Bertels’ career path winds from Belgium to Bentonville

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,567 views 

Lieven Bertels’ career has taken him around the world. His suitcase has stickers from the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia.

And now, Arkansas.

And short of conducting a door-to-door survey, it’s a safe bet he is the only Bentonville resident who has been made a knight in the Order of the Crown, one of the highest honors in his native country of Belgium.

Bertels, 46, is now part of the arts hierarchy of Northwest Arkansas, who will help lead and shape the growth of region’s cultural economy. This past summer, he was announced as the first director of the Momentary, a new innovative arts venue in development near the 8th Street Market in Bentonville. A satellite project of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the adaptive reuse design will transform a decommissioned Kraft Foods plant into a multi-disciplinary space for visual and performing arts and an artist-in-residency program.

The design plans from Chicago-based Wheeler Kearns Architects are ready for bidding and will soon be going out to contractors, Bertels said. The 11-acre venue is scheduled to open in early 2020.

During a recent interview at Crystal Bridges, Bertels said because of his worldly work experience and extensive resume, he can understand the peculiarity that might accompany his presence in Bentonville. Until the third week of September, despite extensive traveling throughout the U.S. for both work and leisure, he had never lived here. And although familiar with Crystal Bridges, Bertels had never visited the museum and even joked about having to look up Arkansas on a map during his recruitment.
But he is firm in his belief that the Momentary is poised to be an international destination, furthering the region’s growing reputation as a destination for arts and culture.

“I won’t hide from the fact that there is a certain quirkiness about [working] here,” Bertels said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s against all odds, because Crystal Bridges has proven that it isn’t. But it is surprising. And I like that it is surprising. There were other conversations I could have had about maybe going to New York [to work] or going to Paris and maybe doing something on the beaten path. This is very much off the beaten path for me, but what excites me is the amazing potential that this region has and the speed in which things change. It is tangible the change that is happening in this part of the country.”

Bertels said he has stopped recording time since his relocation to Arkansas in weeks and has converted to months.

“And it will be years very soon,” he added.

Before joining the Momentary, Bertels — his description for pronouncing his first name is leavin’ on a jet plane —  was the CEO and cultural director of Leeuwarden-Fryslân 2018 European Capital of Culture, a year-long festival in the north of the Netherlands focusing on the arts in a rural context. That experience and the Momentary have many similarities, Bertels said.

“Not all things need to happen in big cities,” he explained. “There’s a lot of interest in cultural projects that can happen in other places. And that was really a message that was very clear from the stakeholders here.”

He specifically mentioned the enthusiasm and vision of Alice Walton —Crystal Bridges’ founder and board chair — and the third generation of the Walton family as important factors in his decision to take the job.

“We are all of the belief that arts and culture can help shape a region, and that is something very dear to my heart,” he said.

From 2011 to 2016, Bertels was festival director for Sydney Festival, a leading arts festival in Australia. The event became known for its diverse artistic offerings and enjoyed wide public support, Bertels said. Before that, Bertels spent seven years as artistic coordinator at the Holland Festival, the oldest and largest performing arts festival in the Netherlands. It takes place every June in Amsterdam.

Bertels also has relevant experience to the Momentary as the inaugural artistic director for the Concertgebouw arts venue in Bruges, Belgium. He was responsible for overseeing the planning, grand opening and programming for the first three years (2001-2004) of the new campus.

“That was good experience for me as far as how you need to marry architectural demands with the usage of space,” he said. “How you unwrap it, how you claim it and start building a team and start finding your first audiences.”

Bertels’ interest in the arts comes naturally, he explained. He said he grew up in a typical middle-class Belgium family, “Which meant you got a lot of free art education thrown into your early life because our schools have art programs. We were always exposed to art.”

Bertels’ father was also an art teacher, and he recalled music being prevalent in the family.

“There was always music in the family,” he said. “Even though my surroundings were very much visual art, my brother and I always sided more toward the music side of things. That’s something we got from my mom’s side of the family.”

Bertels later earned degrees in arts history and musicology from the University of Leuven in Belgium (1993) and a Master of Arts degree in composition from Durham University in the United Kingdom (1994). His early career included jobs as a radio producer, and head of the audio department of the Brussels national film and television school, the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound (RITCS).

Taking the job with the Concertgebouw in 2001, Bertels said, allowed him to find his passion.

“I loved the part of sharing and being the middleman between artist and audience,” he said. “That is still what I get my thrill from — helping artists reach a bigger audience and helping audiences discover things they wouldn’t otherwise discover. I love to see that connection happening.”

Besides the tangible changes occurring in Bentonville — Bertels has so far noticed “many streets are being rearranged, and there is literally the smell of fresh concrete around every corner” — there is something else he has observed. And not just in Bentonville but throughout the region.

“The people that I have spoken with, you can see and feel in those conversations that they are living to change things,” Bertels explained. “To test new things and make new commerce. There are people who have started businesses here or started them elsewhere and [relocated] here. Those are exciting barometers of how quickly change happens and how people really believe we are onto something here.”

Bertels said one business in the creative field he’s been impressed with is Haxton Road Studios in downtown Bentonville. The business is owned by musician, songwriter and producer Neil Greenhaw. The recording studio-slash-music venue opened earlier this year a couple of blocks from the downtown square in a co-development project dubbed the Haxton District, described by Greenhaw as a place “where art and business collide.”

Greenhaw said Bertels is a perfect fit for the regional arts and culture industry, describing him as an open-minded thinker and a cultural incubator.

“He has an appreciation for modern art and the implications for what the arts can do for a community,” Greenhaw said. “He’s been part of projects [like the Momentary] in the past and has seen the results of what they can do for a small town.

“It’s a cliché, I know, but he is fortunate to come into an area where there really is an openness to explore. This community rallies around open-mindedness with arts and creativity, and he’s got a town with major philanthropic support and an already-successful museum backing him that wants to see him do well.”

Bertels said time seems to be flying since his initial conversations earlier this year about moving to Arkansas and leading development of the Momentary. Despite the pace, the fact remains the Momentary isn’t planned to open for more than two years. Between now and then, Bertels will have plenty on his plate — starting construction, beginning to form a team, and thinking about what the first years of the Momentary will look like are right at the top.

“Crystal Bridges is the mother ship, and this is a satellite project. So we’ll share some of those resources, but we will build a small curatorial team that is specific to the Momentary,” he said. “We will also embrace, to a larger extent, the performing arts including concerts, theater and other art forms, and that means some specific curatorial teams for those performing arts as well.”

He added the Momentary won’t solely exist as an opportunity for imported acts.

“We want this place to be part of the local cultural economy,” he explained. “When we talk about great events that includes design, advertising, architecture. We hope we can reinforce all those fields locally.”

In addition to his professional planning, Bertels is also thinking about life in Arkansas with his family. He said his association with the Momentary won’t be fleeting.

“This [Bentonville] is going to be a place to stay,” he said. “You never say never, but we have that intention. The quality of life is so high here, and I think this is a beautiful place to stay for the foreseeable future. We don’t just want to build the Momentary, we want to see it grow. That’s part of the excitement. It’s an open-ended thing for us.”