European Network of Cultural Centres (ENCC)

'We are creating a cultural ecosystem': interview with Staf Pelckmans

Screen Shot 2024 02 06 At 1230 30 Copy
We asked Staf Pelckmans, director of Cultuurhuis de Warande, about the specificities of the centre and their visions for the future.

ENCC: Staf, when we came to visit your centre, De Warande, with our office team, our first reaction was: This is so huge! There are so many different spaces articulated in the same structure…Can you give us an idea of how it works?

Staf Pelckmans: De Warande opened in the 1970’s, so we’ve had a lot of time to figure out how this kind of cultural space should work. Over the years, trying out a lot of things, we became more and more convinced that culture needs an infrastructure where everything is very close and where everything can happen at the same time. Where people, especially art makers, whether they are making visual art, music, theatre or dance, feel comfortable, not only because they are well-supported technically, but also because they can go in and out of the building day and night. That’s a very relaxing feeling. It is not only a building for the arts, but also a place to meet each other. Over the course of our centre’s history we’ve discovered some good formulas, and we’re still working on them.

For instance, on one hand, the spaces in our building have to be very multiple. On the other, some forms of art need very specific and technically constructed environments. That is why we have two different theatre halls: a very formal one for highly technical productions with 800 seats and so on… and the other one, that we call “de Kuub”, is a very informal, big, open space where anything can be organised. We once had a theatre on ice there [laughs]… we’ve ridden bikes there, we’ve driven a car… So we need sophisticated infrastructures for specific types of art. For exhibitions, we also have two different spaces, a large one on the ground floor, and a very informal space on the 2nd floor. They’re complementary.

I think cultural infrastructure has to be very mediated, and it has to evolve as its content changes. At this moment I feel really proud of our place. I feel that we are very close to achieving our vision, which originated in the 1970’s, of what a cultural house should be.

ENCC: How has that vision evolved since the 1970’s?

Staf Pelckmans: The main difference is that in the early 1970’s, there was the feeling that art was important in its own right. Art as art. That doesn’t work anymore. Now you have to make contact with your audience, you have to involve them. That is a completely different way of thinking. Now you cannot do art without a well built-up audience who believes that art is also for them, that art is something that comes from them. And that reality makes our centre an interesting place, especially since the building is right in the middle of the town, very reachable by foot, by bike, by public transport… and open day and night.

ENCC: 24/7?

Staf Pelckmans: Yes. And not only for artists or cultural workers, but for everyone. That is also important for the art itself, because artists feel very comfortable in a building that they know people love to come to.

ENCC: We saw when we visited the centre that young people were strolling in to relax, listen to music with their headphones...

Staf Pelckmans: Yes. It’s a small city of its own.

ENCC: When we were speaking earlier of your project, I was thinking of Michel Foucault and his idea of 'heterotopias', which are places of 'otherness' and bring together real and imaginary spaces, with multiple layers of meanings... Is that an idea you connect with?

Staf Pelckmans:  Yes and no. About cultural spaces, I think there are two important trends of thought today. One is the idea that brick-and-mortar is not as important as it used to be. Of course, cultural centres are still houses full of different rooms and uses, but more importantly they’re launching bases from which to start activities, partnerships, socio-cultural cooperation. I see our role now as project managers and connection officers. This ties in with the idea of participation, of co-creation, of ownership of culture. And that doesn’t have to happen in the building. It can happen in the field. In fact, what we are doing is creating a cultural ecosystem where amateurs and professional artists can learn from each other. 

The second trend, and this is especially strong in the UK,  is a critique of the use of culture as a marketing tool. From my point of view it is important for us to define what culture can do in its own right, not as an economic lever. Cultural spaces have to be strong enough to act on their own, by presenting quality, asking important questions and being attractive. That cultural power is enough, it does not need to be hijacked for economic or city marketing. What is happening is like using culture as an instrument.  You can have a very nice musical instrument on the table, but if no one is able to play it with feeling, it’s useless.

ENCC: One of the topics you’ve focused on in preparing this conference is the role of artists in cultural centres. Can you describe the specificity of De Warande’s collaboration with them?

Staf Pelckmans: We are in an area where the closest big city is about 40 kilometres away, which for Belgium is both far and not that far away. But in the neighbourhood there nothing else, so on one hand we have the mission of promoting arts, especially the highest professional level of arts in the areas of theatre, dance, music and so on. On the other hand, we also have a mission to create art with very young artists, with beginners. Turnhout is a small town, so people stay here until they are 15, 16, 17 years old, and then they leave to study in larger cities. We feel that it is very important to give them access to artistic practices starting in childhood, up to the time they leave to study elsewhere. That’s why we invest a lot of money in creating art with children and younger people, just to give them the feeling of what art is. For a lot of them, it ends there, but a few of them become actors, painters, musicians, and so on. So what we try to do is on the one hand present very interesting, high-level contemporary art, and on the other hand encourage our users to make art themselves, starting from childhood.

ENCC: You’ve mentioned that you see professional art as being a basis for social-cultural work.

Staf Pelckmans: I think that good art, when it is well-promoted and well-supported, has the power to bring all kinds of thinking together. It’s not just about gathering people to see a play, an exhibition, a concert. As you know a lot of artists have interesting ideas, wild ideas about how society should work. If art is well-made and well-shared, it always drives people to think about their lives. And to be honest, there is a lot of art that feels very good, it is warm, it is not negative, it is not setting people up against each other… I believe that art has a very meaningful purpose in the lives of everyone, even those who think that art is not for them.

ENCC: What does hosting this Shortcut Europe conference mean for you? For the ENCC, De Warande is a very interesting space to hold our event in, as well as being the place where our network was founded... but what is your perspective on the event?

Staf Pelckmans: Because of our long history, we know a lot about the cultural field in Flanders and we have a strong network here. But we always want to grow and discover new ways of thinking and feeling, and for that we cannot look only at Belgium and Flanders. We have to look at what is happening beyond our borders, and that’s one of the reasons I’m interested in being involved in the ENCC’s projects. Another reason is that I’d like to know what people from throughout Europe think of our centre and how it works. How they see this example of a big centre in a very small town, in a rural area. And why they think this is not more common in other countries… I’m very curious to hear about that. I’m also a bit proud that such a small town and small area can present such high-level programming. At least we suppose it’s high-level [laughs].

ENCC: Is there any part of De Warande’s programme during the conference that could be especially interesting for our participants?

Staf Pelckmans: At the time of the conference, we will be presenting an international-level art exhibition, an international film festival and a dance performance which also is touring the world. So participants will be able to see how all this goes hand in hand, in the same building, with work with our local communities. I’m very happy about this, it’s wonderful timing. I’m also very happy about the idea that art is going to play an important role in this conference. I think we want to prove that art is extremely important for socio-cultural work, that when art is well-supported, the audience believes in it. So the focus of the conference is also something I’m very pleased about.

Staf Pelckmans is the artistic and managing director of Cultuurhuis de Warande since 1999. He is also a co-founder and organiser of many cultural projects such as TheaterStap, Stormopkomst art festival for children, MOOOV film festival, Strip Turnhout comics festival, Kunstinzicht art education organisation ; Ar-Tur architecture organization and Stroom educational organisation. He is co-chairman of the VVC cultural and community centre association in Flanders, associated expert to the ENCC board, and visiting lecturer in cultural management at Antwerp Management School, RITCS and others.