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In the world of Art, Katelijne De Backer is a well-known name. At the moment, she is director of Art New York and Aqua Art Miami. That position is by no means a coincidence. Although Katelijne attributes much of her success to “perfect” timing, she describes her story as one of hard work and perseverance. These principles not only shape her life today, but have defined her personality already as a sociology student at the VUB. Her path was carved through work ethic and devotion, while always keeping an eye on open opportunities, regardless of the odds.
Tell us about your days as a student. And why did you choose the VUB?
As I was growing up, I was not very certain of my professional future. I opted for sociology because of the variety of basic science courses. I was looking for a solid base, and that’s what it gave me for sure. I must say, however, that I still find it a very difficult decision, and yet a very important one, to make at such a young age. But given the dilemmas, I knew these choices would not define my future. The only thing I knew was that I did not want to become a social worker!
Was it during your studies that it became clear that you wanted to enter the world of arts?
Absolutely not! I wanted to work in something that was much broader. My initial interest was alternative culture, especially music (punk, new wave, reggae…), but I was not sure if there were actually real jobs in that field. Only when I did apply for a “serious job” at a bank, I realized after the recruitment test that I never, ever wanted to end up in an environment like that.
And then, as it happened, while my boyfriend and I moved to London, MTV Europe was about to launch. MTV Europe was looking to recruit as many Europeans as possible to represent the different cultures in Europe. Given my interests, I was in the right place at the right time. I got my dream job as producer/director for MTV’s alternative music shows, which I did for 10 years. What I did learn then was, that if you work hard, enjoy your job, are passionate about what you do, you can make a difference.
After 10 exciting years, I knew this was not going to last forever. I had the coolest job in the world, but felt stuck. The pressure to climb the corporate ladder grew, but I did not want to become an executive. I wanted to stay involved in the production and artistic decision making, do interviews, make programs, etc. not the management of departments. I needed another challenge…
Over the years, I had developed a keen interest in macrobiotic food. And because I visited New York often, I got to know the renowned macrobiotic restaurant Souen, and loved it! This was a place frequented by John Lennon, Yoko Ono and many other visionaries. So I wrote the owner, explaining that I wanted to work at Souen with the goal to one day open my own place in London.
Unfortunately, after working there for three months, I realized the restaurant business was not for me. I had to start a new job search, and approached everyone I knew in every possible sector. The one thing I knew was that I wanted to stay in New York City. Eventually, I was offered a job in Belgium as Communications Director for the 400th anniversary of Anthony Van Dyck in Antwerp. And although I love Antwerp, it was not the city I wanted to live in.
So after working in Antwerp for seven months, I returned to New York (this time for love!) and a friend of mine (from MTV) informed me that she knew people who were starting an art fair. She assured me I would be a great asset thanks to my international profile, organizational talent, the ability to interact with people, knowledge of languages, and production skills. I started working as an unpaid intern but got offered a low paid job soon after. A year and a half later, I became the director of The Armory Show. In those days, there were not many art fairs, TEFAF in Maastricht, Art Basel, Art Chicago… and not many people were trained to organizing one. So this adventure was an enormous learning curve for me.
In retrospect, who or what inspired you the most while you were at the VUB?
Of course all the smart and opinionated professors! But what I remembered specifically about sociology at the VUB was that they incorporated courses on statistics, biology and even math, courses I was very interested in.
Could you tell us about the differences between the art market in Belgium and in the US?
In the art world, Belgium is known to be the country with the best and most serious art collectors in the world. They are curious, daring, and very knowledgeable. They really have a great reputation. You have these collectors in the US too, but I would dare to say that in the US the collecting of art is more commercially driven.
Right now, students in art history and archaeology in Belgium tend to struggle on the job market. Can you tell us something about how Belgium and the US vary in that perspective?
This is a very difficult question and I’m not sure I can answer it. But I guess these struggles are pretty similar. Each year, so many students graduate from the best art colleges in the US, and they all want to find a “cool” job in the art world. The struggle here is as intense as in Belgium I think.
If you could give any advice to the young Katelijne right before she started her first year at the VUB, what would you say?
Follow your gut feeling! Keep following your passion and look for open doors. You might have to start with a “boring” job as an intern or trainee. But keep at it, and at some point you will notice someone and say, “I want a job similar to that person’s job”. Then make sure to become that person’s assistant, and learn from it. But play it fair! You have to have patience and navigate your way towards where you eventually want to be. Don’t just keep a job or position for the sake of it, when you know that it’s making you unhappy. It’s a journey, you should enjoy it! Just like studying is supposed to be, and in that sense the VUB was a great trip.