Brussels has carved out a unique place in the world of art. Since the mid 1990s, the city’s galleries have worked hard to promote the Belgian capital not only as an international art destination but also as a venue with an impressive amount of home-grown talent. In Paris a great deal art is sold but not made; in Berlin the reverse is the case. Brussels offers the best of both worlds. This is largely thanks to a combination of accessible property prices, which attracts working artists, and of high-speed rail links to London and Paris, which ensure a regular footfall of collectors. It’s no surprise that over the past 10 years about 50 galleries have opened here.
Belgium is thought to have the most collectors in the world per capita, says Anne Vierstraete, managing director of Art Brussels, the city’s annual contemporary art fair. ‘Belgian collectors are known to be very thoughtful about their collections,’ she explains. They often have a close relationship with artists and dare to buy in an early stage of a painter’s or sculptor’s career, she adds. The result is a unique demographic of European collectors. Having settled in Brussels they organise exhibitions involving their own collections, and these are often held in private locations that they open to the public.
In southern Brussels, on avenue Van Volxem, Wiels contemporary art centre is remarkable for showcasing some of the best-received modern art in the city and for its investment in emerging artists, to whom it offers residencies each year. It is housed in a former brewery that was created in the 1930s by Belgian architect Adrien Blomme, and there’s a period, industrial feel here, especially in the Brewing Hall exhibition space, which features three original copper tuns. Vierstraete explains that Wiels has ‘contributed a lot to the dynamics and the internationalisation of the contemporary art scene in Brussels through opening its doors to artists-in-residence’. She explains that many of them choose to continue living in Brussels after having been hosted for several months – and the result is a constant injection of international talent into the city.
A flamboyant art fair has also started making a bold contribution to the city. Independent is a series of international events devised by gallery owners. Its shows have been taking place in New York and Delhi since 2010, and earlier this year it held its first European fair in the 1930s Vanderborght building in Brussels. Works from some 60 galleries were featured, and what distinguished the fair was the way in which the exhibitors were orchestrated. The Independent shows do away with the gallery hierarchy that characterises so many art fairs and instead position small names and projects alongside bigger, more established ones. It’s a pluralistic approach that resonates well with the Brussels art scene of today.
Neighbourhoods to know
The city offers such a wealth of contemporary art experiences that visitors might at first feel a bit daunted by taking it in. But Brussels is very human in scale, says Vierstraete, ‘so everything related to the art scene is concentrated in a few distinct areas of town’. This includes the Ixelles and Dansaert districts. The city’s temporary shows tend to be spectacularly located yet easily accessible. This was especially the case with the 2016 location of Art Brussels.
The fair took place in April at the magnificent Tour & Taxis complex, an architectural masterpiece of historic warehouses to the north of the centre, just 10 minutes’ walk from the Gare du Nord. Vierstraete explains that this vibrant annual event – the next taking place from 21 to 23 April 2017 – is designed to attract not only artists and gallery owners but also the general public, encouraging those curious about art to see as much work as possible ‘in order to adjust both your eyes and your mind to the kind of art that means something to you’. In Brussels, a veritable playground of artistic creation, you would be hard pushed not to.