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Sharing something of value: Belgium’s national bank creates a unique participatory artwork

16:21 20/09/2023

The exhibition 1000 Plateaux: Sharing Collections – Sharing Connections has its origins in the humble setting of the National Bank of Belgium’s office canteen.

It was here, amid the sharing of food during lunch service, that Belgian artist Françoise Schein conceived the idea for a large-scale participatory artwork.

Some 155 employees signed up to the project, creating a pertinent and revealing dialogue with the bank’s extensive collections of Belgian contemporary art and historic objects.

They were invited to join a series of workshops and reinterpret one of a selection of works from the collections. Equipped with brushes and blue ink, participants freely expressed their creativity by painting on a range of organic ceramic trays, specially made by Laurence Van Nieuwenhove.

exposition 1001 plateaux - salle des guichets (c) Patrick Van den Branden NBB

Presented in the imposing counter hall of the grandiose bank, the exhibition offers a new look at the contemporary art collection. Founded in 1972, it counts 2,000 works and fills the bank’s corridors, offices and spaces. Meanwhile, a public museum of archives and artefacts recounts the history of money.

While the trays – complete with a small attached porcelain dish – are clustered together, the contemporary works that inspired them hang in contrast on the opposing wall. In the centre of the space, display cabinets contain the museum objects that also served as stimulus for the workshop participants.

The painted trays may share a uniformity in their organic material and blue-and-white palette, evoking classic Delft and Chinese porcelain, but each artist has employed a highly-individual approach that transcends the style of the original artwork.

Préparation exposition salle des guichets (017)04092023 (c) Patrick Van den Branden NBB

Miniscule detail, free-flowing brushstrokes and even self-portraits and humour – including caustic representations of the bank’s governor – are all employed in the creative renderings. Historic banknotes and sculpture such as Baudouin Oosterlynck’s musical installation (pictured above with its intrepretation below) were among the works given a makeover.

Préparation exposition salle des guichets (016)04092023 (c) Patrick Van den Branden NBB

This random selection results in a highly idiosyncratic show. It’s a surprising, personal and sometimes critical view of the works, says Carine Fol, external consultant to the bank’s art collection, which boasts a litany of Belgian talent, from Folon, Van Lint and Verschueren to Beeckman and Van de Velde, to name but a few.

When she initiated the project to widen the horizon of both the existing collections and employees’ artistic awareness, she didn’t expect the latter to produce such diverse and high-quality creations. “The combination of the two collections on display is brilliant.”

exposition 1001 plateaux - salle des guichets BNB 092023 (026)06092023 (c) Patrick Van den Branden NBB

As an architect and urbanist focused on human rights, Brussels-born Schein (pictured) has global experience of leading collaborative artworks and installations.

From inspiring kids in Molenbeek and the favelas of Brazil to creating a giant picnic in Place Sainte-Catherine and decorating metro stations in Saint-Gilles and Paris, Schein has long been committed to combatting elitism in the art world.

She guided the employees – all working in different services of the bank – with their individual oeuvres during the workshops. The non-hierarchical gatherings also provided an opportunity for new and different interactions.

exposition 1001 plateaux - salle des guichets BNB 092023 (012)06092023 (c) Patrick Van den Branden NBB

“I invited them to deconstruct the original works, to take an extract,” she explains. “They did really well. It shows that everyone can be an artist.”

The majority had no previous artistic experience, which didn’t faze Schein, who loves to teach and regrets that there are not more artists practising participative art. “It’s about making connections, completely rethinking something and seeing life in a different way,” she says of the process.

When each tray was finished, Schein carefully transported them to her Paris studio. Here, she performed a final ‘touch up’, added the name of the artist and the original work and painted on a knife and fork, before firing them in her kiln.

Fol and Schein

If the exercise was a risk, it was one that both Fol and Schein (pictured) embraced. The pair, who previously collaborated for the Sainte-Catherine banquet, share a belief in increasing the accessibility of art.

As well as invoking the shared canteen experience and the poetry of the Arabian Nights, the title 1001 Plateaux also refers to the work of 20th-century French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. He promoted horizontal and non-hierarchical systems, which are clearly reflected in this project.

At the end of the exhibition, hangs an installation from the canteen: Something of value by Fred Eerdekens, along with its new interpretation (pictured, main image). It’s a final symbolic note for this parallel vision of the world of art that is particularly pertinent coming from such a financial institution.


Following the show, the mosaic of blue-and-white ceramic trays joins the bank’s illustrious art collection. The relationship between its employees and its artworks will no doubt prove to be even closer.

1000 Plateaux: Sharing Collections – Sharing Connections
Until 10 November
Monday to Friday
, 8.45-15.30
National Bank of Belgium
Boulevard de Berlaimont 3
1000 Brussels

Photos: ©Patrick Van den Branden/NBB

Written by Sarah Crew