Brussels is the capital of a country without a government. In the vacuum artists, gallerists and institutions are collaborating. Together they are bringing about a vigorous proliferation of new galleries and showrooms: A city of possibilities, and not least, with a genial atmosphere.
– Brussels does not have a comprehensive arts policy. There is no overriding vision for the city when it comes to culture. And that makes Brussels extremely interesting.
So says Lissa Kinnaer, who is responsible for international relations at BAM – the Flemish institute for visual, audiovisual and media art. BAM is based in Ghent, and among other things helps Flemish artists who are trying to gain a foothold internationally.
In addition it functions as a mediator between the Flemish government and the sector, it charts conditions that concern artists, organizes visits to studios and gives advice as to what should be supported. In Norway these functions are undertaken by the OCA [Office for Contemporary Art] and Arts Council Norway.
– Responsibility for culture resides with the Flemish and French-speaking authorities. The exception being some important institutions such as the Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar), the Royal Musuem of Fine Arts, and the Royal Musuem of Art and History which are supported by the federal government.
But Belgium has no government. The French-speaking parties and Flemish-speaking parties can’t come to an agreement.
– That’s why in Brussels there is no political institution with legitimacy when it comes to art, but both the French-speaking and Flemish-speaking authorities are doing what they can to be visible.
This brings about a dynamic, says Kinnaer.
– The dynamic is strengthened by available space at low rent. It makes it easy for artists to move here. And also attracts a growing number of artists from abroad. To begin with they just worked here, but today they have a network and are starting their own showrooms.
She talks about a substantial proliferation of artists and galleries.
– Just in the last few years galleries such as Elisa Platteau, Tulips and Roses and Vidal Cuglietta have opened. Curator-run places such as Etablissement d’en face and Komplot have sprung up. Wiels has appeared and Palais de Bozar has great ambitions. Brussels is a bit like a new Berlin.
Not an Art Hall
Dirk Snauwaert, artistic director of Wiels, moderates the image.
– It’s correct that there is a substantial proliferation in Brussels, but it is not a new Berlin. Berlin was bankrupt after the wall came down, up until then it had been the world’s most subsidized city, and had no industry. Brussels has always been a city of commerce, we have a very liberal economic policy, there are many collectors here and there has always been a lot of art here.
Several noted figures in Brussels’ art scene have stated that Wiels, since it opened in 2007, is largely the reason why the city has become so interesting.
The institution creates exhibitions, has a residency programme and arranges sizable seminars, but its webpage explicitly states that it is not a Kunsthalle.
– But how exactly does Wiels differ from an Kunsthalle?
– An Kunsthalle is many things. Our concept has grown out of a desire to integrate all parts of the field of art within our institution. When we started the place we were conceptual and wanted possibly a more intellectual discussion about art.
At the same time Snauwaert holds that, in a city like Brussels, it is important to focus on both artists and the public.
– In Belgium we occupy ourselves with «self-balkanizing», the regions quarrel, and the population of Brussels is manysided and problematic.
Estimates made in 2007 show that 50 per cent of the population have a first language different to one of the official Belgian languages. As far back as in 1991 just 63 per cent of the population considered itself Belgian.
– In Brussels there is admittedly a majority of French-speaking people, but as soon as they cross the city boundary they become a minority. In addition you have the minorities that arise as a result of immigration, and many of these are French speakers. In Brussels you are always part of a minority…
– I believe it is important for an art institution to be mindful of the composition of the populace in its community, and in Brussels that means focusing on education and dialogue.
An example of such dialogue is the residency programme started by Wiels three years ago.
-This is a post-postdoc programme for artists. Our intent is that the programme is visible to the public and the arts scene. We therefore have a public presentation after the nine residency participants have arrived, where they are able to introduce themselves and present their projects. This is open to all and usually attracts about a hundred visitors.
Equally important is that the residency programme has its own project room at the rear of the museum.
-The program is an opportunity to practice. We try to follow up with meetings, where they present their project, but are also brought into contact with all aspects of running a large, professional art institution. Yet they are not drawn into the exhibition areas.
– We don’t plan larger exhibitions, or large productions, with them, because it is important that they don’t start to get bogged down by internal stress, or for that matter, compete for the best places.
Snauwaert emphasizes that since many of the artists are young, a large exhibition also may prove deleterious to them; without a completely developed project they may lose the interest of the public. But in the project room they are given a chance to present their projects.
– The idea is to give them the opportunity to make public the project they are working on. And to test it out on the Brussels scene. 80 per cent of our residency participants have chosen to continue working in the city.
The institution also has a long-term goal with the work.
– We wish to build a sort of privileged partnership with the artists, so that they feel a sense of loyalty towards Wiels. Because we believe the artists in our programme will become important in the future.
– Wiels and Etablissement d’en face have been very important to attract artists to Brussels. Personally, I like the atmosphere which I think makes people want to stay. This city is chaotic, dirty and hectic. You always have the feeling that something is wrong, maybe a bit like New York in the 80’s. It attracts me because you remain alert. You can come here with little and build up something if you’re lucky.
Michael Callies started the gallery dépendance seven years ago, and is now one of the older galleries in the city center, the so called downtown. Before moving to Brussels he studied with Georg Herold at the Städel School in Frankfurt.
– Ten years ago things were really cheap in Brussels which made it easy to find a good space. We wanted to create a differ-ent type of gallery. The gallery name is a bit ambiguous. On the one hand dependence means «branch», that is to say a sort of embassy. On the other hand there is the common misunderstanding that art is independent which I think is not true.
At the very beginning, there was nor computer neither any other infrastructure in the gallery.
– During the first year we often did not know what the next show would be. We started the gallery with a show by Sergej Jensen, and also showed Henrik Olesen in the same year. This forced us to become a bit more professional.
Callies emphasizes that they got very little attention; the openings were weakly attended and the number of visitors was not really overwhelming.
– I felt that we worked on our own planet. At that point, we made almost no money. In 2006 a friend suggested we should apply for Liste in Basel. We did not know whether we would get in, but we did. And from this moment on, the Belgian art scene started to follow our activities.
He has still the same vision as he had when starting the gallery.
– We don’t have lots of people working for us. Sometimes I still ask friends to help on exhibitions which I think gives the gallery another kind of open, participative atmosphere. Also the exhibiting artists are completely free in their decisions which, on the other hand, increases their responsibility. Some artists come without a clear concept for the show and we try to develop it in a dialog.
He points out that the gallery can only do seven shows a year.
– That’s a pity because I know so many other relevant artists that I should be shown in Brussels. That’s the reason why I would like to have a small dépendance of dépendance. Maybe this can be realised in the future …
– In a way we have two scenes in Brussels. What we call «downtown» is young and experimental, whereas «uptown» is more established with large galleries, says Karen Renders, exhibition director of the art fair Art Brussels.
– The clear distinction between these scenes has been established over the last three years. Within the young scene there has always been a large turnover, and new galleries continually appear, such as Tulip and Roses which just opened, but now it seems the galleries are managing to hang on.
Among the young galleries that have opened there is Elisa Platteau et cie Galerie.
– One of the things that characterize this scene is that we are all friends and help each other. For example with installing exhibitions, or helping out with an unpaid bill, says Platteau.
Because there’s usually only one person working in the «downtown» galleries.
– But the cooperation and friendships create a sense of community, everybody finds pleasure in the success of the other members of this community. And I believe that we are the most liberal scene in Belgium.
Renders says that the «uptown» galleries are somewhat different.
– Here galleries such as Gladstone (New York), Almine Rech (Paris) and Natalie Obadia (Paris) have set up alongside established Belgian galleries such as Xavier Hufkens, Albert Baronian and Rudolph Janssen.
The basis for the whole development is the staunch culture of collectors in Brussels.
– This culture of collecting art comes from the Industrial Revolution. It has been strong in Flanders particularly.
A new generation has appeared recently, but Renders stresses that the collectors in Brussels are not from the financial world.
– The young collectors, who support the young galleries, come from the same environment as the old collectors. They are very knowledgeable, and they’re extremely interested in the pursuit of art and artists.
They are renowned worldwide for this, which is why galleries such as Gladstone, Natalie Obadia and Almine Rech establish themselves in Brussels. These are also boosted by French collectors who have moved here to avoidFrench wealth tax.
– In addition you have eurocrats who are interested in purchasing contemporary art because it is trendy, but I call them art buyers, not collectors. It is the collector culture here that is unique. Also, what I think makes the art scene in Brussels special is that everyone meets here. We are situated in the heart of Europe, an hour from here and you’re in London or Paris.
Art Brussels has a younger profile than other art fairs.
– We decided to make the shift towards focusing on young galleries in 2000. It has to do with collectors in Belgium being interested in what’s new, and therefore we found it natural to go in that direction. And that’s also good for the young galleries and young artists.
The Art of Collaboration
One showroom that has been supported by art collectors is the curator-run Komplot, situated right next to Wiels.
– We have a policy that we never pay for our venues. Our present location belongs to an art collector and we were allowed to move in. Before this, we were in various locations in the city, relates the founder of the gallery, Sonja Dermience.
– Komplot is engaged in a variety of different activities, such as the publication of the magazine Year.
They also run Public School which consists of art projects that are created in the course of one day, in the form of a workshop or day project.
– As an example I can mention Fransisco Camacho who assembled a class for pre-Columbian art which belonged to the art collector Dora Jansson, who had purchased a vast amount of Columbian art.
This was classified as illegal by UNESCO, and Colombia demanded that the art be returned. But Belgium had not signed any treaty. Camacho made a sculpture depicting Columbian culture, viewed by 20 spectators whilst a woman read aloud about the art theft.
– Komplot had previously had a residency programme connected to their other activities. But as of today they just have a ten-day residence scheme where artists can rent an inexpensive studio during the day. The present occupants are: Anne Bossuroy, David Evrand, Alan Fertil, Gaillard and Claude, Filip Gilissen, Sofie Haesaerts, Gregoire Motte, Zin Taylor, Damien Teixidor, Filip Van Dingenen.
The aim and core of the philosophy of Komplot is to collaborate with artists, curators and city planners.
– We function as a cultural hub, presenting exhibitions in collaboration with each other. We do not necessarily work directly together, but assist each other in the various projects. We also work with different institutions in Brussels. Our present location is in one of Brussels poorer areas as we don’t want the gallery to look like a showroom, but a place where people can just drop in.
Sonia Dermience tells of a project which was presented by Claire Fontaine in a garage in the «uptown» Louise area. A neon sign was erected with the words Capitalism kills love.
– The exhibition looked more like a bar and fitted well in its surroundings. From 2003 to 2007 we presented Vollevox 1-17 which was a series of exhibitions, workshops and seminars, taking place at different venues like the Brussels Royal National Museum and Theatre Mercelis, with artists such as Dora Garcia, Christin Oppenheim, Sophie Nys, Rodney Graham and Mario Torres Garcia. Today, Komplott works mostly with Wiels.
– We also have several classes from The Public School who are our neighbors and support us financially with our magazine.
Looking into the future Sonja Dermience says:
– I’m not totally optimistic , but I believe that Brussels is a city where things can happen as long as you can present a good plan and have the cash. Just look at the Norwegian artist Steinar Haga Kristensen and Gallery D.O.R. who came, saw and conquered and is doing very well.
You can make it in Brussels if you have the drive, although I’m tempted to add “with a little help from my friends”.