The Rebirth of Brussels: Is the Belgian Capital the New Berlin?

Francesca Gavin
Apr 21, 2014 2:14PM

Without anyone noticing, Brussels became cool; a city that artists are choosing to move to and galleries and project spaces are thriving within. The catalyst for this change is obvious—WIELS. Since it opened in 2007, it has become one of the most respected international exhibition spaces for contemporary art. WIELS director Dirk Snauwaert has overseen the development of this giant, ambitious hub, located in a former brewery.

WIELS has more than filled a city that lacked even a contemporary art museum. They have put on major shows by artists hitting their stride, like Tauba Auerbach or Leigh Ledare, or those seriously influencing artistic dialogue, like Thomas Bayrle or Mark Leckey. “We intend to contribute to art history, in complexifying the picture. Bringing in a number of artists who, for one reason or another, have been forgotten or overlooked, we combine these survey shows with monographical projects by artists who we believe are adding innovative approaches to the notions and forms at hand in contemporary thinking and art. A sort of middle ground between the mid-life career survey and a specific project,” Snauwaert explains.

WIELS’ critical success has shone a light on the private galleries in the city. Brussels has a long tradition as a historical art market, going back to the 16th century. Its gallery scene is intelligent and understated. Barbara Gladstone opened a space in a townhouse here in 2008 to show work in a more intimate setting. Almine Rech and MOT International both set up second spaces in the city. Antwerp gallery Office Baroque moved ship to Brussels last year.

Brussels’ Xavier Hufkens has a roster of artists that would make any international gallerist weak at the knees, from Pierre Huyghe to Roni Horn. Upcoming exhibitions include solo presentations by Evan Holloway, Jonathan Horowitz, and Jacob Kassay. “It was never a strategic decision to open a gallery in Brussels: I was born in the city, and it’s the city I know and love. Having said that, when I first opened in 1987, Antwerp was the center of the Belgian art world. That’s changed over the years. Brussels is the crossroads of Europe. It’s an incredibly international, cosmopolitan city but, at the same time, very manageable,” Hufkens notes.

Hufkens recently opened a second space in a concrete 1970s building down the street his stunning white townhouse space. The interior was designed by ex-Herzog & De Meuron partner Harry Gugger. I liked that fact that it had a very distinctive, contemporary feel. The idea for the new gallery space was born out of the need for flexibility. The space has allowed the gallery to show more experimental work and take greater risks.” Since it opened last year, smaller galleries, start-ups, and architects have settled near by. The whole area has had a dose of fresh energy. 

Former artist Michael Callies opened his gallery, dépendance, a decade ago, showing the artists he had studied with under Kippenberger at the Städel School, like Thilo Heinzmann, Sergej Jensen, Haegue Yang, and Michael Krebber. “I think Brussels is a very interesting place,” director Ayelet Yanai considers. “Not only in the art world. Politically, economically. You have the very established, very rich, very poor, a lot of immigrants. It is really a city of contrast.”

The first wave of artists settling in the city, like Kendell Geers and Pierre Bismuth, have been followed by younger names like Lucy McKenzie and Simon Thompson. Rumours are going around that Brussels is the new Berlin—a place with cheaper rents and a thriving scene. Numerous project spaces have emerged in the city: Etablissement d'en Face, NICC, De La Charge, and Abilene. La Loge, which opened in September 2012, is set in a modernist former Masonic lodge. “It is important for us that the artists, curators, and cultural agents we invite are given the opportunity to look for the characteristic and the peculiar within their practice,” points out director Anne-Claire Schmitz. “Unlike any other institution, we benefit from a small-scale format that allows us to address our audience and the diversity of protagonists we work with in a straightforward and genuine way. That intimate and direct conversation is an essential quality to the project and to the way we envisioned it.”

Brussels is asserting itself as a place where smaller galleries can get a serious audience. Christopher Crescent, a respected gallery from London that made its name with great early shows from Eddie Peake and Steve Bishop, has chosen to move to Brussels. The gallery is in the south of the city, near stalwarts like Elaine Levy, Middlemarch, and Almine Rech. “What I have noticed about the city is an openness and willingness to share and disseminate information and connections,” founder Simon Christopher explains. “It’s a platform that unfortunately doesn’t seem to be provided by London right now.” Reflecting the camaraderie in the city, his approach isn’t vampiric. “As with any art hub, it’s about connecting with the local protagonists, the artists at all levels, the other galleries, the institutions, the writers. It’s about becoming part of the fabric, the roots of the place.”

Brussels is really about location—a short train journey away from Paris, London or Amsterdam. For collectors, coming to the city to see and buy work couldn’t be easier. For artists, it has some of the experimentation of Berlin but with a touch more seriousness. Within the art world at least, Brussels’ position as the capital of the European Union finally makes sense.

Images: WIELS Building © Sven Laurent; Flag WIELS © WIELS; Franz Erhard Walther installation view at WIELS © Sven Laurent; Akram Zaatari installation view at WIELS © Sven Laurent; Mark Leckey installation view of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, 2013 at Nottingham; WIELS Cafe © WIELS; Almine Rech; Xavier Hufkens.

Francesca Gavin