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The culture of giving: the KMSKA donor book

Collection

If it hadn’t been for our donors, the museum’s collection could never have evolved into the impressive ensemble it is today. To pay tribute to them, we have just published our richly illustrated donor book.

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Schenkingen aan het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen

Between 1818 and 2018, over 390 donors supplied almost 40% of the KMSKA collection. For the spring issue of our museum magazine ZAAL Z, Patrick De Rynck talked to the book’s author Leen de Jong and co-author Nanny Schrijvers. What follows is an abridged version of that interview.

It must have been a huge task to cover all the donations provided by just under 400 benefactors over two centuries. Where do you start with something like that? What’s your source for the information?

Leen de Jong: "The main source is the museum’s archives, which include records of donations and bequests. They’ve been recorded fairly systematically, if not always perfectly so. Then you have the reports of the museum commission, which discuss offers of bequests and donations and whether or not they were accepted. The commission is the most important thread running through it all. Its reports complement the archive records. That’s the basis, but you then obviously have the question of who all these people were: we wanted to provide some historical and biographical context too. In some cases – the major benefactors especially – a lot is already known about their lives: Chevalier Florent van Ertborn, Baroness Baut de Rasmon, the Franck and Nottebohm families, and Ludo van Bogaert-Sheid, for instance. You can find information on some of the others in reference works and other studies, and also the municipal and national archives, as you’d expect for a piece of historical research like this. In some cases, though, we found virtually nothing. So we’re well aware that this work is incomplete and that there are certain gaps. That bothers me, which is why we appeal in the book for people to supply additional information for future researchers. And I firmly call for proper archiving by museums: work of this kind is otherwise impossible and you end up forgetting your own history, despite the fact that it’s extremely important to understanding where you are today."

Some famous donors, portrayed

 

Buste van Ridder Florent van Ertborn, burgemeester van Antwerpen
Knight Florent van Ertborn, Mayor of Antwerp Jozef Geefs
Portret van Barones Adelaïde Vanden Hecke-Baut de Rasmon
Baroness Adelaïde Vanden Hecke-Baut de Rasmon Nicaise De Keyser
Portret van Gravin Rattazzi, geboren Maria-Laetitia Bonaparte-Wyse
Countess Rattazzi, born Maria-Laetitia Bonaparte-Wyse Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran
Portret van François Franck
François Franck Charles Mertens
Dr. Ludo van Bogaert
Dr. Ludo van Bogaert Albert Crommelynck

Wider influence

If you look closely, it’s clear that these benefactors also shaped the areas in which the museum now excels: the 15th century with Van Eyck, Van der Weyden and Fouquet, and the first half of the 20th century, James Ensor and Rik Wouters. The picture for the 17th century is more varied, with a lot of works coming from churches and monasteries.

Leen de Jong: "Many of the genre paintings and much of the 17th-century Dutch work actually originated in the Baut de Rasmon bequest too. But it’s true what you say about the 15th century – that’s down to Van Ertborn. The Franck family provided Ensor and the first half of the 20th century, while Ludo van Bogaert-Sheid donated our extensive Rik Wouters collection. An important donor like Oscar Nottebohm knew what the museum possessed and hence what it lacked. He systematically focused his purchases accordingly. And Mrs Ghesquière introduced Panamarenko and the likes of Basquiat too."

 

 

Donors inspire the museum and help shape the wider acquisition policy.

Nanny Schrijvers

Nanny Schrijvers: "You also find that curators focused subsequently on strengthening and complementing these ensembles and bodies of work. So donors inspire the museum too and help shape its wider acquisition policy. In that sense, their influence extends beyond what they give themselves. You could say that the core of the collection – the large Rubens works, for instance – came from the Academy, while its breadth resulted from the contribution of donors."

Participatory museum

We’re talking here about what they now call the ‘participatory museum’. Especially when you consider that several donors also held administrative posts. All in all, they were a fairly homogeneous group of wealthy citizens (and aristocrats), mostly based in Antwerp and with a significant smattering of families with German roots.

Leen de Jong: "You often detect a feeling among that latter group of wanting to give something back to the community that enabled them to achieve their success and eminence. The idea of charity as a kind of civic duty, which is surely an admirable attitude? It persisted until the Second World War. Serious collectors obviously need the necessary money and many of them were acquainted and encouraged each other to buy. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels tend to have a wider donor base in comparison."

 

Nanny Schrijvers: "It’s noticeable that several families were involved in other good causes as well: charitable institutions and schools, for instance. Endowing museums falls within the same sphere."

Schilderij Zomer van Emile Claus
Summer Emile Claus, donated to the museum by Gabriëlle Jeanne Marie De Poorter

People are once again being appointed to forge links with the outside world. I welcome that commitment and the encouragement of a generous culture of giving.

Leen de Jong

You said that the atmosphere changed after the Second World War. Could the pendulum now be swinging back?

Nanny Schrijvers: "I like to cite the example of the King Baudouin Foundation, which acquires works and then loans them to museums. Examples in the KMSKA’s case are Van Herck's terracottas, which have hugely enriched the collection. Another recent trend has been towards donations to support the restoration of art works. Financial support of this kind is a significant new strategy."

 

Schilderij Restaurant 'Mille Colonnes' in Amsterdam van Isaac Israels
Restaurant 'Mille Colonnes' in Amsterdam Isaac Israels, donated to the museum by the heirs of Johannes Fredericus Samuel Esser

Leen de Jong: "Or the loan principle, which offers lenders the pride of seeing their work in a major museum. Loans like this often turn into donations in due course. So things have definitely been moving on. Another example is collaboration with commercial galleries, which was once taboo: that’s now changing as well. Meanwhile, people are once again being appointed to forge links with the outside world. I welcome that commitment and the encouragement of a generous culture of giving, which had faded somewhat since the war. Especially in the 1960s. I hope that this book will encourage a re-evaluation of the role and importance of donors."

Cover boek 1818-2018: Schenkingen aan het KMSKA

Available from 10 March

 

Schenkingen aan het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, 1818-2018 by Leen de Jong, Nanny Schrijvers & Ulrike Müller (only available in Dutch)

 

Hardcover, four-colour print
251 x 186 x 59 mm, 608 pages
ISBN 978 94 014 6732 

 

The donor book (in Dutch) can be ordered online via the lannoo.be website.

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