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Searching for the Next Generation: Frie Leysen & the KunstenFESTIVAL

An Interview with Frie Leysen, Director of Brussels’ KunstenFESTIVALdesArts.

By Daniel Mufson

In 2002, The KunstenFESTIVAL in Brussels celebrated its seventh year with works from all over the world, by artists such as William Kentridge, Meg Stuart, Theater Zuidpool, Mapa Teatro, and Rabih Mroué. The festival is the brainchild of Frie Leysen, who was kind enough to talk with me on May 15 of that year.

DM Could you say a few words about the background and the origins of the festival?

Frie Leysen at her office in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Mufson.

Frie Leysen at her office in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Mufson.

FL The first edition was ’94. Before doing the festival, I was directing deSingel in Antwerp. It’s an arts center, with a concert hall with nearly 1000 seats and a theater hall for 800. And when I was looking at Brussels, I felt there were various problems. I saw that many Belgian artists could not present their work in their own capital. And many Brussels artists could not present their work in their own city, because there was a lack of infrastructure and organizations who could do that. The international circulation for me in Brussels was not enough—not enough for a capital and certainly not enough for a European capital. Normally, I’m not such a big fan of festivals; I think seasons are more important and are the basis for artistic life, but sometimes a festival, its concentration in time and space, has a strength that a season doesn’t have.

When I was developing the idea, it was also the moment when Belgium was becoming federalized. That means that before we had one Ministry of Culture, and now, in this federalized Belgium, each community, the French and the Flemish, would have their own Ministry of Culture, their own Minister of Culture, their own politics. Which is okay, but I thought, if we are not careful, we will go to complete separation. There is a kind of mental wall crossing the country and, more specifically, Brussels; the two communities don’t know what’s happening with each other. We are better informed on what’s going on in Paris than what’s going on behind the corner here in the other community. That was the situation. You could hear discourse that was quite nationalistic, not talking about federalism but about separation. These nationalistic tendencies were not just a Belgian phenomenon. It was all over Europe, and it still is. You feel these nationalistic tendencies and racism and intolerance growing all over Europe.

DM Is that a backlash against the EU?

FL Maybe. Maybe it’s because the bigger an entity gets, the more afraid people get, the nearer people want to sit near their church tower and feel cozy and comfortable. I think unification and being part of a big entity goes along with the need for something small and local, something you know very well.

So, to be a little bit pathetic, when Sarajevo happened, we thought, “Let’s try to think of an alternative to Sarajevo.” As a capital of Europe, let’s give an example of how two communities can live together without shooting each other. Of course, you will say in Belgium people will not shoot each other but the verbal aggression, at a certain point, was really violent and, to me, really very dangerous. From there, the question was, “What kind of festival will we develop?” I wanted a kind of festival that is very local, focusing on Brussels, but then zooming out from Brussels into Belgium, into Europe, but not stopping there.

Brussels as caravanserai…

It was very important to say: Okay, unification of Europe is more difficult than we thought but it will happen; the next question will be, what is the relationship of Europe with non-European cultures? When I did the exercise for myself, I was really shocked to realize how little I knew [of non-European cultures]. I think of myself as open and interested and that I am a professional, and when I made the exercise of asking myself what I know of China, for instance, I really had to admit that, apart from the clichés, I didn’t get any further: Peking Opera, acrobats, and then…. That was the early ’90s; now, one knows more filmmakers and writers, but it’s still not so fantastic, the information we have.

So I decided to go around the world looking for multidisciplinary and radically contemporary [work]; KunstenFESTIVAL doesn’t do mainstream or classical, just contemporary work. I decided to go around the world to look for independent artists with the questions, “What are young people today, in an urban context, whether in Latin America or Indonesia or Asia or Africa, what is their vision of their world and how do they shape it? What is their contemporary expression?” With these questions, we started to develop these intercontinental, contemporary presentations in the festival, going against the clichés and trying to find what the young generation today is doing.

What I want with this festival is that Brussels become like a caravanserai, that people from all over the world may come here with their backpacks and settle down here for a time and unpack and share their stories with the audience in Brussels and with the other artists. And at the end of May, they leave Brussels again with new stories and new visions and new ideas in their baggage. I want a confrontation of visions, to disturb a little bit the coziness of our certainties and convictions, to question rather than to confirm.

DM Do the invited artists, so far as you know, see each other’s work?


Photo: Daniel Mufson.

FL Another very difficult question for me is the way touring is organized: It’s ridiculous. People arrive somewhere, do their thing, and leave. They have been between the hotel and the theater where they work and then they go, and they hardly know whether it was Tokyo or Berlin. So what’s the meaning? What we try to do—and it doesn’t always work—is propose to artists that, after they finish performing, the director stays one more week, to be an artistic tourist in the festival. The director has no obligations anymore and can just go and see other shows and meet people. I would love to invite the whole company to stay, but this we cannot afford.

DM In the beginning you were saying that part of the idea for the festival had to do with Belgians coming to Brussels. How do you maintain the local flavor? Is the international overwhelming the local? Do you try to keep a quota of a certain number of Belgian groups?

FL No, I’m not a pharmacist. I don’t want this kind of exact balance. It depends what’s in the air. I don’t want to present the Belgians because they are Belgians. We have the luxury at the moment to have quite talented artists in Belgium, so it’s nice to present them and to present them not in a protective way but in an international context. In fact the festival is a two-way circulation; we bring artists from all over the world to Brussels and we present Belgian artists on an international platform. Every year we have more or less a hundred professionals coming in, theater directors, festival directors, and they discover a lot of Belgian artists they didn’t know.

DM I was wondering if you could talk a little more about your background, how you ended up doing what you’re doing. In the U.S. and to some extent in Europe, it’s more and more the vogue to have training programs in cultural administration and so forth. Did you do one of those?

FL I did a small course on management when I started this arts center in Antwerp, because I really didn’t know anything. That was a general management training program, not specialized for the arts, but it helped me because I didn’t know what the difference was between a budget and the accounts at the end of the year. That helped. I had the chance to learn the job while I was doing it. Nobody was expecting anything from this center I was running in Antwerp. I could fall as often as I wanted because nobody was expecting anything.

An artistic house should not grow old with its director.

DM Did you found that center?

FL The infrastructure was built at the music high school in Antwerp. The idea was to give the future musicians and actors at the school a professional infrastructure so they could work in professional conditions. It was the golden ’60s, and I think that music high school directors cannot read architectural plans very well; while they were building it, they realized that it was huge, far too big for a school. A concert hall with 1000 seats or a theater with 800? This is not a first stage experience for a young musician or actor; you give them a small stage in a small hall. They realized it was too big and that they wouldn’t use the hall every hour of the day; and so they realized that that was going to be a problem, because the golden ’60s were over by then, and then they decided to let this theater and concert hall for rent. They hired me as a concierge; I had the keys and I had to rent the two halls. I said to them, if you have the pretension to build this, you must also add content; just leaving it for rent, what does it mean? It doesn’t add anything to the cultural life in Antwerp. From the start, I started to fight not only to rent it but to develop our own program. After a few years, they were so fed up with us that they said, okay, do whatever you want, but you won’t have a penny for it. We said, okay, now we’ll make a small season, just to have a precedent. And that’s how it started.

DM How did you fund it, then?

FL We did rent; we let the theaters for rental, and with the money from the rental, we programmed. At first, it was 100% rental, 0% of our own program; now it’s changed and it is 0% rental, 100% our own programming. And this took some years.

DM That programming, then, is paid entirely through ticket sales?

FL Oh, no no no no no. Absolutely not. It’s subsidized. Now it’s subsidized by the Ministry of Culture. Flemish.

DM How did you make the switch from Antwerp to here?

FL When I was working there, I always said I would do it only for ten years because I was pissed off with all these people who, once they have the director’s chair, you cannot get them off anymore. I felt that such an artistic house should not grow old with its director because that’s the worst thing—when I see it around me, I think it’s horrible. From the beginning, I said I would do it for ten years, and then the next generation has to take over. So, I left, and I wanted to take a sabbatical, but then I thought about this idea for the festival in Brussels, and I was a victim of my own idea—I had mentioned it to some people, and then all of a sudden it was running. I felt: I said it, now I’ve got to do it.

DM So you had spoken about the idea to some cultural officials?

FL To some friends. The rumor was spreading that Frie wanted to do a festival in Brussels. I was peeling potatoes in my kitchen and I thought, well, maybe Brussels needs a festival now. And then I went to see ministers to get some funding. We got a very little bit of money. First, I worked alone at home; then I found an office that I could rent month by month, because I never knew whether we would exist or not; and so it started.

DM Are gender politics and sexual discrimination still an issue for a woman taking a leadership role in culture today or is that question no longer relevant?

FL I don’t know. I think it’s relevant if you think it’s relevant. For me, it never has been. No. I never paid attention to it.

DM Fair enough. I asked the question because I have heard different opinions from women involved in doing cultural work—

FL —In Europe?

DM Yes. At least, that was their perception in terms of the critical reception that they sometimes received, the attention from certain magazines.

FL No, it’s true, because yesterday I was talking to someone who’s working in Germany in a very big theater, and she said somebody had told her, “Your problem is, first, you’re a woman, and second, you’re intelligent. And it’s not erotic.” So it does exist, but I cannot complain of it. But yesterday, she told me this, and I thought, that’s tough.

DM How would you differentiate KunstenFESTIVAL, say, from Theater der Welt? I know Theater der Welt happens only every three years, but it would seem to have a similar focus.

FL Theater der Welt differs in every edition because it’s always another curator who does it. First of all, I want a festival that, when you open the brochure, you feel it’s Brussels. It must have its local link with the city and with the artistic community in Brussels. Second, we are very radical in new work, and this new work in other continents brings a kind of specificity for the festival. This year we have twenty creations in three weeks time, which is a lot. Which means we cannot say to the public, “Come, because this is marvelous,” and quote beautiful titles in the press, because the only thing we can tell the audience is, “I think it’s going to be interesting.” But it’s twenty creations, so we share the risk.
Another thing that maybe is a little bit different is that I’m not presenting the big artists of today or the big names of today. We are not presenting Bob Wilson or Peter Brook or Ariane Mnouchkine or Zadek or Stein, I’m really searching for the next generation. And that gives another color to the festival. And the last thing that maybe is different, I’m not going around the world shopping and buying interesting productions. When I see an interesting production, I want to get to know the artist who made it. And I try to follow the parcours of these artists for some time—sometimes it’s a few months, sometimes it’s a few years—and once I think I understand more or less what this artist’s view is on society and on art and how he makes theater and in what context and so on, then we start talking immediately about co-producing. That means that there is another relationship. For me, it’s very important that in the festival it’s not about productions but it’s about artists. Because if you start from artists and not from a production, the artist is free to choose the medium which is the best for what he has to say. A theater-maker can say, this theater is not the best vehicle to carry this idea, I have to make an installation. Or whatever.

I refuse to defend an artistic work with social arguments.

DM How much do you pay attention to the character of your audience? Is it mainly local or international? Are you trying to expand your audience in certain directions or do you just say, this is what we have and who comes, comes?

FL My first priority is the Belgian audience. Brussels is not Avignon, where it is nice weather and you can sit at the swimming pool during the day and in the evening go to the theater. Brussels is not the most attractive holiday destination. We work for the Belgian audience, and for me it’s important that we can reach the international audience by touring the productions that are born in Brussels. This kind of prestigious festival that the whole international community comes to see, this is not what we are interested in.

DM Does the festival do educational and outreach activities?

FL No. We have meetings with the audiences after every second performance, and we pay a lot of attention to giving good information to the audience. So we invest a lot of time and money to make good background articles and to offer that to the audience. If you say to the audience, “You must come and see this artist,” but nobody knows who he is, then you have to explain who he is and why you think he’s important.

DM You don’t do work with the schools in Brussels?

FL We do. We work with art schools. For instance, last weekend, we presented the four films that we co-produced, so we had one day with the art schools in Brussels to see the films and then there was a debate between the makers of the films and the students. These kinds of things, we do, but it was not only for the art schools—there was also a normal audience following the debates and [viewing] the films. I would love to develop a relationship with the art schools, but I think this is now the seventh edition of the festival and so it is still quite young. Now, we can start thinking about it. But I think we will never develop a real, important education[al component].

DM In America, where there’s so much private support, many foundations put pressure on the artistic institutions to give an educational component to the work in order to get funding.

FL Yes, I’m so pissed off with that. Everything has to be explained, everything—

DM Then that pressure does exist here, or you’re pissed off that this is happening elsewhere?

FL You feel it coming here, too. Every artistic project nowadays must have a social aspect. And I don’t agree. I don’t accept that an artistic project must necessarily have a social function or impact. No. I refuse to defend an artistic work with social arguments. The arts are always used. I now have the feeling that all the problems in society that on the political level they couldn’t solve or on an economical level they couldn’t solve or on a social level they couldn’t solve, they now give it all to the arts world. They say, “Here is the problem, please take care of it.” I say, “No, I’m sorry, I’m not going to solve these problems.” Although I’m very much engaged socially and politically with the projects I do, this I don’t accept. The arts are not going to solve all the problems in the world. I think an interesting artist is somebody who is very conscious of the society he lives in and is reflecting in a very critical way on the society, but I don’t want this to be recuperated by the politicians so that the artists have to solve all the problems.

DM I know seven years is not such a long time, but have the challenges in running the festival changed over those seven years?

FL It’s still very difficult to survive as a project with two communities. I thought that we were there, but no, it’s still very fragile.

DM Are you perceived as being more part of one community than the other?

FL The French think we are too Flemish and the Flemish think we are too French. So nobody loves us. Now, it’s getting better. I think it’s getting better. My hope was, if we succeeded with the festival, to be—in Belgium, we call it co-communitaire, or bi-communitaire with the two communities, that the festival could be a precedent for other initiatives. And this is not really happening. This is for me still something to work on.

What the changes in the festival are, I think that we co-produce and produce more than we did in the beginning. In the beginning, we made more invitations, now it’s more focused on producing, co-producing. Maybe we have become more radical in the choices of [artists from] the younger generation.

DM Is the KunstenFESTIVAL facing funding pressures that are comparable, say, to those in Germany? In Germany, every year it seems as though this great huge sword is going to fall down and cut things drastically. Is that an issue in Belgium?

FL No. But there’s also a big difference if you compare where you come from. When you look at money for culture in France and Germany, it’s simply huge. If they have some cuts now, I often say, they have been so spoiled—which is okay, I have no problem with that. Of course there are cuts now, but there are still such huge amounts still left. In Belgium, it’s the opposite. We come from very low [levels of subsidy]. Budgets are increasing a little bit, not drastically, but they cannot cut because we come from [such a low starting point]. That’s also why I say, with the money we have at the moment, I prefer to co-produce the Belgians and the non-Europeans, because why should I bring money to the French or the Germans, who have much more money than I do?

DM What’s the balance like between the private and public funding in Belgium?

FL We have no sponsors.

DM No corporate sponsors.

FL Well, some magazines and some newspapers, and the radio and TV.

DM Why is that?

FL I don’t believe in sponsoring in Europe. When you compare American society and European society, they are completely different. In America, everything is privatized. We live in a kind of Socialist society. Healthcare, education, all this is covered by the government, and this is why we pay taxes. And in this logic, it is consistent for the government to pay also for the artistic life in the country. Now, if you take one part of a privatized society, namely the sponsoring, and you transplant it into a completely different society, it doesn’t work. And I think, personally, that it doesn’t work in America, either, because where would Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, the Wooster Group, where would they be without Europe? Nowhere. They are constantly produced by Europe. A sponsor is not interested—I’m sorry—in Merce Cunningham forty years ago. It’s not popular. Sponsoring can work for very popular events, when you reach big audiences, but for real artistic work like Cunningham or Trisha, they would never have existed if they would have depended only on sponsoring.

Exciting work is in the extremes that you cut out if you have to agree with other people.

DM You’re not worried about a waning public interest in subsidizing culture?

FL Yes, it’s a risk, but the only thing I can do is insist to the government that they have to continue doing this. If you say, “That’s okay, I feel it coming that you will give me less and so I will look for some sponsors,” then I am accepting already that you will give me less. I will not accept it. I will say, “This is your responsibility. We are not in the States. We are in Europe.”

DM How do you find the productions you invite? Is it just your decision? Is there a jury?

Photo: Daniel Mufson

Photo: Daniel Mufson

FL I work alone because I don’t believe in consensus. If you have a group, then you have to find consensus, and I don’t think that in the consensus decision you find exciting work. Exciting work is in the extremes that you cut out if you have to agree with other people. The only thing for me that works is I travel a lot and I go to places and try to find out what’s going on there. Which is taking a lot of energy and time, but for me that’s the only way. Otherwise you can just make a festival on the phone. Out of a catalog. If you want to find out what’s going on in Indonesia, you have to go. The first trip, you come back frustrated because you didn’t see what you wanted to see; then you have to go back and dig further.

DM Of the more established artists who you tend not to invite to the festival, do any stick out as being particularly influential among the younger artists? Is there a connection between what some refer to as the historical avant-garde and the new avant-garde?

FL The influence of the Wooster Group is enormous, Pina Bausch is enormous. For me it’s important that these people continue to circulate in Belgium, but the question is, who organizes it? As a festival, if you try to circumscribe the field in which you want to work, it’s important to be consistent with it. Three years ago, we co-produced Trisha Brown’s first opera, Orfeo, which was an idea that was born here. What’s interesting there is that a choreographer for the first time is doing something in a field that is not her own. For Trisha to do an opera—she’s doing it now more and more, but for me that was a challenge, to offer Trisha the possibility to do something that is not a new choreography but that is something that could be a big enrichment for her as an artist and at the same time can be a big enrichment for the genre of opera. It’s not only for the artist, it’s also for the discipline. That’s the kind of work we try to develop. We did a cycle on the work of Monteverdi with people who had never done opera before but who had an interest in music and a musical sensibility. Why is there this kind of décollage between contemporary arts, in film, in visual arts, in theater, in dance, and it never enters the opera houses? And so we set up a Monteverdi cycle. Trisha Brown did Orfeo, William Kentridge did Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, Raffaello Sanzio worked on the madrigals… thinking, “What can opera be today?” Not saying we found a solution, but instead of saying all the time, “Oh, it’s so boring,” let’s see what the difficulties are.

DM What advice would you give to people trying to start their own festivals?

FL Be radical. There’s too many entertainment festivals and too few arts festivals. The festival is more and more becoming an element in the marketing mix for cities’ tourism. Be radical.

Originally posted on on May 26, 2002.

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