Catherine de Zegher, the recently suspended director of Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts. Photo: DVH.

Director of Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts Suspended over Controversial Exhibition

Catherine de Zegher, the director of Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts, has been suspended from her position, pending the results of an external audit. An autonomous municipal company that oversees Ghent’s cultural institutions, the Arts and Design of the city of Ghent, called an emergency meeting on Wednesday, March 7, to address a report published by the Flemish daily newspaper De Standaard, which alleged that de Zegher lied to the city’s cultural committee.

De Zegher has faced mounting criticism over the exhibition “From Bosch to Tuymans: A Vital Story,” which featured works attributed to Russian avant-garde artists that experts claimed were forgeries. The twenty-four works were loaned from the Dieleghem Foundation—a charity established by the Brussels-based Russian businessman and art collector Igor Toporovski—and were displayed alongside pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. In a committee meeting held on Monday, March 5, de Zegher claimed that she had consulted with art historians Magdalena Dabrowski and Noemi Smolik and said that they “were fully involved in the research” related to the exhibition. However, the arts professionals told De Standaard that they were not involved with preparations for the show and that they saw the works for the first time after they were installed in the museum.

Commenting on the decision to suspend de Zegher, the city’s councilor of culture, Annelies Storms, said that the board “lost trust” in the director. She also expressed disappointment in de Zegher’s failure to present documents and other materials related to the exhibition, which committee members asked to review. Councilor Karlijn Deene added that the museum needs to send “a powerful signal to the Flemish and international art world.”

The exhibition, which opened in October 2017, first made waves in the Belgian media in January, when a group of arts professionals published an open letter highlighting their concerns about the authenticity of the pieces. The signatories claimed that some of the works—attributed to artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich—lacked provenance information and were not mentioned in any known scholarship. Shortly after the circulation of the letter, the museum removed the artworks and released a statement saying that it had carried out “a thorough art historical and comparative study of the works” before including them in “From Bosch to Tuymans: A Vital Story.”

The controversy sparked Flemish culture minister Sven Gatz, the museum, and the city of Ghent to set up an expert committee to examine the works. However, last month it was revealed that the panel had disbanded shortly after its first meeting. The museum then canceled the loan and returned the works to the Dieleghem Foundation. The institution’s chief curator, Johan de Smet, will take over as acting director.