MAS Antwerp on building a brand

Marieke van Bommel is the Director of MAS: a new interdisciplinary museum in Antwerp, Brussels. Marieke was one of our favourite speakers at Culture Business Sydney conference in March, 2016.

MAS Antwerp on building a brand

We caught up with Marieke post-conference to find out more about MAS’s incredible fundraising campaign and see what tidbits she could offer up for Australian organisations.


Some of the key things that came out of your Culture Business presentation were the importance of making fundraising a priority from the very beginning, and not being afraid of commercial enterprise. Tell us a bit more about how these two things were integral to your fundraising campaign and the ongoing success of MAS.

MAS is a new museum that was built in 2011. The building itself is iconic and it attracts over 600,000 visitors annually. During the design phase there were four pavilions integrated into the design. The pavilions are situated next to the museum, the typical red nature stone acts as a binding ‘carpet’ between them.

As we looked for founders the pavilions were used as revenue assets. All the founders who donated €600.000 were given the option to rent a pavilion for their own purpose (plus the costs of the refurbishment and a monthly rental-fee were added to the addition sponsor donation).

Both Umicore and the Port Authority took up this offer. Umicore, as a large company specialised in the refining and recycling of precious metals, invited the closed Silver Museum to have small exhibitions in their pavilion. The Port Authority has a display and information centre about the Antwerp ports.

KBC Bank declined the offer since they felt no need to have a small bank outlet next to the museum. The same went for two other founders SDWorx and HRcompany.

The two remaining pavilions were then offered to other sponsors with the same sponsorship arrangement. A book publisher took one pavilion for the museum shop and the other one was assigned to the Antwerp Diamond Centre as a promotional centre.

By building the pavilions and then specifically renting them out to major sponsors we gave room, on our museum site for our partners to promote their businesses. We also made extra arrangements, for example the publisher has first right to publish our museum catalogues and they are the only one allowed to sell merchandise from the museum.


MAS is unique in so many ways. From your perspective what makes MAS so special?

Obviously our museum building is iconic, MAS is a huge modern warehouse. Its unique architecture is based on the 19th-century warehouses that were typical of the city and the district where MAS is located. The museum rooms are stacked on top of one another, offset by a quarter turn on each level, creating an impressive spiral tower. The boulevard leads you up past all the rooms. Right at the top, a spectacular panorama of Antwerp awaits you.

The museum is built with a very recognisable red sand stones and waved glass. But what really makes the MAS unique is that we host five collections, from four closed museums, including maritime, ethnographical, folklore, city archaeological and pre-Columbian art collections.

We choose not to put those five collections latterly on top of each other but we mixed them up to tell a better story about Antwerp in the world, and the world within Antwerp. We do this by choosing overall themes like display of power, life and dead, world port and metropolis.


MAS has a very open and inclusive relationship with its sponsors. Tell us about your approach and how you find ways to stay connected and engaged with them.

By putting our sponsors literally close to us, in the pavilions, we stay connected to each other.

We have a meeting with all of them every three months where we explain our plans for exhibitions and events and see if they can participate in any way. During those meetings they can obviously raise questions or complaints, and we can then address those directly.

For example, at the opening of our newest exhibition, Antwerp a la carte – on how food shapes the world – the harbour pavilion had some exclusive talks about the transportation of coffee, whilst having a tasting of different coffees from around the world.

One of our founders, SDWorx, has young people as their target group. They specifically wanted a program in the MAS for youngsters and so together we set up the ‘MAS in Young Hands’ and the student crew of the MAS.



Every year I invite two of our sponsors to join me for and extensive lunch. It’s a good way to have informal contact and get to know each other, but for them, since there are always two different companies invited, an opportunity to do business. And, as everyone does, sponsors are invited to opening events and special occasions.


Crowdfunding was a key part of the fundraising strategy. Can you tell us about this part of your strategy, and what if anything you would do differently next time?

3,185 hands adorn the deep red façade of the MAS.

The hands – which are of course an allusion to that local delicacy, the Antwerpse handjes – appear to be holding the MAS up. Those hands were used as a tool for crowdfunding. We went to service clubs, parties around Flanders to ask people to buy a hand at €1000 per hand.

The first hand was bought and placed by the private collection of the pre-Columbian art collection. We generated a lot of publicity for this event. By doing so, everyone knew of this hand-sale. The fun thing about the hands is that it isn’t too expensive. It’s easy to buy one, or two, or three! And if the costs are a little too high you could by a hand as a group.

There is this lovely story about ten school friends, girls, who wanted to participate in this grand new museum and bought one hand by donating €100 each. We made buying a hand easy by creating a special website where you can actually choose which hand on the building you want to buy and have your name put on it. By the time the crowdfunding was launched the building was already there – people got curious and excited about the new museum and they felt the need to participate.

It was, how great is that, one of our founders, Umicore, who donated the hands, on top of their sponsorship and pavilion.

The only real hiccup in the process was that it takes a lot of time and effort to keep the crowdfunding campaign going. We didn’t assign this project as a formal task to anyone, so the follow up needs to be done next to a thousand others things. I believe crowdfunding, or sponsorship, is a full-time job.


Do you see crowdfunding as something you could tap into again for MAS, or are you more likely to use different fundraising methods as the museum grows?

There are still hands left for sale and it is tempting to give it another try – although that may make it seem like we weren’t successful, we did reach the set target. I think crowdfunding can be fun and it helps to engage a lot of people. Therefore I might consider it again. But if you are in need of a large budget, finding some large sponsors might be more helpful.

Not all partnerships are equal: some are very healthy and mutually beneficial, others can be a drain on resources, often for little return on investment. How do you measure whether a partnership is working for MAS and its objectives?

I think it is extremely important that you appoint your returns before entering a partnership. Make sure that you have equal revenues to those who sponsor in the same amount and that others are relative.

We tend to be so happy with the occasional sponsorship deal, often in the case of exhibitions – that we give away too much, especially if you compare it to those who are your long-term partners. So, having someone guard the different sponsorship deals is essential. And, don’t forget the value of exposure. Having a lot of media attention and 600,000 people passing by the pavilions is worth something. As are your good name and reputation.

Making money costs money. It’s good to realise that, but you can discuss this with your partner. If they are a partner, rather than a sponsor, they might even consider picking up the bill after a lunch or reception if you discuss this with them.

Woman looking over MAS museum's balcony
How important is it to find the right fit when seeking private sector support, and what are your top three tips for arts organisations seeking partners or sponsors?

What is a right fit? A bank doesn’t have anything to do with the content of the museum, but they can state in their mission that supporting culture is a value of their company. I think the fit can be found in the dream you share – the dream of this new museum or fantastic temporary exhibition; the dream of connecting people or cultures.

The key is listening to their needs and suggestions. Maybe they’re not looking for publicity but they are looking for a way to connect with your target group. Make sure you have someone available to follow up the contacts you make.

It’s always good to have the first connection made by the director or one of your ambassadors, but people need someone they can talk to, ask questions. Make sure it’s not just your director who knows potential sponsors, but everyone in your team. And last, don’t be too modest about the product you’re selling – make enough report that people want to be involved with you instead of the other way around.

We tend to be nervous if the other party wants to donate money to us, but we need to bind them with our goals. And maybe they won’t give money but they can help you in other ways, for example with transportation. Your name has value and it can make the other party proud to be engaged with you.


If you had to pick two trends that you see having a big impact for cultural organisations in the next 5 -10 years, what would they be?

A large negative trend here in Europe is the huge cost that comes from having government support. It requires a different approach.

A museum must be proactive in their policy and it’s no longer just about the outcome. Your organisation needs to be in order, choices need to be made and well explained – this requires cultural entrepreneurship. They might even ask for museums not to appoint the artistic curator as director but a manager who knows how to run a business.

Artistic value is, in my opinion, not lost when a museum is seen more as a commercial business. You can still choose to make something for a small expert audience but it needs to be in balance.

Another trend I see, one that worries me greatly, is the rising costs of loans between museums. This is because of higher insurance costs but also because we need to make money. It is also the result of a lack of trust. We fear our loans are not coming back due to terrorist attacks or claims.

But I believe we have one purpose as holders of collections and that is to give as many people as possible the chance to be able to see those objects. Billing each other will make it impossible for objects to travel and for museums to make those large blockbusters. We need to come to an agreement how we cope with this and maybe commercial partners can help us with this.

Watch Marieke’s full presentation on the making at Culture Business Sydney: The Art of Fundraising.



You can check out the full suite of videos from Culture Business Sydney featuring all the main sessions and speakers. They’re packed full of great insights, advice and commentary about arts fundraising.

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