PRINT Summer 2014


Jan Hoet

IT IS NO EXAGGERATION to say that I got my start in the art world—look, Ma, I’m in Artforum!—thanks to my incomparable, indefatigable compatriot Jan Hoet. Back in the late 1990s, I was a disoriented philosophy student hanging around Ghent; I enjoyed writing about contemporary art, occasionally managing to get the odd piece published. One such text, about Wim Delvoye’s food-consuming, feces-producing installation Cloaca, 2000, eventually appeared in Kunst Nu, the quarterly magazine of SMAK in Ghent. I am convinced that Hoet, the founding director of the museum, never got around to reading the publication himself; but Delvoye, who was quite impressed with said article (what young philosopher doesn’t want to write about shit?), directed his attention to my writing.A couple of months later, Hoet hired me to oversee the production of the three-hundred-plus-page catalogue that would accompany Sonsbeek 9 in Arnhem, the Netherlands, in 2001, one of a handful of large-scale, open-air exhibitions for which Hoet was best known in the later years of his career.

It was in Arnhem, under Hoet’s capricious wing, that I got my first serious taste of the contemporary art world (I have continued to work with quite a few of the seventy-odd artists to whom Hoet introduced me in the course of that project, among themHans Eijkelboom, Gelitin, Gabriel Kuri, and Mark Manders). Shortly after Sonsbeek 9, Hoet sent me on one more mission: a one-week stay in Rome with Jannis Kounellis and his family—despite the fact that I didn’t speak Greek or Italian, and Kounellis didn’t speak any of the languages I knew—in preparation for a catalogue that was to accompany the artist’s solo show at SMAK in 2002. This was the closest I ever got to working with Hoet in a solid institutional setting; shortly thereafter our paths would diverge forever, and my career as a curator would only properly take off under someone else’s wing—that of Bart De Baere, who was, in fact, another protégé of Hoet. Hoet’s wings spanned far and wide, across generations. His tenure at SMAK lasted more than a quarter century, from the institution’s inception in 1975 to 2003; his groundbreaking oversight of Documenta 9 in 1992 drew, for the first time, over half a million visitors to the exhibition, and he was still expanding his influential legacy as artistic director of MARTA Herford in Germany at the time of his death.

Curatorially and intellectually, I never felt much affinity with Hoet’s take on art—primarily because, for him, art was fundamentally not an intellectual matter but one of the heart, gut, and soul. I still do not understand the role played by these chimerical organs in the appreciation of art. Yet it is not in the tiresome trench warfare between instinct and intellect that, for me at least, the full measure of Hoet’s truly monumental contribution to the history, culture, and art of curating is located. Sure, the man could hang a show with the best of them, but the most valuable lessons I learned during those long winter evenings in Arnhem concerned the role of the curator—although this was not a word that I ever heard him use, at least when he was referring to himself—as a caretaker of relations among people as much as, if not more than, those among works of art. Indeed, what I remember most vividly of my time working at Hoet’s side, and what I have subsequently found most inspiring for my own curatorial practice, is his tireless talent for hosting—for making artists feel at home, not just in the exhibitions in which their work was included but in the little island of art-world conviviality that Hoet wished every single exhibition to be: exhibition as community. (I would disgrace his memory here if I didn’t add that these impromptu exercises in community building occasionally also became the stage for a tyrant’s temper tantrum—woe betide those artists who did not warm to Hoet’s notion of hospitality the way he saw fit.) Art as a human resource—that’s where Hoet’s genius lay. So long, Jan.

Dieter Roelstraete is Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.