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Bozar employees, artists call for minister's intervention on CEO choice

Federal Minister of Cultural Institutions Sophie Wilmes pictured during a visit to the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)
07:56 08/02/2021

In an open letter to minister Sophie Wilmès, more than 170 Bozar employees and artists have asked for the process for appointing the Centre for Fine Arts’ new CEO to be reviewed.

The signatories of the letter to the federal minister of cultural institutions, who is only responsible for the composition of the new board of directors, not for the appointment of the new general manager, want the well-being of the staff to be put first in any decision and for diversity to be considered. "It is necessary for Bozar's hierarchical policies to become more democratic," they wrote.

The initiative for the open letter came at the request of individual staff. "It started very spontaneously, but was well organised," said one Bozar employee who wished to remain anonymous. "At the end of January, we started discussing with a lot of people about what we thought was necessary when it came to our new director. A smaller group was formed to write the text. We finally decided to address the letter directly to the minister."

The letter was sent on Friday. It had been signed 179 times: 103 times by (ex-)employees of Bozar or partners, with the remaining 76 signatures coming from artists and members of the public. Specifically, the signatories are calling for the selection procedure for their new general director to be as democratic and inclusive as possible.

"It is necessary for Bozar's hierarchical policies to become more democratic and allow more participation of staff, cultural partners and citizens," they wrote. "In selecting the candidates, we ask for the human qualities that are indispensable for a healthy working environment to be put first. The description of the mandate should emphasise the importance of an ethical and benevolent attitude, respect for each individual's choices and differences, the concern for the well-being of staff and the irrevocability of equal treatment."

Wilmès had previously made it clear that she would consider people for the board from the art world who have more experience rather than make political choices, a stance which had been welcomed by the unions representing Bozar staff. The application for board members remains open until 15 February.

"We want the minister to restart the procedure for choosing a new general manager," said the anonymous Bozar employee. "We are satisfied with the selection procedure for the Board of Directors. It is nice that the candidacy is open to other profiles this time. We want Minister Wilmès to do the same now for the general management procedure."

A spokesperson for Wilmès responded that the new board of directors will have to determine the correct procedure to appoint a new general manager. "The demands of the staff are justified. A public call is the best way to put together a board of directors," the spokesperson said, "but it's up to the new directors to determine the timetable for the selection of a new director." The new board will be formed in March.

The Bozar staff also intends to submit their open letter to the new board. "That's exactly why we're making the letter public," said the anonymous staff member.

‎The Free Syndicate for Public Office’s‎ (VSOA) union secretary Mark De Vos revealed that the letter has the unions’ support, although stressed that it did not come from them. "It's about putting the right voices in place, as we did have some problems with the previous CEO,” he said.

The previous CEO, Paul Dujardin, was not re-elected for another term as of last Friday. The staff sent their letter out a few hours earlier before the election results were known. The letter, among other things, was in response to an article in Le Soir, written a few days earlier, which suggested that Dujardin would be the only candidate to succeed himself.

Despite the results and the fact that outgoing Bozar president Etienne Davignon had himself recently announced that he was no longer running for a new term as president of Bozar, a flashmob which assembled on the Monts des Arts in Brussels on Saturday afternoon, called on Sophie Wilmès to dismiss him as chairman of the Bozar board of directors.

The flashmob was organised by the Decolonize Bozar campaign, which demands that art and culture spaces in Belgium do more to accept and inform on the country’s colonial past. They have previously expressed doubts that this could be possible at Bozar while Davignon remained as president. The activists suspect Davignon of war crimes while working as a diplomat in Congo. He is suspected by relatives of Patrice Lumumba of involvement in the Congolese politician and independence leader’s assassination in 1961.

"A renowned cultural institution like the Bozar cannot be led by someone defending colonisation, a system of criminal exploitation that has caused the deaths of millions of people," the campaign members wrote in a letter, separate to that sent by Bozar employees, to the office of the Federal Minister of Cultural Institutions "Other stories need to be told so that the dominant culture can be questioned. These stories challenge our values and help us decolonise the present. This is the objective that our national cultural institution must keep in mind."

The cabinet of Sophie Wilmès stated that she did not wish to comment on the flashmob.

Written by Nick Amies