Bruegel museum in Brussels blocked by Belgian bureaucracy

Celebrations to mark 450th anniversary of death of 16th-century painter put on hold

Who knows how the Flemish Old Master Pieter Bruegel the Elder, renowned for his ability to capture the rhythms of 16th-century peasant life, would have depicted it: a very modern Belgian bureaucratic farrago that threatens to mar celebrations of his legacy.

Bruegel House, a dedicated museum to his life and work, was due to have opened in October 2019, the centrepiece of the 450th anniversary of his death. But a strict financial rule to guard against over-spending has led to the project being put on hold, despite no money being required from Belgium’s federal government.

Portrait of Pieter Brueghel the Elder
Portrait of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Photograph: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts and the Flemish tourist board have pledged €2.7m (£2.4m) to turn a 15th-century house in the Marolles district of Brussels into a state-of-the art museum that would tell the story of the artist’s life and work.

But under a rule that all spending by federal agencies over €50,000 must be approved by ministers, the project needs permission from Belgium’s federal government. On Friday, it emerged that permission had not been granted.

“The project is not abandoned but for the moment it is on hold,” Samir al-Haddad, a spokesperson for the Royal Museums, said. “We are still looking for a solution.”

“It is not that we are begging for money,’ he added. “The strange situation is that we have €5m in our reserves, but with this financial regulation we cannot dig into those reserves.”

The delay will be a deep disappointment to art lovers in Belgium, where the project has been under discussion for years. Heritage experts also fear for the future of the 15th-century brick house on rue Haute, which has been unoccupied for a decade. Inherited by the state in 2008, following a bequest from its private owner, the house soon became a candidate for the museum because the artist lived in that street during his years in Brussels.

Born in Antwerp, Bruegel spent much of his life in Brussels. While living at rue Haute, he married at the church around the corner and painted some of his best known works, such as Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which hangs in the Fine Arts Museum. He died in Brussels in 1569.

The Fine Arts Museum is also planning to publish a book on Bruegel’s winter scenes for the anniversary year, but the opening of Bruegel House was to be the high point.

Explaining its decision to ban the museum from dipping into its reserves to fund Bruegel House, a representative for budget minister Sophie Wilmès, told Le Soir that the proposed funding was “not a desirable solution because it contradicted the budgetary objectives for federal agencies”.

For now, nobody knows when the house will open to the public.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

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