Art in the heart of the EU

Campbell’s Soup Cans; it’s the first thing you see when you enter the European Parliament in Brussels, after you made it through security and showed your passport three times.

Without the contemporary art exhibition the visitors area would have been a corridor you see in thousands of grey office blocks.

European Parliament

The high profile art of Andy Warhol is a real eye catcher for the passing visitors. With Campbell’s Soup Cans you would expect all kinds of modern art at the exhibition but nothing could be further from the truth. The contemporary art exhibition includes a bright yellow painting of Otto von Habsburg, but also an artwork with many three-dimensional small faces painted in different colours.

Silvia Binger, art expert and public relations officer of the European Parliament designs the contemporary art exhibition with her team and the leading Member State. Every six months, when the presidency of the Member States in the Council changes, the Art exhibition in the European Parliament changes. The exhibition is a combination between the art of the country that currently holds the presidency of the Member States and art pieces of the permanent collection of the Parliament.

Permanent art, European Parliament, Credits: Marijn Meijer y Bodisco Massink
Permanent art, European Parliament, Credits: Marijn Meijer y Bodisco Massink


“We used to invite the Member State and ask them to present the art culture specific to their country. These days we expose the art because we want to open up to the other Member States; to show their national identity in the exposition together with the art pieces of the European Parliament. We look at what goes well together and sometimes it is better to not put everything together on one wall. The bright yellow painting of Otto von Habsburg is placed alone on a big wall because other art works would have disappeared next to it.”

“Some countries use a theme for their presidency. The current Slovak presidency they didn’t have a theme. So we decided to have a theme based on diversity. That really suits our collection, because the collection is so diverse. It is also the motto of the European Union; united in diversity.”

The European Parliament is the only institution of the three that has a budget for art in the building. They used to have a special budget to buy works of art. These days this is different, there is no budget for the exhibitions anymore, only an acquisition budget. The president of the Parliament can decide to buy art or to allow a budget; in this case it is a political decision.

The overall budget for the European Parliament comes from European taxpayers. “This is why the rules are really strict and it must be transparent what happens with the money. We don’t have secrets,” states Sylvia.

European Council

When you enter the Justus Lipsius building, the first remarkable thing is that the building looks a bit old fashioned on the inside, if you compare it to the European Parliament. After entering trough big transparent revolving doors there is a gigantic open space, when you cross the open space and another set of transparent revolving doors, a vague green carpet leads you through a small hall beyond all offices.

There is not a lot of art visible; the hall and walls with small offices on the sides are empty; no colours, no paintings, only cream white walls. Walls that were already there in the time that smoking was still allowed inside.

 This is the Justus Lipsius building, were the European Council is situated.

The only artistic areas in the building are redesigned by the leading Member State. The temporary art exhibition at the Justus Lipsius changes twice a year between EU Member States just like in the EU Parliament.

The presiding Member State uses these small exhibitions to present articles either of a technological, or typical nature. The countries display items that represent their national identity in the exhibition.

When The Netherlands had the presidency they designed a water bar in which each water bottle stood for a country. The Netherlands represented itself as a water country and therefore they redesigned this area.

The European Council does not have a budget for the displayed art works. All Member States finance the redesign of the public areas in the building themselves. Javier López Ariza; head of sector of Logistics Department of the European Council, explains that the European Council avoids having a defined personality. “We need to be as neutral as possible. That means that the art in the “old” part of the Justus Lipsius hasn’t got a statement or a meaning. The personality is in the exhibition of the leading Member State not in the institution. We are a strong institution, if we are equal”.

© XML and Jurgen Bey European Council Waterbar - Europe by People
Waterbar during Dutch presidency, European Council, Credits: Jurgen Bey


Some time before the start of their 6 months’ Presidency, the Member State receives a document in which their roles are described. One of the points concerns the redesigning of rooms or areas in the Justus Lipsius to accommodate the temporary art exhibition. The Member States have to abide to these rules mentioned in the document. It states for instance, the maximum dimension of the art works that are going to be exhibited, but strict rules about the prohibition of provocative art is also included.

European Commission

Giant paintings and defined sculptures are visible in the building of the European Commission. You can’t deny the art in the Berlaymont building; every area or office is represented with art and fills the space. Colors match, suit the space and bring harmony; it almost gives a domestic feeling because on the upstairs levels, either the floor or the wall is made of wood, which gives a wonderful warm ambience. Although the art is undeniable, formidable and proud, it does not give a restless or antsy feeling because the spaces are airy and large with high ceilings.

This building is Berlaymont, the European Commissions headquarter that is situated in Brussels. In the Berlaymont there are two kinds of exhibitions just like in the European Parliament. There are temporary exhibitions that change every three weeks and a contemporary art exhibition called Berlaymont Summa Artis. This collection of around 275 artworks has been loaned by the EU Member States for an indefinite period of time.

“The temporary exhibitions can be organized in two different spaces in the building, on the ground floor and on the first floor. There are rules governing exhibitions and the requests need to meet specific criteria such as receiving the patronage from one of the Commissioners or that there is a link to the political priorities of the Commission” -according to Lucía Palomino Gómez, Communication Officer at the European Commission.

“We receive many proposals for temporary exhibitions throughout the year; the Commission works with many partners, who very often wish to show the results of their collaboration. Like UNICEF, who is now displaying the exhibition ‘Human faces of the Syria crisis’ on the ground floor.

The pictures are hanging from thin wires, which almost give the illusion that they are hovering. You can walk through the contemporary exhibition of UNICEF, which make the photographs almost palpable.

Temporary exhibition of UNICEF, European Commission, Credits: Marijn Meijer y Bodisco Massink

Lucía continues her story: “ the art contributes to embellish the building and improves our working environment. With 2000 staff and 1000 visitors every day, the Berlaymont is a very lively and dynamic building”.

But art and exhibitions are not only about politics, there is also a social statement: “We want to show Europe’s cultural diversity and creativity. That is why we asked the Member States to lend pieces, which would well represent the work of their young artists. Their response was enthusiastic, and now we have a beautiful sample of contemporary art across Europe”.

Just like the Council, the Commission does not have a budget for purchasing art. It only covers the insurance of the artworks, but this is included in the overall insurance of the building. The art pieces in the permanent collection are the property of the Member States, who can decide to remove or replace them at any time.

Temporary art exhibition, European Commission, Credits: Marijn Meijer y Bodisco Massink


If all these institutions have art in their buildings; why don’t they have a common art policy or one commission, which decides about art?

The three institutions believe that every institution works as an independent entity. At this moment the art policies are too divided to have a common policy.

Despite the institutions not having a common policy, they do working together in the sense that they contact each other with questions and advice.

A comparison of the artwork and policies of the three main EU buildings in Brussels give us the following results:

* The buildings of the European Parliament and European Commission are clearly more accessible to the public than the European Council.

* The building of the European Council is more a “normal” office.

* The building of the European Parliament and European Commission are more like a museum; they have citizens visiting every day and are more open to the public by showing them divers art pieces from all over Europe.

* What the three building do have in common is their linked policy towards the changing presidency of Member States and the idea of showing the leading Member States identity through art.

In spite of the minimal or no budget policies for art and expositions, through creative exchanges of artwork and art contributions made by the Member States, these three main EU buildings have all succeeded in creating dynamic and visually inspiring public workspaces.

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