Xavier Hufkens: Brussels’ Arbiter of Art

“It’s been a huge success,” admits Xavier Hufkens, regarding his new gallery space for younger artists on rue Saint-Georges—but don’t be fooled, this powerhouse of a gallerist is anything but boastful. In fact, he’s often been quoted attributing his wild success to luck. As a 22-year-old law student in 1987, young Hufkens, bored with his studies, set up his own gallery—a dream since his early teens—in his native Brussels. The wunderkind quickly developed a roster of emerging and mid-career artists and landed British sculptor Antony Gormley in his first year, giving the artist his first show in Belgium. He did the same with Felix Gonzalez-Torres after befriending him in New York in 1991, and two years later, Rosemarie Trockel followed suit. 

In 1992, Hufkens was the first to set up shop on a residential, tree-lined street in the Ixelles neighborhood; five years later he bought the property next door, and last year he opened a new outpost down the block, in the neighborhood that is now a lively beacon of culture, brimming with galleries. Opened last fall, the new space is drastically different—located in a commercial complex, circa 1970s, that he redesigned with architect Harry Gugger—and is testament to the hot young artists he attracts; the first two shows went to Harold Ancart and Danh Vo. We caught up with Hufkens in anticipation of Art Brussels to hear the latest on his European art capital, from his favorite Italian dining spots to the recent trends in private art museums, to the spectacular lineup he has planned for the fair.

Artsy: Can you describe the neighborhood in which your gallery is located? Why did you choose to open a space in that particular area, and more generally, in Brussels?

Xavier Hufkens: When I first started out, in 1987, my gallery was located in a warehouse near the South Station (Midi). I moved the gallery to a 19th-century townhouse at 6-8 rue Saint-Georges, close to the Avenue Louise, in 1992. It wasn’t so much a strategic decision, but down to good old-fashioned luck: I’d discovered this beautiful house, it was affordable and, although it needed renovation, this gave me the opportunity to do something completely different, radical even. Back then, in the early-1990s, everyone was showing art in large, loft-style spaces and I was inspired by the idea of having a gallery in a house and, furthermore, one that was located in a quiet, tree-lined, residential street. 

Even more interesting was the fact that the house had a garden. I can’t imagine the gallery without the garden—it’s great for showing sculpture but, at the same time, completely transforms the atmosphere inside the building. I was one of the first people to have a gallery in this neighborhood, but now it’s bursting with life and full of galleries, and other creative businesses.

Artsy: Can you describe the current art scene in Brussels? What is new and exciting? How would you describe the collector base? How does Brussels fit into the larger Belgian art scene?

XH: Brussels hasn’t changed all that much. It’s a capital city and, as such, it has always had a very lively, vibrant art scene. Privately owned, semi-public spaces, such as the Vanhaerents Art Collection and Maison Particulière, are relatively new to the city and add an interesting dynamic to the art scene. 

Our client base is very international but, of course, there are plenty of important Belgian collectors. There have always been great art collectors in Belgium and it’s intriguing that they are now creating their own spaces. More than just private museums, these are professionally-run spaces that genuinely welcome visitors. Quite often, the collections are better than those belonging to the national museums, which is all to do with funding and resources. It’s an exciting time because, in addition, there are growing numbers of new, young, well-informed collectors in Brussels. As a gallery owner, it’s always rewarding to work with the next generation of collectors, and to witness the intelligent way that they approach acquisitions.

Artsy: What are your favorite local haunts in Brussels? Can you name your go-to places to eat, drink, and see art? (What would be your must-stop spots to bring a visitor?)

XH: For lunch, I’d suggest a little Italian near the gallery: Piccola Store (Rue Lesbroussart, 48 –1050 Ixelles). The atmosphere is wonderful. And of course, there are some unbeatable restaurants specialising in Belgian classics, such as Au Vieux Saint Martin (Grand Sablon, 38 – 1000 Brussels). It’s something of an institution now, but fantastic if you are searching for a truly authentic taste of Brussels—and it’s just as popular with the locals as it ever was (always a good sign!). For dinner, I’d recommend Amor Amor (Rue du Trône, 59 – 1050 Ixelles), another Italian, a tiny hidden-gem of a restaurant. 

In terms of art, I’d recommend visitors to Brussels go to WIELS and BOZAR (the Palais des Beaux-Arts), two institutions with particularly strong exhibition programmes. The buildings themselves are also magnificent: WIELS is located in an old brewery, a rare survival of modernist industrial architecture in Brussels, while BOZAR is one of Victor Horta’s greatest creations. And speaking of Horta, no visit to Brussels is complete with paying a visit to the architect’s house. Now the Victor Horta Museum, it is one of the most beautifully preserved Art Nouveau buildings in the city, and all the more fascinating because Horta designed it for his own family, and lived in the house for almost 20 years. 

Artsy: Can you name any must-see events or exhibitions a visitor to Art Brussels should be certain not to miss?

XH: Brussels boasts many great exhibition venues, but I’d recommend that visitors to the art fair take time out to see Francisco de Zurbarán at BOZAR. Not only does Zurbarán rank alongside Velázquez and Murillo, but this exhibition also happens to be the first-ever Belgian retrospective dedicated to the artist. I would also suggest that people visit some of the newer, privately run spaces, such as the Vanhaerents Art Collection and Maison Particulière. 

Artsy: Can you tell us briefly about your Art Brussels booth as a whole?

XH: Art fairs are all about showing the world what you do as a gallery and, crucially, about communicating your identity. Consequently, we always strive to show works by artists with whom we have long-standing relationships, and we also try to ensure that the stand, as a whole, reflects the ethos of the gallery. This year, for example, we have wonderful pieces by Louise Bourgeois, Roni Horn, Sterling Ruby, and Thomas Houseago, not to mention a superb painting by Cris Brodahl.

Xavier Hufkens, Art Brussels 2014, PRIME, Booth 1C-17, Apr. 25–27th.

Explore Art Brussels 2014 on Artsy.