It's not every day that a Knight of the Belgian Order of the Crown moves into Northwest Arkansas.
But with the appointment of Lieven Bertels as the director of the Momentary -- the new performing arts venue that will be a sister organization to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art -- that's just what happened. Awarded by royal decree to citizens for "services rendered to the Belgian State," the honor was presented to the Belgian-born Bertels in 2013 for his accomplishments in the art world.
PLACE OF BIRTH: Belgium
A PERFORMANCE THAT BLEW ME AWAY WAS: The Object Lesson by theater magician Geoff Sobelle.
A VISUAL ARTIST MANY PEOPLE HAVE NEVER HEARD OF, BUT SHOULD, IS: Sonya Clark.
THE BOOK I’VE BEEN RECOMMENDING LATELY IS: The re-issue of David Toop’s classic Ocean of Sound.
THE QUESTIONS I’VE BEEN ASKED THE MOST IS: How do I like living in Northwest Arkansas? (Spoiler alert: I LOVE IT!)
MY FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH: Any snowy mountain on a sunny day.
BEST ADVICE I EVER RECEIVED: To never stop learning.
IF I HAD THE POWER TO CHANGE ONE THING IN THE WORLD, IT WOULD BE: To end racism.
THE BEST DECISION I EVER MADE WAS: To start organizing concerts.
THE MODERN CONVENIENCE I COULD DO WITHOUT: Plastic cutlery and disposable plates and cups.
TAKE ANYTHING, BUT DON’T TAKE MY: J.S. Bach recordings.
BEST PERSONALITY TRAIT: Curiosity
SOMETHING YOU MAY BE SURPRISED TO LEARN ABOUT ME IS: I was destined to become an engineer.
Through Others’ Eyes
“He’s fiercely intelligent and incredibly worldly. He’s lived all over the planet, on several continents and has been exposed to multiple cultures. Most importantly, he is deeply interested in all cultures. He investigates artists and companies — he does the research, which is so important.”
“The Momentary is not being built in the middle of nowhere. Whether it’s the Walton Arts Center or Latinx Theatre Project, there’s so much happening here. So the ability for someone to come in and be a part of a system, and it not be about them, is one thing that really comes across with Lieven … someone who can come in and get to know a place and be a part of it is important, and will make him a really good fit.” — Joe Randel
Knighthood aside, Bertels' credentials are incredibly impressive, have garnered him international acclaim and include helming some of the most prestigious arts organizations around the world. When it came time to find a director for the Momentary, there should be little surprise that Bertels was at the top of that list.
"He has a tremendous resume," says Joe Randel, Walton Family Foundation senior program officer, who met Bertels nearly 10 years ago when both men were board members for the International Society for the Performing Arts. "Lieven has worked at some of the largest multi-disciplinary arts festivals in the world. And he has a great track record when he moves to a new place, as far as building relationships and connections and becoming a part of that community."
Bertels -- whose sharp but gentle wit is delivered in a soft, elegant accent -- admits that, prior to being tapped for the Momentary job, he couldn't pick out Arkansas on the map.
"I still meet Americans who don't know where Arkansas is," he says. "And that's OK because it's our role to change that, if we want to. Maybe, sometimes, we don't want to. We just want to make it a more enjoyable region. Doesn't mean we want everyone to come and share it with us." He pauses to smile. "But we're a sharing people."
Bertels sees similarities between his home country and Northwest Arkansas.
"[Belgium is] a country that's become sort of one metropolitan area, almost, with the exception of a couple of small national parks in the south, which are lush, rolling hills -- a little like the Ozarks. But the north has become pretty much one metro area strung together, quite similar, in a way to the five cities we have here in the region."
Born into the arts
It's not a surprise that Bertels developed an early interest in the arts: The Belgian school system, he says, provides for one hour of private visual, performing or music art instruction every day for school-age children. Bertels' art exposure was further magnified because of his father's profession as a visual arts professor.
"We were always being dragged to museums when we were kids," says Bertels of himself and his two siblings. "I can remember many a museum show opening where you would just be sitting in the corner waiting for all of the speeches to be over and for the reception and drinks part of it to start. We would build our family holidays around museum openings around Europe, and we would travel and spend time at artists' houses."
Bertels primarily focused his school-based art instruction on music. He plays a little piano, he says, but saxophone was his primary love.
"I recognized fairly early that I didn't have the talent to do that professionally," he says wryly. "Sometimes it's about recognizing what you're not really good at. I enjoyed it tremendously, but I also recognized that there were many people better at that, and so that was not what I should be doing. So you look at, 'What can I do?'"
This precocious self-awareness led to early successes. As a college student, Bertels organized and produced a series of music concerts.
"I liked that so much, and I took some risks as well," he says. "I was investing my savings in underwriting concerts -- which was a bit mad -- but this was also before the day of the Internet. So I would say, often, you wouldn't know what you were doing, but you were just trying it. And if it worked, you would think, 'Well, that's nice. I could do that for a living.' You were just making it up as you went."
But Bertels clearly had an innate skill in the field, and what wasn't intuitive to him, he learned through doing. His early, daring foray into arts programming and organizing was a harbinger of his future successes. The programming, in particular, was innovative, risky and, ultimately, extremely successful.
"There was a vocal group in the United Kingdom at the time that had started rising in popularity called The Hilliard Ensemble," Bertels says. "They had started doing things with classical and Renaissance and medieval music. They started [collaborating] with Jan Garbarek, who was a Norwegian jazz saxophonist, and those kind of crossovers became very popular. That was one of the first concerts I organized, and that was a sellout. You think, 'OK, you're on to something here.'
"What I really enjoyed and appreciated most was doing all of these other aspects, as well as programming. Programming is having a good idea, but producing the concert ... is learning the hard way that you need to find the right quality of hotels for your artists, to working out how you get them from the airport to the concert venue, and all of these other aspects. Publicity, looking for sponsors and all of those elements are very much still what I enjoy today. Ultimately, I still feel exactly the same as I did at that first concert, which is, if your job is done and done well, you almost feel like you step out of the equation, and it's between the artist and public. You're only the enabler."
Once out of college, Bertels taught, continued his studies and worked for the VRT, the Belgian national television station. At the tender age of 29, he was tapped to help build and open a brand new, state-of-the-art concert venue in Bruges.
"That was thrilling," he says of helping to establish Concertgebouw Brugge. "I was pinching myself back then, saying how special it was to actually be building it from the ground up and being a part of the team, deciding what it was going to look like and how we were going to use it. It was a very exciting time."
Following that success, Bertels became a hot commodity, as appointments to high-profile arts venues and festivals came fast and furious. He worked as the artistic coordinator for the Holland Festival, the Netherlands' largest art festival, under renowned artistic director Pierre Audi. After a seven-year stint there, Bertels took the helm as director of the largest festival in Australia, the Sydney Festival, which routinely pulls in nearly 700,000 participants during its three-week run each January and pumps tens of millions of dollars into the Australian economy. Bertels was serving as cultural director for the Leeuwarden Fryslan 2018 European Capital of Culture when he was tapped for the position at the Momentary.
"I got really excited about this," he says. "I thought it was remarkable that there would be another opportunity for me to help build another arts center. But also, it's just such a game changer for a region and a city. It's a really exciting project to be involved in."
For Bertels, the consummate globetrotter, the location might have been somewhere he had never considered moving, but for Bertels, the man, who counts curiosity as one of his greatest traits, finding himself in Northwest Arkansas was just another adventure.
"There are plants that you have to uproot from time to time and give new soil, and I think I'm one of those," he says with a smile. "But in equal measures, this was both thrilling and scary."
And then there's the fact that the entire concept of the Momentary is clearly something that excites him to his bones. A press release about the center from Tom Walton and the Walton Family Foundation says the Momentary will be "a cultural hub where inspiration brings together musicians, visual artists and the entire community."
"Lieven has spoken to me about the kinds of buildings that are going to be built," says friend and colleague Laura Colby, president of Elsie Management. "It's not going to be just another performing arts center. They are clearly going out of their way to work from a point of creativity and inspiration -- directly reflecting where a lot of artists are creating from these days ... The Momentary is going out of its way to provide a different frame in which to present contemporary work."
"This is a satellite project to Crystal Bridges -- it sits under the same umbrella organization, and it has the same mission and vision as the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art," Bertels says. "Having said that, there is a strong desire to now boldly look at art by living artists and go further into the 21st century and to embrace two things at once -- the present and the future. But also to really think of a sense of place. And the channel to do that is very much through visual arts, but also through music and performing arts and culinary arts and social experiences in equal measure. So we're designing this building, so that we can host performing arts and visual arts gallery spaces and culinary explorations. But [we will] make sure that these can interact, as well, so that when we work with living artists who might come to the Momentary and work in one of the studio spaces, they might be involved in something culinary or with performing arts, with the hopes that our local community will be able to watch."
Planted in community
The plans include repurposing an 63,000-square-foot Kraft cheese plant located about one-and-a-half miles south of Crystal Bridges.
"Sometimes, it's hard to force ephemeral and nontangible things, ideas, on to a building," Bertels says. "Sometimes, you need to listen to the architecture. The architects are very good at that. We are conscious that this is adaptive reuse. We have committed ourselves to using an existing building. We have to listen to the building: What does it inspire in us? How can we use that? And then you come up with things that would never have been designed on paper, that are potentially more exciting than [if] they been designed top down."
In addition to listening to the building, Bertels says listening to the community ranks high on his priority list.
"The other thing that sits well with the ethos of the Walton Family Foundation behind this project is to not force things upon a region or a community, but to come in nimble and humble, and say, 'This is a new element that shakes up the ecosystem here. Let's have the conversation: How does that affect you as an artist or as an organizer or as another institution, and how can we play together?'"
"I think [Lieven] believes very deeply that he needs to understand where the work is coming from and where it's being presented," Randel says. "You can't parachute in and make one quick visit or phone call. You have to build relationships. That seems very innate to him. He has been here less than a year, and I've seen him out at performances in the community all the time. I see him talking to a wide variety of community members, both inside and outside the arts."
The Momentary is scheduled to open its doors in 2020. In the meantime, Bertels has his hands full, readying every aspect of the project. And although he enjoys immersing himself in all facets of the preparations -- much as he did when organizing concerts in college -- he believes true success in his field means his pervasive involvement should be nearly imperceptible.
"There's a theory with scientists that specialize in glue, that the more glue you apply, the worse the joint gets," he says. "So you try and make sure there's little glue in there, and that makes for a better connection. I like that analogy for what we do. It's not about the great idea of the curator or the programmer; it's about an audience getting an opportunity to discover an artist and an artist who had an opportunity to communicate with the public.
"If we do it well, we should be invisible."
NAN Profiles on 09/23/2018
Print Headline: Lieven A.H. Bertels