Ann-Christine is the founder of SapienterA, a Brussels-based nonprofit arts consultancy that advocates for equity in the arts. Ann-Christine holds a bachelor’s degree in design and metalsmithing from Loyola University Chicago; a certificate in Marketing, Communications, and Nonprofit Management from Northwestern University, Chicago; and a master’s in International Arts Management from Southern Methodist University and HEC Montréal. She completed the MMIAM in 2019, writing a thesis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in dance academies before going on to obtain a certificate in cultural entrepreneurship from ICHEC in Brussels in 2022.
This interview is well-timed because the end of the year is ripe for reflection. The entrepreneurial journey is nothing like what I thought it would be. It’s cyclical and there is something about circling over the same ground that I’ve already walked that I find very trying, it can feel a bit like ‘Ok, what lesson have I missed?’ Entrepreneurship can also be a very solitary journey.
So, thanks so much for this chance to chat with you about what this past year of entrepreneurship has been like.
SapienterA is a portmanteau of ‘sapienter’–knowing–and ‘terra’. It’s earth- and body-based wisdom to address iniquity in our culture.
Well, let’s back up. Explain what your business is and what inspired you to begin.
SapienterA is a Brussels-based non-profit that works with recently immigrated people—primarily from the Global South—so that they can get back to their artistic practice as soon as possible. As we know, art can be healing, it can help make sense of a difficult migratory journey, and it can also help with integration into a new society. I also feel that this will improve Brussels’ arts sector, which allocates resources inequitably. The city appears open and welcoming but the arts industry can also be very self-focused and doors can remain obstinately closed. I am fortunate because I speak French, I have a master’s degree, and I have tools that some may not, and yet, those doors were or are still closed to me. I set out to bust them down, but I wanted to see how many people I could bring through those doors with me.
This journey began as we were coming out of the third Covid lockdown. At that time, I saw many art institutions in ‘CYA’—or ‘covering their bases’ to put it politely—mode and not fighting as hard for the survival of the artists as they were for themselves. That was an aha! moment for me. I asked myself, ‘Did I learn what I learned in the MMIAM program and did I focus on DEI to help arts organizations survive? Or…what am I going to use it for?’ This was the motivation for me to return to my initial reason for being part of the MMIAM program. Being an artist and a craftsperson myself, I wanted to be an advocate for the arts, but mostly for the artists.
I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone. I have a hard time demanding things for myself, but I can demand them for others—artists who have had a tough time, who have not been correctly welcomed, who have not had equal opportunities, who have had a way more difficult journey than I have had, some of whom have been here longer than me and have been left behind—I thought it was very important that these artists be heard.
Is there a very large immigrant community in Brussels?
Today, the biggest immigrant group in Brussels is the French; they come here to study and also for tax havens.
However, when someone says ‘immigration,’ we more often think of the Global South. So, to provide a little bit of context, Belgium was a late colonial country. At a time when many of the other European countries were divesting themselves of colonies, Belgium decided to venture into a colonial economic model. This took place in [the Democratic Republic of the] Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. The Belgian version of colonial exploitation was extremely violent. Interestingly, the Belgian people themselves were not for colonialism; the king at the time was, however. Belgium was a very new country—founded in 1830—and he wanted to assert the country’s power in the shifting European geopolitical landscape. In the 1960s when Congo claimed its independence, quite a few people came to Brussels, primarily to study, and then many stayed. So, there is that diaspora that continues to this day.
In the 1960s, when Belgium moved from an agrarian and industrial to a more urban society, the country signed an agreement with Morocco to welcome workers who would help build the urban infrastructure, and many Moroccan families stayed here as well. Before that, there was an Italian diaspora. Italians came to work in the coal mines, steel foundries, and factories of Wallonia.
There is also a fairly sizable group of Lebanese, Syrian, Ukrainian, and Georgian young people coming without their parents or guardians and they are struggling to find a home, find schooling, learn the language, and stay safe. So, it’s a changing cultural landscape and it’s important to make people who arrive here aware of their rights and resources.
Artists who move here often do so because being an artist in their home country is or was unsafe. They may choose not to announce that they are artists because it’s not a path to securing a residency permit. So, we’re also working to make sure that artists who arrive in Brussels know that they could feel comfortable announcing this—even if it’s not their primary occupation–and to put them in the way of arts opportunities when they’re ready for them.
How do you go about the work? Do you connect with other immigrant welcome centers and organizations and the local government?
Yea! And that’s really been what’s pushed me outside of my comfort zone. During the MMIAM, we talked about the importance of partnership and collaboration within the cultural sector. But what I’m learning now is the importance of also connecting with other sectors, such as social workers, neighborhood associations, schools, and translation and legal aid, for example.
We can only get so far on our own, the governance of Belgium is such a mishmash; however, SapienterA operates on a solidarity-network model. Just as craftspeople and digital artists took me under their wing upon my arrival, the artists we work with help one another find resources in this complex society.
I’m all for getting people back to their artistic practices, but the reality is that until people have their residency permit and a place to live, making art is not a priority unfortunately. I learned this for myself during the two years that I was awaiting notification of my own resident status. It would have been great to be zen and to make work while I was waiting, but there was no way to do any long-term arts research. My anxiety was so high!
So, what’s something you’re working on right now?
There’s a lot of empty real estate in Brussels, not fit for human occupation. A lot of it is old industrial space or outmoded office buildings. For various reasons, the City of Brussels can’t tear it down. So, we’ve been reaching out to the city to find spaces that might be adequate for artists to work in.
We are also the recipients of Trace, a training and grant funded by the European Union to green small cultural enterprises. We’re learning about circular and eco-responsible practices as fast as we can, to help artists apply them to their creative practice, and make them in turn eligible for greening grants on the local and European levels. The ideas are so simple yet ingenious, and work on that same pattern of network and partnerships, that it’s thrilling to be in class discussions again.
Right? I think that’s what’s most exciting about being an entrepreneur. Each day holds new lessons. It’s not only learning new things but also learning how to see past what I thought I knew and what I assumed. I’ve gotten…—as they say in French—je me prends des baffes, meaning that I’ve had my fair share of being slapped around in the process. Ultimately, I owe it to this country that is hosting me to give something back, and that might as well be a personal investment of my time and energy to make the cultural sector more equitable especially given Brussels’ bid for European Capital of Culture in 2030.
*Ann-Christine Racette’s headshot credit: Victoria Wang.