Art & diplomacy, a close duo

From Rubens to Hergé, it is impossible to imagine our society without art. But did you know that it also has unprecedented importance within our foreign policy? At first glance, art and diplomacy appear to be two different worlds, but in fact they are closely related.

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Interior Belgian Embassy Madrid

Interior of the Belgian Embassy in Madrid. Left and right of the front door, 2 paintings after Rubens.

Art as a bridge

Consider Rubens, who was almost as well-known for his diplomatic abilities as for his artistic talents. The cliché that artists are rebellious and break taboos, while diplomats, on the other hand, choose their words carefully, no longer applies. In fact, art is a universal language that is accessible and understandable to many people.

‘Art forms a bridge between different populations,’ says Geert Cockx, the Belgian ambassador to Spain, during a webinar on Art & Diplomacy in September 2021. British studies show that small-scale meetings linked to a cultural event can have a significant impact on collaboration on sometimes tricky issues. When diplomats with diverse backgrounds interact, this can build bridges.

Own art collection

Did you know that the FPS Foreign Affairs owns 4,500 works of art, spread over several diplomatic posts? Among them are tapestries, paintings, drawings, graphic work and recently also photographs and videos. We have big names such as Léon Spilliaert, René Magritte, Paul Delvaux, Marthe Wéry, Panamarenko, Michaël Borremans, Ann Veronica Janssens and Marie-Jo Lafontaine. Some renowned international artists are also represented.  Think of Mona Hatoum in the Egmont Palace, Abdoulayé Konaté in Bamako and Nobuyoshi Araki in Tokyo. The work of young artists such as Rinus Van De Velde and Lara Gasparotto is also on display. We also have photos by some of our country's best-known photographers Stephan Vanfleteren (including Stromae in Paris and a Senegalese surfer in Dakar) and Lieve Blancquaert (the 'Birthday' series in Washington).

Our art collection was born at the creation of our country in 1830, but has grown in particular since the 1950s, after WWII and with the opening of most diplomatic missions. All these works came into our hands thanks to donations, loans and purchases.

Today, we are increasingly investing in partnerships with private or public collections. We are also considering partnerships with our art academies to give young artists the opportunity to exhibit their work abroad. A good example of this is the 'Belgian Artists in Residence' programme of our Consulate General in New York, which makes its walls available free of charge to Belgian artists.

Black and white mural of bull with girl with blue hair on back

Sara CONTI, Zeus & Europa, mural, courtyard Belgian representation to the EU, Brussels.


Our art does more than embellish embassies. After all, the works of art are adapted to the specific context. For example, in a residence - the home of the head of mission - it is sometimes more appropriate to hang a rather stately work of art, such as a tapestry. In an embassy or chancellery, on the other hand, we more often opt for something modern and contemporary, such as a photograph.

In many cases, the work of art can give rise to a conversation. Some telling examples are the mural 'Zeus and Europe' (Sara Conti) in the Belgian representation to the EU in Brussels, 'Diplomatic Labyrinth' (Eric Van Hove) in the inner garden of the new embassy in Rabat and the light sculpture 'Schengen' (Koen Wastijn) in Luxembourg.

Courtyard belgian embassy in Rabat

Eric VAN HOVE, Diplomatic Labyrinth, interior garden with zelliges (= certain mosaic technique), tiles and four trees, Belgian Embassy in Rabat.
© Alessio Mei

If Belgium is to defend the values of equality, equivalence, human rights and professionalism abroad, it is important that the buildings and works of art also exude these values. The embassy in Kinshasa is a good example of this. It encourages us to reflect on the colonial past. Works by both Congolese and Belgian artists are on display, and these are given an equal platform. Some of these artworks even pose critical questions such as Sammy Baloji's photo on resource extraction in Congo.

Panoramic photo of nature reserve in Kinshasa

Sammy BALOJI, Banfora#1, Belgian Embassy in Kinshasa
© Axis Gallery/Sammy Baloji

Come and see

Because the works of art are spread all over the world, you cannot admire them all at the same time. That is why the FPS Foreign Affairs organises occasional exhibitions in the Egmont Palace. The most recent exhibition (Art & Diplomacy) showed part of the FPS's contemporary art collection.

The embassies also sometimes organise exhibitions accessible to the general public. For example, the exhibition "Not a pure money issue" is currently running in the official residence in The Hague, in cooperation with De Nederlandsche Bank and the National Bank of Belgium.

In short, whether art helps to start a spontaneous conversation or to bring tricky dossiers to a successful conclusion, it certainly contributes to the image of our country. And to bring the collection a little closer to interested people, the FPS also regularly posts photos of works of art on social media. Are you curious too? Then be sure to keep an eye on the website and the social media (Instagram and Facebook).  To paraphrase the work of Rinus Van De Velde: nice to e-meet you!

Black and white drawing of man on bed with speech bubble "Nice to meet you"

Rinus VAN DE VELDE, Nice to meet you- Series 'The Colony', Belgian Embassy in Madrid.
© Zink Gallery/Rinus Van De Velde