to pitch for MARTa Herford’s corporate identity and won. “First we had to convince Gehry to use Gerard Unger’s typeface Swift on the baroque façade,” remembers Widdershoven. “For the inaugural exhibition, Heroes, we chose the Tour de France winner’s yellow jersey as the cover image for the catalogue. Jan flew into a rage. ‘That’s not art!’ he yelled over the phone. Later he came around, and embraced the design as humorous and radical.”

Façade design in collaboration with Frank Gehry, 2004.

“The opening for MARTa Herford was vintage Jan Hoet,” according to Gonnissen. There were actually two openings. One inside for the international art crowd and another in the streets with beer stands and music for the local community. Jan really knew how to involve everybody.”

Hoet left Herford in 2009 but didn’t stop working. He curated shows in Belgium and abroad, of which Middle Gate (2013-2014) in Geel stands out. The exhibition combined works by artists and psychiatric patients in a non-hierarchic way typical of Hoet. However, Chambres d’Amis will remain his biggest claim to fame, thinks Demeester. “That show is still studied and imitated by curators today. Especially the idea that art has to burst forth from the museum to remain relevant. But Jan’s legacy goes beyond any one exhibition or event. He was a true messianic preacher who was convinced that art isn’t something esoteric but is part of life. He made people think differently about art. He made them feel it, in their heads and hearts, in their entire nervous system.”

Text: Edo Dijksterhuis
Cover Photo: Dirk Pauwels, Courtesy S.M.A.K., Ghent

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