Sol de la Guardia and Oscar Muñoz

Arts, Culture & Democracy: experience from the European Parliament’s Contemporary Art Collection

Sol de la Guardia and Oscar Muñoz work in the Cultural Outreach Unit in the European Parliament. Within the Directorate-General for Communication, the team in this unit manages the European Parliament’s contemporary art collection, organises art exhibitions, guided tours and other cultural events. Through all these activities, they aim to spark conversations about important societal issues. Oscar is an art curator responsible for the collection management and conservation. He holds a Ph.D. in Art History and has worked at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía and at the Spanish Cultural Heritage Institute. Sol has worked in communications since 1997, joined the European Parliament in 2009 and currently works with PAN EU cultural organisations and artists on developing tools to mobilise and connect the cultural sector with democracy, with a view to bringing citizens to vote in the European Elections 2024.

Unlike the works of a museum collection, which see the constant flow of visitors pass before them, the works of art of the European Parliament collection witness the social and political daily life of the institution that houses them. The European Parliament’s Contemporary Art Collection, that currently includes just over six hundred works, was born out of the initiative of its first president, Simone Veil, who on the threshold of the 1980s considered it appropriate for the institution to begin collecting works of art, following the notable examples of some European national parliaments.

According to her approach, the collection should bring together artistic works from each of the ten countries that, at that time, made up the European Economic Community, giving priority to young artists, not debutants, who had already achieved recognition.

As Veil wrote in a letter dated December 1980 (Parliament’s archives):

“L’opinion publique déplore souvent l’absence de dynamisme de la politique culturelle communautaire, ainsi que le peu de d’encouragement à la production artistique dans les différents Etats membres; l’achat annuel de quelques œuvres d’art devrait permettre d’encourager des artistes dont la renommée est encore limitée.” (‘Public opinion often deplores the lack of dynamism in Community cultural policy, as well as the lack of encouragement for artistic production in the various Member States; the annual purchase of a few works of art should make it possible to encourage artists whose reputation is still limited’.)

Almost forty-five years after its creation, this contemporary collection is among the most culturally diverse of its kind. With contributions from every single Member State, the body of work seeks to evolve, continuously striving to live up to the European motto of “united in diversity”.

By contrast with the cultural policy that Veil regretted back in the early eighties, the role of culture in stimulating citizens’ political commitment to democracy has been repeatedly acknowledged in our present day European context, most recently in the European Commission’s report Culture and Democracy: the evidence. How citizens’ participation in cultural activities enhances civic engagement, democracy and social cohesion. In addition, over the last decade, the European Parliament has adopted several resolutions in support of artists and the creative sector, most recently in November 2023 with the EU framework for the social and professional situation of artists and workers in the cultural and creative sectors. Both documents respond to the current reality of these sectors, which account for 3.8% of total EU employment and contribute about 4% to the EU GDP.

The Contemporary Art Collection is conceived as a communication tool to illustrate and open debate on social and political issues that concern both Parliament’s legislative work and European citizens. On the other hand, since 2020 the Collection has seen its acquisition strategy adapted profoundly in order to reach a gender-balance. It is one of the few collections with an explicit pledge towards parity, which prompted the exhibition “Art Herstory. Female perspectives in the European Parliament’s Contemporary Art Collection”, held in Brussels’ Parlamentarium (2022-2023).

The spirit of committed effort and collective involvement, which drives a significant part of today’s visual arts, is one of the key topics of “Art in Democracy”, presented in Brussels’ and Strasbourg’s Parlamentarium, as well as in the context of Sculptura 2024 in Tour & Taxis.

Given the proximity of the 2024 European Elections with its campaign to encourage voter turnout #UseYourVote, the exhibition was designed to let visitors have an insight into how democracy has been interpreted and defended by visual artists from different countries of the continent, such as Françoise Schein, Paul Graham, Jörg Immendorff, Hannah Collins, the art collective TwoFourTwo, Willie Doherty, Nadezhda Oleg Lyahova, Olaf Metzel, Joep van Lieshout, Ruth Bianco, etc.

Among the artworks that explicitly deal with Europe and the European project, we would highlight Ideoglyphe Européen (1988) by Françoise Schein. This piece is not only important for its concept and symbolism, but also for being one of the most prominent and pertinent donations that have been made to the Parliament’s art collection.

The Ideoglyphe consists of a labyrinthine pattern of criss-crossing routes and directions, superimposed on a deliberately rusted metal surface; a network of winding roads among which twinkle tiny electric bulbs positioned where the EU’s capitals would be on a map of the continent. The ensemble is crowned by a row of small clocks indicating the time zones, which, according to Schein’s intention, should all be properly set as a sign of understanding and agreement among the countries: “mettre des montres à l’heure = signe de l’entente, accord”.

The donation was made in 1996 by a private citizen, Suzanne Delevoy (ex-director of the Education Department at the Cinquantenaire Museums, Belgium), who understood that a piece of such formal characteristics and meaning would find the most appropriate place in the collection of the European Parliament.

As a sequel or a spin-off of “Art in Democracy”, the next exhibition project, for autumn 2024, will look towards committed art and artivism. To this end, various works from the Collection, by artists already established in the historiography of art, will be combined with pieces and interventions by young artivists.

The European Parliament Contemporary Art Collection, displayed on the walls of the European Parliament’s premises, reminds politicians and the thousands of daily visitors from around the world that arts and culture unite us in our diversity, creating an atmosphere that encourages dialogue.

Ideoglyphe Européen by Françoise Schein