European Quarter residents up in arms at ‘administrative proliferation’

The poorly-publicised Wiertz museum attracts only a handful of visitors each day. [William Murphy/Flickr]

Residents of Brussels’ European Quarter have spoken out against a proposal to lease the house of Belgian romantic artist Antoine Wiertz to the European Parliament for a symbolic €1.

Huddled between the European Parliament and the Leopold Park, the enigmatic Wiertz museum, and the artist’s house and garden next door, belong to the Belgian state.

The 19th century painter persuaded the Belgian government to build the museum on the site of his studio in exchange for the donation of his life’s work, with the understanding that his paintings would continue to be displayed after his death.

But new proposals to lease the artist’s house to the European Parliament for just €1 have angered local residents.

They see the museum as a “bastion” against the “administrative proliferation” that has swept the neighbourhood since the Parliament moved in in the 1980s. For the last 30 years, residents have fought to defend their communities against this wave of institutionalisation and the train of security measures that accompany it.

“We are in constant contact with the Belgian authorities about possible uses for the surrounding buildings,” the European Parliament’s press service said on Wednesday (30 November), adding that the talks concerning the artist’s house were in a very early, exploratory stage. “Absolutely nothing has been decided.”

“Grandiose façadism”

The Parliament has recently scooped up other local buildings, including the seat of the old Eastman Institute, situated in the Leopold Park. The building has been renovated and extended and is due to re-open as the House of European History soon.

But locals are unsatisfied and want to protect the neighbourhood’s remaining heritage and public spaces against this “grandiose façadism”.

Once home to many artists’ studios, the neighbourhood is now dominated by the administrative buildings of the European institutions. For the Quartier Léopold residents’ association (AQL), this lease would have “unacceptably negative consequences” on the area’s identity and urban diversity.

The European Parliament could not comment on the possible uses for the artist’s house if it is acquired, but was clear that the museum and its contents would remain unaffected. On top of the symbolic payment of €1, the legislature would take responsibility for the maintenance of the house and garden.

The AQL last week launched a petition calling on the Belgian authorities to “honour the memory and will of Antoine Wiertz by opening his house to artists again and by ensuring that the museum is better promoted and more accessible”. They fear seeing it become “the playground of dignitaries and their guests”.

The association has submitted a rival proposal to turn Wiertz’s house into an artists’ residence. This would go hand in hand with the Ixelles Commune’s project to convert two buildings in a neighbouring street into a complex of six artists’ studios and an exhibition room, to compensate for the studios previously consumed by the institutions.

“And as the state is prepared to sell the house of Antoine Wiertz to the European Parliament for the laughable sum of €1, the AQL suggests that the Ixelles Commune and the city of Brussels raise the stakes and bid double that amount,” the association said.

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