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The art of collaboration

In Culture
Written by  Jolien Linssen Wednesday, 10 June 2015 14:37

Each March, Maastricht turns into a magnet for art lovers, collectors, curators and the rich and famous from all over the world. No fewer than 75,000 visitors descended on this year’s TEFAF, the world's largest art and antiques fair. For ten days, the city becomes the centre of the cultural universe – a universe that is becoming increasingly complex. To tackle this complexity, academics and professionals from the field of arts and heritage have joined forces in a new and unprecedented collaboration: the Maastricht Centre for Arts and Culture, Conservation and Heritage (MACCH).


“It all started with the realisation that Maastricht University is home to a great deal of expertise in arts and heritage, but research and teaching are scattered across several faculties”, recalls Vivian van Saaze, assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS). “Since the challenges facing people in the arts, culture, conservation and heritage today are multi-layered and complex, they call for a multidisciplinary approach. Take the many industrial heritage buildings scattered around Limburg. Maintaining and repurposing these buildings requires expertise in architecture and art history, but also involves conservation, ethical, legal, planning, policy, business and financial issues.”

The task for Van Saaze, the managing director-to-be, was clear: to create an infrastructure that would allow for collaboration both with colleagues from other faculties and with professionals in the arts and heritage sector. Only 18 months later, the interdisciplinary research platform MACCH was officially launched: a joint initiative between FASoS, the Faculty of Law, the School of Business and Economics, and the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences. Quite an impressive list, but not yet exhaustive. Key external partners include the Social Historical Centre Limburg and the Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg, an institute specialised in the conservation and restoration of paintings, sculptures and interiors.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Aristotle famously observed – and in the case of MACCH this was evident right from the outset. Specifically, from the conference marking the launch of the brand new centre, scheduled to coincide with this year’s TEFAF.

“The theme of the conference was the changing role of experts and expertise in the arts and heritage worlds”, Van Saaze explains. “It’s a topic we all consider relevant for our own work as experts, but that also resonates with the professional world. Our legal panel, for example, discussed the issue of authenticity in the courtroom. To many people’s surprise, we learned that expert witnesses who are asked to give their opinion about the authenticity of an artwork can be held liable for this. One of the curators in attendance said he’d have to reconsider his role as an expert witness.”

Knowledge valorisation
So MACCH builds bridges not only between four different faculties, but also between the academic and professional worlds. “There aren't that many collaborations in the university where we actually work across faculties, let alone so successfully”, says Rachel Pownall, professor of Finance at the School of Business and Economics and a member of MACCH’s steering committee. “We’re all doing similar work in the area of arts and heritage, but from different perspectives. In the past there wasn’t much awareness of this. But since we started sharing our knowledge we’ve been able to make our research more thematic. We’re now able to jump on each other’s shoulders very quickly and help each other up – and actually give something back to society.”

MACCH is far from your typical ivory tower, Van Saaze explains: “A lot of our research is conceived in collaboration with the world ‘out there’, like our professional partners in museums and heritage organisations. Knowledge valorisation is often seen as a kind of afterthought, and even has somewhat of a negative connotation. But that’s not how we think about it.”

A good example is the research project Hacking Heritage, led by the UM researchers Karin Wenz and Annika Richterich. This programme was singled out as one of MACCH’s flagship projects. Hacking, in this context, does not refer to an illegal practice. Instead it’s a creative process in which cultural assets, such as Limburg’s mining heritage, are combined and redesigned using digital technologies. “This is a hot topic at the moment”, says Pownall.

Back to the kick-off conference; or, more accurately, the day after. Van Saaze saw “her email inbox explode”, full of requests for collaboration and advice from companies, foundations and government bodies. “That’s the kind of service we can offer, and partly what we’re there for”, Pownall says. “Institutions beyond the university are responsible for a great deal of art and culture, so it’s up to us to make our knowledge and expertise available.”

UM students will also benefit from the existence of MACCH. But, as Van Saaze points out, when it comes to teaching there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. “We already have the very popular joint minor Art, Law and Policymaking, as well as the Master in Arts and Heritage.” Further, in collaboration with Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg UM offers a course on the role of science in the conservation of visual art. “It’s such a great programme”, Van Saaze laughs. “I could have only dreamt of this when I was a student here myself, a long time ago.”

Vivian van Saaze (1975) graduated from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) in 1998. She completed her PhD research in 2009, a joint project between UM and the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency on the conservation of contemporary art. She is now assistant professor at FASoS and managing director of MACCH.

Rachel Pownall (1973) studied Economics and Econometrics at the University of Kent. She obtained her PhD on risk management in international financial markets at Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2001. She is currently professor of finance at UM’s School of Business and Economics and at Tilburg University.


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