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With the Phoebus Foundation Fernand Huts has created a home for his multifarious collections and provided a model for philanthropy in Flanders. He talks to Apollo about his playful yet strategic approach to acquiring art

I am not a collector but a cultural entrepreneur who collects,' insists Fernand Huts. It is a subtle but crucial distinction. In 2011, the Belgian businessman and his wife Karine established the Phoebus Foundation to ensure the future of an eclectic group of collections which they had acquired either for themselves or for the family-owned Katoen Natie group. Originally a cotton-handling co-operative founded in the port of Antwerp in 1854, Katoen Natie has over the last three decades been transformed by Huts into a globally successful logistics service provider and applied engineering group.

The foundation's collections have continued to grow apace through major acquisitions, but what clearly excites Huts is not so much the individual artworks as the many imaginative ways in which the foundation uses them for the public good. At its core is a desire to repatriate, conserve, research, publish and exhibit works largely but by no means exclusively--from the Flanders region. These range from Flemish paintings and drawings of the 15th to 17th centuries to maps, atlases and topographic views, as well as Belgian modern and contemporary art.

The curatorial team, headed by Katharina van Cauteren, has masterminded or collaborated on some six exhibitions and produced the same number of major publications, as well as 14 pocket-sized Phoebus Focus books that zoom in on individual highlights. Two of the foundation's collections are on permanent display, while other works are on long--or short-term loan--both nationally and internationally. The energy and industry of the enterprise are hardly surprising given that the irrepressible Huts is at the helm.

Before we meet at noon, I spend the morning at Katoen Natie HeadquARTers, a heritage project in itself. This corporate HQ preserved and integrated four former 19thcentury harbour warehouses and two art nouveau houses in an award-winning scheme by architects Robbrecht en Daem (2000). Here every open space, including corridors and courtyards, is filled with arresting and mostly large-scale works of contemporary art. Turn a corner, and there is a tattooed pig by Wim Delvoye. Look up and find one of Pablo Suarez's terrified naked men clinging on to a pole. Huts is a firm believer that art in the workplace aids creative thinking.

While such collections are not particularly unusual for corporate headquarters, this one stands out because a large proportion of it is from Latin America. Indeed, the first works the visitor encounters are groups of totemic sculptures by Maria Causa and Libero Badii, and a corridor of screaming colonels in oil and collage by Antonio Berni. The Phoebus Foundation, it turns out, owns the largest collection of Latin American art in Europe.

Even more unexpected are the contents of the beautifully presented, six-gallery private museum embedded in this building, and open to the public by appointment. This houses some 3,500 years of textile art and lays claim to being the largest holding of Coptic textiles in the world. Alongside are Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities that mostly have some relationship to costume and textiles. Across the road, a separate warehouse is being renovated in order to present the large collection of CoBrA art; this will be operational as a museum within a year. Driven to another warehouse, I see a collection of rescued port heritage memorabilia awaiting its permanent home.

Another journey takes me to the Chancellery, the Antwerp townhouse that serves as the foundation's headquarters. I meet Huts in the library; its roaring fire and traditional wood panelling offer a stark contrast to the brightly coloured, squidgy contemporary furniture. The Chancellery, explains the 69-year-old, wearing snazzy multicoloured glasses and smart jeans, is a playground for ideas. 'Play is the mother of creativity and creativity the mother of innovation,' is something of a mantra. 'You have to remember that the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys,' Huts says, beaming. 'When I was a boy I was playing strategic games like Stratego and Monopoly--now I am still playing but in the real world.' Strikingly, Huts' playful outlook--along with his entrepreneurial approach to business--also defines his cultural endeavours.

No sooner have we sat down and drunk a cup of coffee than I am whisked off again. This time we are driven to the waterbus that will take us up and across the River Scheldt and deep into a landscape of depots, refineries and cranes that signals the port of Antwerp. Our stop is the site of the old Singelberg fortress at Quay 1548 where, surrounding a Katoen Natie operations complex, there is an open-air sculpture park and garden, as well as the art storage facility and conservation studio of the Phoebus Foundation. This is an interview conducted in almost perpetual motion, and wherever we go Huts has a friendly word or handshake for everyone.

'This all started with my doctor telling me that I could continue working the way I was but that I would not be working for long,' Huts tells me. 'He said I should cut back my responsibilities and do something else.' What began as a relaxing diversion turned into a major philanthropic enterprise. 'This was at the end of the 1980s,' he continues. 'My wife was a judge. We had three children, she had an intensive job, and I was building up a company. We were both keen readers, interested in history and anthropology, and so we decided to take an evening course on antiquities.' The lecturer who piqued their interest was Antoine De Moor, an authority on Egyptian textiles of the late Roman, early Byzantine and early Islamic periods. They ended up acquiring most of the collection he had been slowly amassing since the 1950s.

With De Moor as the collection's consultant, the couple continued to fill in gaps to create a holding of some 1,150 textiles and approximately 700 other pieces. Included here are compelling groups of mummified cats, ibis, tiny crocodiles and fish, plus a range of mummy cloths, painted collars, foot coverings, cartonnage masks, funerary goods and Graeco-Roman sculpture depicting the garments of the period. The textile collection is Karine Huts' baby, and she plays a key role in this story (although sadly was unable to join us for the interview). She and De Moor have overseen the painstaking conservation of these fragile and often fragmentary fabrics, many of which have survived with their original colours intact thanks to the dryness of the desert burial grounds. A great number have also undergone thorough technical analysis, particularly those with unusual dyes, and dated through radiocarbon tests.

It was Karine Huts who insisted that the rare costumes were brought to life by displaying them as if worn, and alongside the accessories that would have accompanied them. So we also find strangely affecting, personal items such as socks, caps, linen trousers, and leather shoes, as well as belts, jewellery, combs and hairpins. The atmospheric, dimly lit Tunic Room, in particular, is unparalleled.

Such a collection is perhaps appropriate for a company that began trading in skins, wool and cotton--but that was not the only appeal for Huts. 'I am an entrepreneur who thinks in terms of niche markets, and in those niches we want to be the best. I realised that we should think in terms of niche collections and added value too. Many museums have nice textile collections but they display very little of them. Here we have built one up and made it a real strength, and every two years we stage a world textile congress which brings together scholars from all over the world to meet and exchange their scientific knowledge. The lectures are published in an illustrated art book, which is what makes it extremely attractive for them to participate. It makes us really proud that all the top specialists come to Antwerp. It means we are doing the right things,' Huts tells me.

The collection of modern and contemporary Latin American art, which grew out of extended business trips taken over many years since 1997--initially to Uruguay --is another niche and very much a collaborative effort. 'It is another world, another culture,' Huts explains, 'but then you grow in it by reading books and catalogues, going to exhibitions, and meeting and befriending artists. You begin to understand it. It took six years before we felt we were ready to start buying art.'

Highlights here range from Joaquin Torres-Garcia's Arte Constructivo (1943; Fig. 4), whose geometries characteristically combine pictograms, to Pablo Atchugarry's monumental site-specific marble sculpture, Movimiento en el mundo (2014), which soars out of the Singelberg skyline as part of the sculpture park. More recently, colonial art from Latin America has also been incorporated into the collection: the standout piece is an anonymous oil painting dated around 1784 depicting The Lake Monster of Tagua Tagua (Fig. 3), which now bares its teeth at visitors to the Chancellery.

Initially, Fernand and Karine Huts were buying drawings as well as textiles, starting with 20th-century Belgian artists such as Leon Spilliaert. 'We began with the period from 1880 to the 1930s, a time when we had really good Impressionist and Symbolist artists working in the artist's colony of Sint-Martens-Latem,' Huts explains. 'We are Flemish so we started with Flemish artists. It is our heritage.' Paintings followed, by Expressionists such as James Ensor and by surrealist and CoBrA artists, the latter collection focusing on the earlier years of the artistic movement. The couple continued to look forward but they also looked back to the Golden Age of Flemish painting.

Many of the most memorable Flemish paintings and drawings seen on the market in recent years have been secured for the foundation. Included among them is The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis of around 1470-82 by the great Hugo van der Goes, all the more fascinating for the underdrawing of its central unfinished section (see Collectors' Focus, pp. 74-75). It is now on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago. Jan Gossaert's Madonna and Child of around 1520 is another gem, as is Jan Sanders van Hemessen's extraordinary Portrait of Elisabet, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary of around the same date. They join panels by the likes of Gerard David, Quentin Massys and Jan van Scorel (Fig. 2), and a pen-and-ink landscape drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens (Fig. 1) and Anthony van Dyck represent the 17th century; recently added to this group was the last pair of marriage portraits by Frans Hals remaining in private hands. Many of these works are on loan to Antwerp museums.

Several of these works are destined for an upcoming exhibition in Tallinn, organised in association with the government of Estonia. Closer to hand is the planned show at Geel, whose Irish patron saint Dymphna inspired the town's pioneering approach to psychiatric care. The Phoebus Foundation effectively saved for the nation the monumental Dymphna altarpiece commissioned for the Norbertines' Tongerlo Abbey around 1515 from Goswin van der Weyden, grandson of the famous Rogier. Its panels are currently being restored by a team under Sven Van Dorst, a conservator who left the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge to head the foundation's studio and conservation projects (Fig. 5). A second current technical and art-historical research project concerns a monumental ensemble of ceiling paintings illustrating the story of Cupid and Psyche made by Jacob Jordaens for his own house in Antwerp around 1652. Supervising this are Leen Kelchtermans and Katharina van Cauteren.

It is clear that the foundation operates on a budget of which the Belgian national museums can only dream. In December, Huts announced that the family group would increase its funding to the foundation from 0.35 to 0.5 per cent of its annual turnover. That 10m [euro] or so is more than the sum allocated by the government of Flanders to its 21 recognised museums altogether. 'The public sector is working with other targets and other histories,' Huts says, 'and they have a different way of thinking and working. We can act very quickly.' His foundation is able to acquire works of national heritage that the government cannot afford--'someone has to do it', he says--but it is also tempting to presume that the often outspoken former politician relishes this opportunity to create an alternative cultural offering that presents imaginative and well-promoted exhibitions and events that can also be tremendous fun.

Belonging to the foundation, for instance, is a significant group amassed by Fernand and Karine Huts of some 400 books, manuscripts and works of art relating to the medieval allegorical fables of Reynard the Fox, a trickster whose origins lie in the lands around Singelberg. Instead of a traditional and potentially dry exhibition, 'A Fox Hunt: An Expedition into the Land of Reynard' (2018) was an immersive cultural expedition in which participating cyclists were taken on a tour around Flemish Waasland and Dutch Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, while a number of digital initiatives aimed to attract a wider audience. The fairy-story entrance created at Singelberg is still visible to tell the tale. In fact, most of the monumental sculptures here relate specifically to Flemish local heritage.

'A country's future is based on its past,' Huts tells me. 'Every human being asks themselves questions. Who am I? Why am I who I am?' Such enquiries into national identity and character are explored in typically mischievous fashion in Tales of a Jester, a book 'about Flemings, Walloons and Brussels natives' written by one Jules Van Bochelt, a.k.a. Fernand Huts. The desire to understand and preserve the nation's cultural heritage, including its tradition of civic duty, drives this foundation's philanthropic mission. 'For us, collecting art was not about possession or financial investment but about placing it in a cultural background and doing something interesting with it,' Huts continues. 'I thought hard about how I might inject entrepreneurial thinking into a way of benefitting the heritage.'

Huts clearly understands the importance of appointing the right team to work creatively together and in collaboration with other institutions--each project relies not only on a core of staff but also on a wide range of freelance specialists. It would seem that he has also provided a corporate structure that nourishes the atmosphere of this playground-cum-laboratory. Establishing this kind of foundation, familiar in the Anglo-Saxon world but rare in Flanders, which protects the collections against any future claims made by family members or by the corporations that support it, may even encourage others to do the same. Phoebus Apollo, the Olympian god after whom this foundation is named, was the protector of the muses. Fernand and Karine Huts are cultural custodians with their feet firmly on the ground, but their ambition knows no bounds.

Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.

Portrait by Frederik Vercruysse

Caption: Fig. 1. Fernand Huts photographed at the Phoebus Foundation's storage facility, Antwerp, infaecember 2019, Beside him is Portrait of the Artist's Daughter, Elisabeth Jordaens (c. 1637-45) by Jacob Jordaens

Caption: Fig. 2. Portrait of Joost Aemsz. Van der Burch. 1541, Jan van Scorel (1495-1562), oil on panel, 93.7x77.2cm

Caption: Fig. 3. The Lake Monster of Tagua Tagua, c. 1784, unknown master, oil on canvas, 103 x 160cm

Caption: Fig. 4. Arte Constructivo, 1943, Joaquin Torres-Garcia (1874-1949), oil on canvas, 68.5 x 84.7cm

Caption: Fig. 5. Conservators at work restoring panels from the altarpiece Seven scenes from the life and veneration of Saint Dymphna (c. 1515) by Goswin van der Weyden (c. 1465-after 1538)
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Title Annotation:FERNAND HUTS
Author:Moore, Susan
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Jan 1, 2020
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