Academy beyond Academy: On Art and Research at the Jan van Eyck Academie

17.12.2008 Saara Hacklin

Beside the main entrance a red plaque states: “POSTGRADUATE CENTRE FOR FINE ART, DESIGN AND THEORY”. The Jan van Eyck Academie does not grant diplomas. The artists, designers or theorists that are enrolled at the academy are researchers, not students. The three departments are run by advising researchers and there is supposed minimum of hierarchy that enables the setting up of an inspiring platform for research and production. A former director coined the term “post-academic institute” to describe the status of the academy.

Koen Brams (b. 1964) has been director of the institute since 2000. He recalls the intense discussions about doctoral studies when he first started office. “In consequence of the Bologna Agreement some pressure was put on the Jan van Eyck to set a doctoral studies programme. I carefully looked into the matter and came to the conclusion that this would not be the right option for this institute.”

The Jan van Eyck Academie was founded after World War Two to provide art education in the southern part of the Netherlands. Its mission and organization has changed over the decades – its original mission was catholic and emphasised local aspects; at present the institute is an international centre for post-graduate studies in the arts. At some point, there was even a department of Stage Design. The Theory and Design departments were set up less than 20 years ago.

Koen Brams explains that in the end it was quite easy to resist the restructuring policy and decline the call to organise doctoral studies. “When you look at what kind of institute the Jan van Eyck is, at what is happening here, it is clear that the individual projects, that hold great potential, should not be contained in one format.” In Brams’ view, the arguments in favour of doctoral studies emphasise the aspects of uniformity and mobility. “I object to uniformity, especially in the arts, and mobility can never be a goal in itself.” When it comes to mobility, the Jan van Eyck Academie is clearly no longer propelled by the zeal to provide education in the arts in the Province of Limburg. Nowadays the Jan van Eyck is more or less a world in its own right within the bourgeois city of Maastricht.

It seems that the academy has succeeded in taking a firm stance against organising doctoral studies, which other institutions have found very difficult or impossible. In Finland, for instance, the art schools have succumbed to the overwhelming pressure; all the art universities are now offering artistic doctoral studies, including the pioneering Sibelius Academy and the Academy of Fine Arts. The latter gained the status of university and included a doctoral programme in its curriculum only in the late 1990s. The organization of artistic doctoral studies is still – and perhaps will always be – a work in course. The academic status may have its benefits, it is still worthwhile to ponder under what conditions artistic research is set up outside the traditional academic sphere.


The departments of Fine art, Design and Theory at the Jan van Eyck Academie attract various kinds of people who accordingly have different working conditions and needs. “Basically, three patterns are applied when we select researchers,” Brams comments. “Potential Fine Art researchers are chosen on the basis of their individual portfolios, whereas the Theory and Design departments more rely on projects. In the Theory department two to four projects are annually run; the advising researchers head these projects. The projects are not restrictive and function as triggers for external parties to apply since the Theory department mainly recruits from the universities. The working circumstances in the Design department are somewhat different. Here researchers almost exclusively do research and practice as part of group projects.”

The academy offers the researchers a studio, a small stipend and various facilities, including the possibility to interact with the advising and fellow researchers. The researchers all have bachelor’s or master’s degrees in their respective fields; some have doctoral degrees. What are the specific criteria that are deemed relevant in the recruitment of researchers?

Durka & Testen

“The academy is not simply recruiting the most successful artists. We consider each individual artist and pose the question what particular working stage the artist has reached. We look for potential, for researchers who gain benefit from staying at the academy,” Brams explains. “It is not always possible to achieve that,” he admits.

Katja Diefenbach (b. 1968), who is advising researcher in the Theory department, is part of the selection committee. About the Theory department applicants she observes: “Two things are essential. Firstly, the precision with which a theoretical question is posed and the way the conflicting positions and conceptual differentiations that are at stake in a problematic are mentioned and discussed. Secondly, the level of experimentation in thinking, the originality and courage with which a question is invented and a case of thinking is constructed.”

Working as researcher: Fine Art

Artist Rachel Koolen (b. 1979), at the moment the only Dutch researcher in the Fine Art department, is interested in the architecture of the Dutch welfare system, its history and recent changes. Her project concerns the newly created Werkpleinen (job squares) that house welfare and recruitment agencies in one open working space. “I think I was accepted because they thought my work had potential. They understood that I could not develop my project anywhere else. My working language is very intimate and has no commercial possibilities whatsoever,” Koolen says. “I don’t think there is a pattern, though.” When you analyse the respective artists and their projects in the Fine Art department, no denominator for the artists seems to stand out.

One of Koolen’s motivations to apply – she started in January 2007 – was to get more theoretical input. The somewhat marginal location of Maastricht also enticed her. When asked about her interest in doctoral studies, Koolen comments: “I am not interested in that. Here, you can do individual research, but you don’t have to explain yourself, you don’t have to commit to the production of knowledge. If I worked in an academic context, I would not take a doctoral studies programme. I don’t consider myself a knowledge producer. The rise of these programmes in the arts seems to me a matter of legitimisation; part of the question of why art is of interest to the public.”

The researchers at the academy are free to choose their working routines. Approximately once a month the advising researchers visit the academy, and researcher can sign in for studio visits. Guests are invited, presentations and screenings are organised by the researchers. “The format of the studio visit was alien to me, I had to get acquainted with it,” Koolen states. “For me it takes time to find the confidence that is needed to establish a dialogue and start a learning process. It requires commitment on the part of the advising researchers and guests too. If they are here only for their career, there is no real commitment to the people.”

…and Design

Graphic designer Jayme Yen (b. 1977) stayed at the academy from 2007 until fall 2008. She participated in the Traces of Autism project, and worked on projects of her own. She applied at the academy with a project about the experience of the stranger in the city. “I wanted to understand another way of working. Places like the Jan van Eyck are incredibly unusual in the United States, especially for graphic designers. Graphic designers in the U.S. have jobs, work for clients, lead very commercial lives.” The Jan van Eyck had various printing facilities, but recently things have changed: “I had heard a lot about the in-house workshops, the printing studio, mostly, and I was a little disappointed to arrive and realise that most of them had been dismantled.”

Rachel’s Studio

In the Design department working is very much organised around groups. “I’m not sure why the Design department has more group projects, but maybe it’s because the nature of design work always involves some sort of cooperation between commissioners and designers, and designers and producers, so it’s more natural for designers to seek to collaborate with one another.” The groups are headed by advising researchers: “Every group operates differently, according to the temperament of the advisor in charge.” There is a great variation in the practices. “I expected the advisors to be more of a presence at the academy than they actually were. But that just proved the point that you were more on your own than at any other similar kind of ‘post-academic’ institution.”

On the issue of research in design Yen comments: “Design research is a term under constant debate at the moment. On a very banal level, most designers perform ‘research’ in order to provide inspiration, support, or insight into any commissioned project they’re undertaking. It’s applied research. But I think a model of research that a lot of designers currently aspire to is what architects already do so well: speculative work that may or may not be commissioned but is open to wild thoughts, cross-disciplinary influences, impenetrable theory, and does not come with the messy restriction that it must be physically possible or commercially viable.”

Yen currently feels somewhat neutral on the subject of doctoral studies within her own field. “On the one hand, a doctoral studies programme would offer long-term support, financial or otherwise, for the kind of work I want to do, but on the other hand, I enjoy not having to meet any of the academic requirements that would necessarily come with being in a doctoral programme. I enjoy the freedom of defining my own path.”

Theory advisor

Advising researcher Katja Diefenbach runs her own project but also takes part in the administration of the academy. “As postgraduate institution the Jan van Eyck Academie has replaced the relation of teacher and disciple by that of a group of researchers collaborating in projects. This cooperative structure facilitates an egalitarian and experimental working atmosphere.” Diefenbach has been running the project After 1968 since 2007. “Two years ago I started a research project that deals with the paradoxical status of the political act as dependent on the advent of an event it simultaneously has to produce and organise. In the research group, we reconstruct how this difficult relation of the political is considered in Marxism and post-structuralism.”

press room

Katja Diefenbach says that her role as advising researcher is twofold. “I see it as my task to invent a theoretical problematic that generates a critical negotiation of this question. Each year I select a thematic focus, compile a reading list and invite a series of guest lecturers in order to set a framework for the group debates. In 2007, we discussed the legacy of Bartleby and examined the relationship of possibility and actuality form the ontological perspective, that is to say, how a Being of pure (im)potentiality beyond will and necessity could be thought that no longer assures the supremacy of Being over Nothing. This year we discussed the post-workerist use of the Marxian concept of living labour and how in this discourse of the political Hegel is replaced by Spinoza. Next year I am planning to offer a seminar on bio-politics and the concept of life.” The second aspect of Diefenbach’s work is “to meet with researchers, discuss their theoretical projects and the questions they focus on or write about.”

In the framework of After 1968 seminar meetings were organized, texts proposed, speakers invited, papers presented. “During the past two years, the members of the working group actively participated in the coordination of the seminar meetings. Every researcher at the Jan van Eyck is welcome to join the group.”

Cross-disciplinary hits and misses

The three different fields offer the possibility of interdisciplinary collaboration. Diefenbach comments: “Interdisciplinarity is a tricky thing. Practised as mere subjective cooperation, transdisciplinarity can have widely different effects, a deepening of disciplinary boundaries, for example, when everyone affirms their specificities, or a loss of the specific intensity of a practise. I am rather interested in the transformative moment of cross-disciplinary activity itself, for example, when theoretical thinking encounters non-conceptual thinking and both practises change by reflecting on their limits and pre-suppositions.”

What actually happens, is another thing. “Only occasionally do researchers from the Design or the Fine Art departments participate in my project. When they do, they attend guest lectures or film screenings. However, there have been some brief golden cross-disciplinary moments in the After 1968 research group, for example when we organised a workshop on queer bohemia with Stephan Dillemuth,” Diefenbach recalls.

On the Theory department Rachel Koolen remarks: “I do attend seminars at times, but I feel that most of the people present are not very open to other, different discourses. There is a specific format.” A co-operation with researchers from the Design department is more probable: “From an outsider’s view it may seem that the trajectory of the research period at the Jan van Eyck Academie includes the production of an artist’s book, which is also encouraged by the Academie. To involve a designer in that process is very likely.” To Koolen co-operation takes requires time and commitment.

The departments can be cross-disciplinary, as Jayme Yen points out: “I think the Design department has become an interesting response to the question What is design? These days the department has architects, public space planners, theorists, new media artists, database specialists, writers with cultural studies backgrounds. It’s a design potpourri. Design is perhaps the most interdisciplinary of the departments.” Yen adds: “Something I really enjoyed about the Jan van Eyck was how department distinctions seemed to dissolve at an individual level. Being part of one department or the other doesn’t seem to matter as much, because, I think, most of the researchers are quite engaged in the same line of questioning.”

The motivation to cross the department boundaries ultimately depends on the researchers. Yen remarks: “Like most things at the Jan van Eyck, programming is researcher-driven, and if no researcher is interested or willing in drumming up those kinds of events, it’s not going to happen.”


The author was researcher in the Theory department of the Jan van Eyck from 1 September until 31 December 2008


Blog text on the Academy (In Finnish):

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