Belgian Art Prize Nominees Withdraw After a Critical Open Letter From the Art Community

The five shortlisted artists say the public was too quick to dismiss them as “straight, middle-aged, white, cosmopolitan males.”

The façade of the Bozar art center in Brussels where the BelgianArtPrize nominees will have exhibitions next spring. Photo © Yannick Sas.

The five nominees for the 2019 BelgianArtPrize have collectively withdrawn from the running after members of the country’s art community signed an open letter criticizing the values of the prize inherent in the jury’s selection of an all-male shortlist, artnet News has learned.

Earlier this month, members of the Belgian art community signed an open letter objecting to the exclusionary selection of artists for preeminent prize’s shortlist. Sven Augustijnen, Koenraad Dedobbeleer, Gabriel Kuri, and collaborative duo Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys have issued a joint statement to artnet News, published below, explaining their decision to step away from the competition.

Despite acknowledging some thoughtful conversation that emerged from the open letter, the nominated artists say they regret the reductive view taken by others, who the nominees say were quick to dismiss them all as “straight, middle-aged, white, cosmopolitan males,” and ignore the differences in their approaches and practices.

It is worth noting that their withdrawal is not a concession, as the artists emphasize that the seven members of the prize jury are “professional, supportive, ethical and competent individuals” who are not discriminatory. However, they contend that the shift in public attention away from “artistic discourse or content” and towards “white male privilege” has undermined the prize and made it impossible for their work to be taken seriously.

The withdrawal, they say, is a necessary step “in order that the question of art and merit can plausibly be rethought, restored and put back into the equation.”

As of this writing, the critical open letter on change.org has reached 786 signatures. Among those who have added their names to the list since artnet News last reported on the controversy are Katerina Gregos, who helmed Art Brussels between 2012 and 2016, and the winner of the prize in 2017, the Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga. We have reached out to both but have not heard back by press time.

Artnet News learned that one signature on the original list, that of Cédric Liénart, who is on the BelgianArtPrize’s board of directors, was submitted without his consent. His name has since been removed from the signatories.

Read the joint statement released by the 2019 BelgianArtPrize nominees in its entirety below.

COLLECTIVE WITHDRAWAL FROM BELGIAN ART PRIZE

The outcry towards the all male shortlist that we are part of is now public. Many people keep adding their signatures to a declaration posted on change.org distancing themselves from the values that they claim the Belgian Art Prize stands for, as reflected in us nominees.

As a result, we have had some heartfelt and enlightening conversations that still managed to keep art somewhere at the core. Beyond the much appreciated collegiality put forward by some people, these discussions have reached a predictable limit. We have also seen how for a few others, the bag with the five of us simply leveled “straight, middle-aged, white, cosmopolitan males” is an appealing piece of collateral damage well worth expending in a war of words.

We, the undersigned, know for a fact that none of the 7 individuals in the jury are discriminatory: Sophie Lauwers, Kersten Geers, Bernard Marcelis, Michel Moortgat, Giuliana Setari Carusi, Philippe Van Cauteren and Sylvie Winckler are professional, supportive, ethical and competent individuals.

However, this short list is surely not something that we, nor anyone, should be put in a position to have to defend. We, the selected artists, were shortsighted by simply assuming that each one of us could follow on to be seen for our approach, or the content of our work.

The all too rapid shift of public attention from artistic discourse or content—let alone merit—towards white male privilege is frankly something that we regret.

This leaves us nominees with no better choice but to collectively pull out of the prize in order that the question of art and merit can plausibly be rethought, restored and put back into the equation.

Far from disengaging from the questions and problems that have arisen, we are withdrawing in order that the debate can go on without having to undermine the art, and that the prize may be reassessed.

We work with significantly different approaches and there are many ways in which we differ. The feeling that, in our undeniable and necessary differences, we have been and should remain collegial and friendly, both amongst ourselves and also towards anyone reaching out, is no less clear nor crucial.

Sven Augustijnen, Koenraad Dedobbeleer, Jos de Gruyter, Gabriel Kuri and Harald Thys.


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