20 July 2022

Beyond beauty

How does art reflect our community? How does our community express itself through art? Barbara Strating is the new curator of the Arts and Heritage Commission at Maastricht University. She succeeds Mieke Derickx, who is retiring after more than two decades in the role. Here they discuss curiosity and wonder, Patient Zero and art as a meditation on our collective memory.

Barbara Strating & Mieke Derickx

What makes these walls ours

Strating is particularly taken with this aspect of her new role. “It’s not just about browsing galleries and buying art as an investment or decoration, but about commissioning something rooted in our community and identity.” A university is more than bricks and mortar—but it is also that. Curators have to find ways to elevate UM’s buildings beyond the strictly functional, which goes beyond merely breaking up the monotony with the odd painting.

“The buildings weren’t ours until about 18 years ago; until then the State decided which artworks were bought.” The underlying philosophy was of art-as-ornament: a painting was seen as a financial investment that could beautify any office and be moved around as needed. “I wanted something that responds to and becomes part of our identity, something specific to a certain building, like murals or light installations.”

Derickx’s legacy can be seen in the mark she leaves on UM’s physical space, from the Aula’s stained-glass windows to the iconic entrance of the Inner City Library. She is most proud of the artworks created at the intersection between art and research, usually exploring the artist’s view of a research environment. One such artist is Derya Zenginoglu, whose multidisciplinary works examine interactions between synthetic material and living tissue in the lab of the new rector Pamela Habibović.

Art is more than artefacts

Her personal favourite leaves no physical legacy at all. Derickx has created an elective module for medical students focused on whether experiencing art enhances their perceptive and diagnostic skills, thus making them better doctors. In general, she has always sought to involve UM staff, from researchers to facility management. “I see myself as part of this community; facilitating and involving people in the process is my little contribution.”

Strating likewise believes in foregrounding the process: in defining art not primarily by the artefact but by the creative activity. “Some of our scientists spend their evenings painting, for example. It’s interesting to explore the abilities and passions already present in our community.” She would like to give students an even bigger role. “They come and go—but in doing so, they play a huge part in shaping the identity of our community, so I’m looking for ways to enable them to contribute more.”

It’s interesting to explore the abilities and passions already present in our community.
Barbara Strating

Tastes change—as do contexts

If the results will necessarily be transient in nature, Strating remains unfazed. “I find the idea of artworks as eternal very limiting, almost claustrophobic. Tastes change, contexts change. That’s what makes this role interesting.” She embraces the tension between her role as curator and as conservator: “It’s a great responsibility to be in charge of UM’s art collection. We have an amazing collection—but we’re not a museum.”

Strating wants the seemingly unfashionable items in UM’s collection to do what Derickx’s commissions have done by design: start a dialogue with and among community members. “All artists, even the canonical ones we now consider geniuses, always reflect their times. It can be very interesting to put older artworks into a dialogue with our times, our sensibilities.”

How to achieve this? “It’s too early to say,” laughs Strating, who has spent most of her term thus far recovering from COVID. But she is determined to continue where Derickx left off: mobilising staff and students to wander UM’s grounds with a sense of wonder and curiosity.

Text: Florian Raith
Photography: Philip Driessen