Bruegel’s Eye

Linde Deheegher

For the ‘Travelling to Tomorrow’ project, we’re researching how tourism can have a positive impact, how it can contribute to a destination’s flourishing, so tourism can be a catalyst for the growth or preservation of a location where residents feel at home, that visitors can enjoy and where the authenticity of the area is maintained.

Kathleen Leys is the Project Leader of a Flemish Masters project: Bruegel’s Eye: reconstructing the landscape in Dilbeek. Three years ago, she took on the challenge of managing the entire project. Potential leverage projects were asked to write business plans. The best ones were selected by an international jury and received a subsidy from VISITFLANDERS of up to 60% of the project costs. Some organisations already had experience with managing projects.

For others, such as the municipality of Dilbeek, it was a first. Though there was a steep learning curve, the project was a success. What impact has this sizeable and ambitious project had on the municipality of Dilbeek? Is an investment in a tourist event like this sustainable and has it had a positive effect on the local residents, entrepreneurs and visitors? To find the answers to these questions, I spoke with Kathleen.

Kathleen leads me to a beautiful field filled with wild flowers on the edge of a pond with a jetty. It’s a wonderful place to be on this sunny spring day!

Kathleen Leys 2

Kathleen, why did you want to meet here?

“I realised that, to me, this place has become a symbol, a subconscious one, of everything that we have achieved here in Dilbeek. We brought beauty to this place. It’s a place to rest, to look around you, to take time out and learn to appreciate the landscape. A place where nature and culture, past and future meet: nature due to the meadow, flowers and water, i.e. all the beauty we have here and culture in the form of the centuries-old water mill and the art installation by Lois Weinberger. This installation also has a wonderful meaning. There are four doors that reference the many doors that Bruegel painted in his works. Within these doors nature can grow freely — wild and untamed, but still within the perimeter set out by humans.”

“We succeeded in breathing new life into ‘old’ things. For example, we have the old water mill that is now used more frequently for milling and which serves as a resting point for many people taking the walking route. A little further ahead, there is the former Goossens Brewery. This beautiful piece of heritage was bought by entrepreneurs a few years back and they are fully restoring the building with the aim of making it a public heritage site and opening up a café. This place is a symbol of all these developments.”

This spot is like the cherry on top. You describe this location as a ‘meeting of nature and culture, past and present…’ why are these characteristics so important to you? What are the aspects that make an impact on people?

Kathleen: “I often notice that beautiful nature and valuable heritage, whether that’s a historic building or artwork in a museum, is not considered, or experienced, as being valuable in its own right by many people. They walk unaware through the landscape and barely look around them. They don’t even see the valuable buildings, trees etc. they are passing. On this walk, it’s totally different: the art installations, the interventions in the landscape, create a sense of awe and wonder. People are really blown away by what they see.”

Why is that, do you think?

Kathleen: “It’s the combination of art and nature that makes an impression. You learn a different way of looking at the landscape: ‘ordinary’ people are challenged to look at the environment through the eyes of a painter, a photographer or an architect. And that’s a totally new experience for many of them. It pushes the boundaries of the expected, it challenges people.”

Do people enjoy being challenged? Isn’t the motto usually: ‘keep it simple, it’s already too expensive’?

Kathleen: “People will never stop wanting to be challenged! Visitors are often hugely underestimated. We think: ‘let’s not make it too complicated for them’. But many people want to make discoveries, be inspired and take new insights home with them. When you do something new, you have to aim high. You can’t be content with half measures: you must strive for quality on all fronts whether in terms of the expertise you hire, the objectives, the execution of the work, the communication, the guides, or the way you welcome visitors. You have to be willing to go the extra mile for your visitor! People know and appreciate it when they’re valued!”

What does this mean for tourism in general? What can we in tourism learn from this for the future?

Kathleen: “That it’s possible to get people to experience a place that was previously written off as ‘decaying’ as ‘authentic’ and that it’s possible to reinvigorate an ‘old-fashioned’ and neglected place by consciously and actively inviting people to it. Bringing old buildings and heritage back to life, and breathing new life into something that is no longer valued is a fantastic challenge! And you don’t always need to have the newest bells and whistles.”

“For years, we have lent out the old water mill to local associations on Sundays: they’re allowed to take turns running a café and they get to keep the profit. So we have a win-win situation: the heritage is kept alive and local associations gain an attractive location where they can hold small-scale events. After the Bruegel’s Eye event, we want to go a step further: have the local community grow old varieties of grain, harvest them together and grind them in the mill. We also hope to bake, if possible. The first step was taken by Futurefarmers, but hopefully the local community can take over from there.”

© Michiel De Cleene – installatie van Filip Dujardin

What are the conditions for success? Why has your project been so successful in Dilbeek?

Kathleen: “People! It’s a cliché, but the first condition is having everyone on board and that everyone believes in the project. Many people working towards the same goal can move mountains. In addition to people with a shared goal, you also need to attract the right kind of people: people with the expertise and know-how required, and the right address books. They are invaluable when you’re aiming for quality. Finally, ideally, you need to assemble a group of people who complement each other. Not everyone needs to be a go-getter: together, do-ers and thinkers can make a difference!”

“Volunteers play an important role in many ways in Dilbeek, including in the leverage project. In all honesty, without them, the visitors would not be pampered the way they are. In addition, we have also worked hard to ensure we have local consensus and can collaborate with local businesses.”

Why is this important?

Kathleen: “From the beginning, we worked hard to ensure a consensus. The project was proposed to as many executive boards and association meetings as possible, volunteers were gathered together, information evenings were held with requests for ambassadors and to get local residents involved, and so on. However, we noticed that, after a while, there were some complaints about the Bruegel project only being for international visitors. The cause of this was the fact that the international angle was important to VISITFLANDERS, but also because the route with art installations excluded local organisations. This was a no-brainer for us, because we worked with a curator and he reviewed the selection of artists, which was essential to ensure a high level of quality. However, the local organisations felt like everything was happening without their input and that they had no role to play.”

“We therefore decided to hold an inspiration day for all the local associations, the advisory boards from the municipality and other interested parties, during which a short project proposal was given and out-of-the-box premises were brainstormed. Afterwards, the participants were asked to come up with ideas on how they could contribute to the project. There was also a campaign to do something with the route rather than on the route. This day resulted in a positive turnaround. Okra now organises walks, the art academy challenges students to interact with the route in various ways, photography courses use the route during their lessons, and so on. It became a walk/route/art project for everyone.”

Do you have any words of wisdom for us?

Kathleen: “When you’re working within the context of local government — but I suppose this goes for any medium-sized organisation — ensure that the project and project team is embedded throughout the entire organisation. That doesn’t mean that every department each has to assign one person to the project, but that there needs to be concrete engagement with regard to the essential components. It is important that people are designated to handle these tasks and that the project is not stacked on top of the existing workload. That doesn’t work. Many people were initially extremely enthusiastic, but struggled to manage the extra workload. The result was that people start to drop out because it was too much. And I, as the project leader, then had to look for solutions to fill the gap. Luckily, I found the extra support just in time, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to handle it physically or mentally.”

Any final thoughts?

Kathleen: “Yes, a suggestion for VISITFLANDERS 😊: certainly with regard to projects involving heritage/nature, I would encourage VISITFLANDERS to meet with staff from Onroerend Erfgoed (‘Immovable Heritage’) and/or ANB (‘Agency for Nature and Forests’) at the beginning. This gives you the opportunity to explain the projects from the beginning and they can assume a facilitating role. You are departments within one Flemish government and sometimes it seems like you could stand to communicate more, so that project leaders are not faced with a resolute ‘no’ when implementing an already approved project. There are so many opportunities to upgrade beautiful and authentic locations and to breathe new life into them. There is an undeniable need for peace, silence and depth. There are so many places that are being left to rot. So, let’s enjoy what we have, and allow it to be enjoyed again. As long as it’s done with respect for the location, no one can really be against it.”

Featured image Kathleen Leys by Sophie Nuytten

Kathleen Leys has a Master’s degree in Classical Philology and has completed several additional courses in areas such as journalism, tourism, exhibition communication and organisation and an introduction to bibliology. For eighteen years, she was deputy curator of the Erasmus House museum & Begijnhof in Anderlecht.
In 2012, Kathleen Leys exchanged Anderlecht for Dilbeek. Here, she worked as the service manager for Culture and Tourism, then became project leader of the expertise, heritage and tourism team and, since 2017, has been project leader of De Blik van Breugel, a leverage project for the Flemish Masters by VISITFLANDERS.

Author Linde Deheegher was born in West-Flanders, raised in the Flemish Suburbs, and grew up in Brussels, where she lived for a while and has always worked. Curious about the other side of the world, she left with her husband and 5-week old daughter for Australia. There, she learnt how it feels to create a life out of nothing. She highly recommends it and there’s another bonus; you really get to know yourself.
The Tyranny of Distance not only did its ‘thing’ for Australia, after 3 years the then expanded family decided that they didn’t want to miss their homeland, friends and family forever.
Linde started her career for VISITFLANDERS as project manager for tourism/recreational projects and, for the past four years, has been working as the Art and Heritage product manager, where Bruegel has taken up a great deal of her passion and time for the past few years.