Philippe Grombeer, TEH Co-FOUNDER
Trans Europe Halles co-founder, Philippe Grombeer, has been awarded the insignia of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters (Ordre des Arts et des Lettres), an Order of France for the recognition of significant contributions to the arts. He is also the first general secretary of TEH. We asked him to share his vast experience in the cultural sector with us. Here is the interview with him about culture, TEH, past, present and future:
1. Congratulations, Philippe! How do you feel about being awarded the insignia of Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters?
It was very nice to get this recognition from France. I was quite surprised because all my “cultural life” was more dedicated to French-speaking Belgian culture! Anyway, it was a really cool event because I had the opportunity to invite friends, ex-colleagues and family to the French Embassy. And, 40 of them came representing 50 years of my life, from my hometown in Wallonia to the youth club where I started to work, from my time in Algeria to “Halles de Schaerbeek ” and “Théâtre des Doms”, my sister and some former girlfriends. It was nice to see all those people together. Many of them have never met before. So, it was again a great opportunity to network!
2. How did you start working in the cultural sector?
In the year 1968, at this time I was studying “political and diplomatic sciences” at U.L.B. (Free University of Brussels), I discovered a youth club established at an old farm, located in a middle-class district of Brussels. At the same time, I was also regularly working in the evenings as a walk-on at our National Opera and the famous “Ballet du XXè siècle” of Maurice Béjart! So, I earned little money as a student, and I was introduced to a quite new world: opera, dance company, artists and nightlife. My first contact with this youth club was a great exhibition of visual artists called “Against the Vietnam war”. I was impressed by the space, former cowshed and barn in very bad shape, and by the political point of view and the crazy “animateur”, who was a visual artist and the manager of this youth club anarchically! Before the summer of 68, he decided to resign and encouraged me to apply for the job. I applied, and I was chosen by the board. I started the job in September 1968 without any diploma or specific experience in cultural animation. I have never been even a boy scout or a leader of a children’s holiday camp! At the same time, I was writing my master’s thesis (Free University of Brussels), Origins and causes of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. So, this was the beginning of 42 years in the cultural sector!
3. How did Trans Europe Halles start? Can you give us a bit of “insider” information about it?
Let me start with the context, Halles de Schaerbeek. In January 1974, a small team of five people started to develop an “ambitious and idealistic” project to save and transform the beautiful old indoor-market, Marché Couvert Sainte Marie, from the 19th century into a wide open independent cultural centre in a popular area of Brussels. The “dream team” was made of 5 people who were involved in the avant-garde theatre and the underground scene of the 60s-70s grassroots movements. We opened the “Small Halle”, the former fish market at the back of the building, in December 1974 with the tiny support of a new regional funding body. So, A very long story began! Our project was fully a citizens’ initiative, and we opened our stages/spaces to a lot of movements, associations, local or regional networks, emerging artists, cultural activists, but the funding bodies, mainly the Minister of Culture, were extremely overcautious and unstable. The various ministers in charge of culture were always hesitating and kept changing their positions regarding “Halles de Schaerbeek “. We had to deal with 14 different Ministers in 20 years before to get the real and strong support in order to renovate the building and finance our “project”. So, we were exhausted and pessimistic about our future at the end of 1982.
Next step is the birth of TEH. We decided to react and to organise a specific weekend in March 1983 to meet, for the first time, colleagues from Europe for exchanging experiences and exposing our situation with an extensive press conference.We titled this weekend, Trans Europe Halles, referring to “Trans Europe Express”. During three days, on 4-6 March 1983 , some members of seven cultural centres around Europe spent powerful moments. We had a few exhibitions at “Halles de Schaerbeek” about re-using industrial architecture with also some posters and photos from the guest centres. We also had the public presentations of guest seven centres, the press conference followed by a debate. We closed the meeting with a film screening of “Beeldenstorm from Jan Van der Keuken about Melkweg, a humorous multidisciplinary performance pointing out the injustice done to “Les Halles” at the “Big Halle”, and the final party with a band. The participant centres were Halles de Schaerbeek (Brussels), Melkweg (Amsterdam), Kultur Fabrik (Koblenz), Rote Fabrik (Zürich), Huset (Copenhagen), Ny Scen (Goteborg), Pali Kao (Paris). At the end of the weekend, on a Sunday afternoon, we had a cake, and a coffee in my office and everybody agreed to meet again in six months later. So, the idea of starting a network was launched!
We immediately felt common values, ideas and problems. We regularly, three times a year, wanted to share our experiences. It worked well because we had a need for understanding each other, comparing our projects, learning how colleagues find solutions and showing solidarity! For the first years. We were developing quite slowly. We didn’t look for many members in the beginning because we preferred to improve our relations within. That’s why we organised three TEH meetings every year always at a different centre. During ten years (1984-1994), I was the volunteer coordinator of the network (secretary general) until I succeeded to get our first European grant, the “Kaléïdoscope Programme” from the EU. So, it was possible to work with a full-time coordinator, Fazette Bordage, who started Le Confort Modern in Poitiers and was also preparing to start Mains d’Oeuvres.
5. What is your funniest memory you keep regarding the first days of Trans Europe Halles?
Just at the end of this “founding weekend” , in March 1983, we, all the European guests, were sitting in my office. We were trying to come to some conclusions together. Everybody was enthusiastic to meet again someday. So I was asking: When? Where? There was a silence. Nothing was prepared to follow this first meeting. And, everybody looked at me and asked me to organise the next meeting in Brussels. I wanted just a meeting, not a festival, to decide our common future. So, I was suddenly appointed (for free!) to be the coordinator of a future network! I never hesitated because I was quite proud of this trust!
6. What would you recommend to cultural activists and professionals who want to start a cultural centre nowadays?
Don’t hesitate! It’s still, at the end of the 2010s, a challenge to start, or “build”, a cultural and social space with a maximum sense of independence. We have lost some our heritage, industrial, commercial, military, religious, school etc., in Europe, and all over the world, which could have been re-used for the citizens’ cooperations. By doing so, we don’t forget the past, but we develop a new kind of energy in a transition world. I still believe, at the age of 72, in cultural centres with a systemic vision! A place, where you could meet various audiences, cultural and social activists, emergent artists in residency and on the stages. You need to be open to various cooperations on a local/regional/national/European level. It creates dynamism and stimulation to open “windows and doors” to other venues, projects, partners and experiences. It’s probably clearer in 2018 than in the 70s that you need to find some support, but it is not necessarily easier! And, of course, those who want to start a cultural centre nowadays can find the fantastic and invaluable support of TEH network!