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One-of-a-kind project in Ixelles mixes social housing with artist studios

14:09 27/08/2021

Ixelles is redefining what ‘mixed-use’ means with Kult XL Ateliers, a new project that brings artist studios and social housing together. A stretch of Rue Wiertz, near the European Quarter, has been redeveloped to house seven workshops for contemporary artists, an exhibition space and 16 housing units for low-income families.

It feels like an odd combination, and that’s just what Ixelles was out to disprove. Citizens and artists “need to be together,” says Ken Ndiaye, the city councillor for French-speaking culture and museums in Ixelles. Artists are often hidden away “inside four walls,” he says. “You need to bring art outside, where people are living. Bring it to the people.”

Part of the goal of Kult XL Ateliers is to also give this bit of Ixelles back to the artists and the people who once lived there “before the EU took over the neighbourhood,” says Ndiaye. “This used to be a popular spot for artists; Rodin even worked here. And it was a residential area.”

He means it was an affordable residential area, a point taken up by his colleague, Ixelles city councillor Els Gossé, in charge of Dutch-language culture. “Housing prices in Ixelles are way too high,” she confirms. “Artists can’t afford space in Ixelles for their studios. So we decided to try to find a solution. At the same time, we want to support projects that serve multiple groups of people. So we developed this mix of social housing and artist studios.”

City councillor Els Gossé speaks at the opening of Kult XL Ateliers
City councillor Els Gossé speaks at the opening of Kult XL Ateliers

The site has been fully renovated while keeping the facades and other historical finishings intact. Housing is situated above and next to the exhibition space, while the artist studios are behind, in a separate building. A courtyard sits inbetween.

It has been developed by the city of Ixelles and the Brussels region’s Housing Fund in co-operation with European cultural institutions and the Association du Quartier Léopold, a neighbourhood association.

The project is meant to “build bridges,” says Gossé, “between the European institutions, this neighbourhood and the other areas of Ixelles.”

The municipality took applications from artists to take up residency in the studios. They received 160 applications from 35 different nationalities. This, notes the city councillors, proves the need for studio space is great. “An artist has to pay twice,” says Ndiaye. “For housing and also for a workspace. Nobody can afford that, so something has to be done.”

Among all those applications were at least 20 different disciplines in the arts, from painting to video. “There is a lot of diversity in Ixelles’s cultural life, so this is reflected in this project,” says Gossé.

The backside of the exhibition space looks onto the artists’ studios
The backside of the exhibition space looks onto the artists’ studios

It was decided ahead of time that shorter residences of six months would be awarded to artists from European countries other than Belgium. The others would get residencies of two years. None of them have to pay for the space.

A jury made up of art experts, neighbourhood residents and people associated with the European institutions selected 10 artists to take up residency at Kult XL Ateliers. Short terms residencies were awarded to artists from Finland, the Czech Republic and France. Of the 10, only two were born and raised in Belgium. Other countries where artists have their roots are Morocco and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The need for more social housing in Brussels is well known and often makes headlines. So the need this is fulfilling for families in Brussels is obvious. Less obvious is the need for artists to have adequate space, says Gossé. “It’s essential; they need the space to create. The life of an artist is already uncertain. We wanted to give their lives a little bit of stability.”

Ixelles has plans to expand the project around the municipality, eventually reaching 20 artist studios. It hopes to incorporate social housing “whenever possible,” says Ndiaye. “We will look for those opportunities, this mix between citizens and art projects.”

The public is invited to the grand opening of Kult XL Atelier on 28 August. The inaugural exhibition runs until 26 September

Written by Lisa Bradshaw