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When one thinks of Brussels, the Capital of the European Union, Belgian chocolates, beer, and moules frites may spring to mind, but what some may not know is that Brussels is now considered one of the leaders of the contemporary art scene in Europe and that there are more collectors in Belgium per capita than in any other country in the world. Perhaps this is due to the widespread, century-old tradition of collecting art in Flanders, but I suspect that this may also have something to do with the large number of galleries based in the city.

Art Brussels, Photo Courtesy Art Brussels

While I have visited Brussels previously on several occasions, I had not yet attended Art Brussels, which happens to be one of the most established art fairs in Europe. This Spring I was invited to join the Collectors Program so I decided to head to the Belgian capital in April for the fair's 37th edition. Since its inception in 1968 the fair has established itself as a platform for young artists to gain international visibility and over the years it has garnered a reputation for being one of the most important fairs for discovering emerging talent.

Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Brussels, Photo courtesy Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Not only does Brussels have a high concentration of private collectors and galleries, but because the rents are much lower than in Paris or London artists are increasingly flocking to the European capital in search of cheaper studio space. In addition to this, over the last couple of years, a slew of international galleries have also opened branches here, most notably Mendes Wood from Saõ Paolo, Barbara Gladstone from New York and Almine Rech from Paris. With soaring ceilings, massive french doors and windows, these sun filled, lofty, beaux arts townhouses host some of the best galleries in the world, and the diverse and varied architectural spaces here are a welcome change from the ubiquitous Chelsea white cube. The city itself is very international and the art scene always dynamic, with a healthy number of non-profits and artist-run spaces, as well as several new institutions such Weils Contemporary Art Centre, which offers artists residencies to emerging artists, and the edgy new industrial Pompidou outpost- Kanal Centre Pompidou, located in a former Citroën car factory. With the increasing interest in Brussels as a Central European hub for contemporary art, the city has recently been dubbed the "new Berlin." I don't know if I'd agree with that, but I'd definitely say Brussels is fast becoming one of the most important art capitals in Europe.

KANAL Centre Pompidou, Brussels

Located in the charming and historic Tour and Taxis building, a former royal depot, the fair opened this year with a VIP preview starting in the afternoon on Thursday, April 28th. There was a stellar line-up of participants, including 148 selected galleries from 32 countries across three sections: Prime, Discovery, Rediscovery and one sub-section with 23 Solo presentations. In addition to the selected galleries, Art Brussels has now also launched a new Invited section comprised of 9 emerging galleries or art spaces that are transcending the typical gallery format. For me, the Invited section was a major highlight, as the growing trend aimed at challenging the traditional gallery model is one of the most important developments in the contemporary art market recently.

Art Brussels Virtual Tour

The Invited section supports a younger generation of international galleries who have never participated in the fair, giving them a complete carte blanche for their booth. This section included new and experimental formats such as Ballon Rouge Collective, an itinerant gallery that hosts exhibitions across Europe, the U.S. and Latin America; La Maison de Rendez-Vous, a Brussels-based space shared by four different galleries: LambdaLambdaLambda (Prishtina), Lulu (Mexico City); Misako & Rosen (Tokyo), Park View/Paul Soto (Brussels, Los Angeles); Paid by the artist (Antwerp), a novel concept devised by Simon Delobel where the brand identity of his gallery-model adapts according to the artist’s vision, High Art (Paris), and Counterspace (Zurich).

Susan & Michael Hort checking out Alice Black, London at Art Brussels Invited Section

I thought this new platform was one of the most novel concepts I've seen within the ever-expanding art-fair industrial complex, at least since London-based gallerist Vanessa Carlos launched Condo, a collaborative exhibition where local galleries host visiting galleries, with editions held in London, New York, Mexico City and Shanghai. Following on the heels of Condo, NADA has also recently taken an unconventional approach to the typical art fair format, with its second iteration of NADAHouse, a collaborative, off-site exhibition, featuring 45 artists from NADA Member galleries and non-profits in three historic, turn-of-the-century Colonial Revival houses on Governors Island, New York. Its good to finally see some of these new and disruptive initiatives and non-traditional models taking hold and I hope to see more in the future. I will cover more on this topic in my next travelogue on Frieze Week, New York so stay tuned for that.

In addition to the Invited section, Art Brussels is also dedicated to a dynamic representation of Solo booths as well, allowing for an in-depth view of one artist, always a welcome respite from the usual shopping mall-like atmospheres of most fairs, . The Discovery section was comprised of emerging galleries with recently created works (2016-2019) from up and coming artists, with nearly a third of the artists represented being under 40 years old, making Art Brussels resolutely contemporary.

Art Brussels, Discovery Section, Derouillon - Paris with Alexandre Benjamin Navet

I did a preliminary walkthrough of the fair Thursday afternoon at the VIP preview, which at first glance was quite impressive however, while the fair is much more manageable size-wise, then say Armory or ARCO, it did require a second day's visit for a more in-depth look. After a quick overview my highlights included a solo presentation at Derouillon, Paris, featuring Alexandre Benjamin Navet, a young artist who has done windows for Hermés in Paris and won the Van Clef and Arpels Grand prize for Design. I had the pleasure of meeting Alexandre seated in his own booth, which included primary coloured, hand painted wall mouldings, plinths, ceramic vases, and still life paintings in oil on canvas and wood. He even designed the carpet beneath his chair. It felt as thought we were IN his own, immersive, cartoon-like, drawn space...very Richard Linklater "Waking Life."

Jaime Pitarch at The Ryder Projects

Also in the Discovery section at London's The Ryder Projects (one of my perennial favourites at fairs), young gallerist Pati Lara showed Jaime Pitarch's reclaimed chairs found on the streets of Barcelona (where the artist is based), the legs of which he had gradually whittled down to match sticks, removing the chairs’ function entirely and suspending them in ‘a state of precarious equilibrium’. Pitarch is one of the most interesting young Spanish conceptual artists, usually working with found objects that he slightly alters, always surprising us with his humour, wit and empathy. I will be visiting his studio during Gallery Weekend this October in Barcelona, and I look forward to reporting on this encounter and finally meeting Jaime in person.

Jonathan Chapline at the Hole

I also enjoyed Kathy Grayson's 's presentation of Jonathan Chapline's day glow paintings of modernist interiors at The Hole's 'Tron inspired' booth, yet another immersive space within the fair that served to counteract the usual agoraphobia suffered by fairgoers in these massive homogeneous convention centres.

Natalie Obadia had several works on view by the Tate prize winning artist Laure Provoust, who just represented France in the Venice Biennale, including one of the limited-edition tapestries she created to finance her work at the French Pavilion. Priced at only €4,000 this was a stand out work. The textile and tapestry trend was clearly visible throughout the fair with large works made on a four-harness loom in a solo presentation of Ethan Cook at Patrick de Brock's booth. These apparently sold out the first day of the fair. In addition to these were more textile works by Beirut-based artist Etel Adnan at Galerie Lelong & Co. and some hooked rugs by Canadian artist Hannah Epstein, featuring comic memes, monsters and space aliens made with wool, acrylic and burlap at L.A's Steve Turner Gallery. Epstein has described herself as "a feminist folklorist of the Internet Age," but her quirky works looked like that of an outsider artist. Another Canadian 'textile artist' Brent Wadden (who used to work as my art handler at my former gallery in Berlin back in the mid 2000's) had also opened his second solo show at the eponymous Almine Rech Gallery, the night before the fair opened.

Brent Wadden Solo Exhibition at Almine Rech, Brussels

Brent Wadden’s work references both the historical and social constructs of craft and modernism through dialogues between weaving and various modes of modernist art making. Working within the vein of assemblage, Wadden makes paintings by piecing together his hand woven weavings to create large scale, hard-edge geometric abstractions.

After the VIP preview of the fair there was a Collectors Dinner organized at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. We arrived promptly at 7:30pm to the museum and were welcomed in the opulent front hall with free flowing Ruinart Champagne and canapés and were given free reign of the museum to see the permanent collection as well as the temporary exhibitions, which included works by Wim Delvoye, Agnès Guillaume and Thomas Leroy.

The dinner was a mix of well-heeled, mostly European collectors, a few dealers, and some important institutional curators, including the omnipresent HUO (Hans Ulrich Obrist). This peripatetic, uber curator must have the most damning carbon footprint of anyone in the art world, with his non-stop travel to what seems like every art fair, Biennale and major museum opening on the International circuit. I bumped into HUO chatting with Susan and Michael Hort, two well respected NYC collectors, who invited us to the opening of their private collection during Frieze NY the following week. I also met the curator of the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, who gave me all kinds of gossip and insight into LVMH's amazing new Frank Gehry designed museum owned by billionaire art collector and luxury brand impresario Bernard Arnault. This Foundation, which I have not yet visited, looks like a transparent cloud or floating space ship, sitting at the edge of the Jardin d'Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne. LV Foundation has been described as Paris' best new museum and has been added to my bucket list for my next visit to the French capital.

Louis Vuitton Foundation

The next morning the Collectors Program began promptly with a brunch held at WIELS Contemporary Art Centre with a private visit to Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne's "Liquid Intelligence" exhibition. Ellen Gallagher explores African-American history and culture, using a charged poetic vocabulary, deployed in a variety of media, painting, film and installation. In this particular series, a collaboration with Edgar Cleijne, the artist bridges the gap between organic iconographies based on microbiological forms from oceanography, and racialized icons and symbols.

Ellen Gallagher at the Wiels Contemporary Art Centre

Following the visit to Wiels we made our way to the truly impressive Vanhaerents Art Collection for lunch and guided private visit. On the occasion of its ten-year anniversary, the Vanhaerents family decided to radically alter the ways in which it introduces its collection to the public, experimenting with innovative forms of presentation, they adopted the format of a viewing depot that allowed for aesthetics and functionality to intertwine. The collection, housed in a 38 thousand square foot, three story, industrial warehouse featured art works displayed in their massive wooden shipping crates. It felt as though we were getting a private tour of Le Freeport in Luxembourg with major works on view by Bruce Nauman, James Lee Byars, Christopher Wool, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Paul McCarthy, Bill Viola, Cindy Sherman, Hamra Abbas, David Altmejd, Christian Boltanski, James Casebere, Sam Falls, Sylvie Fleury, Mr., Allan McCollum, Matt Mullican, Albert Oehlen, Ugo Rondinone, Lucien Smith and Danh Vō. The private family collection was started in the 1970s by Walter Vanhaerents and his children Els and Joost continue to build and expand the families art holdings and exhibition space.

Vanhaerents Art Collection, Brussels

Following a personal walk through with Joost Vanhaerents, we made our way to the Servais Family Collection for a private tour with the outspoken Belgian investment banker and collector Alain Servais at his loft. In an exhibition entitled "A from Animism, Atlas, Adrift," curated by his in-house curator Dragos Olea, Alain himself gave us a tour through his former residence, a large industrial loft with works on view by  Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Natalie Baxter, Danilo Correale, Chloé Delarue, Josephine Meckseper, Taus Makhacheva, Cindy Sherman, Ken Sortais, Richard Tuttle, Danh Vō, and Cajsa von Zeipel, amongst others. Servais also has a residency program on the premises where he hosts a couple of artists at a time in his loft, offering them space to work and live while in Brussels. Alain has also written several articles on the subject of the contemporary art market and collecting, including the provocative "Art in the shadow of art market industrialization," which I recently interviewed him about and look forward to posting to my blog.

Alain Servais at The Servais Family Collection at the Loft

They organizers weren't joking when they said, "Collectors Program," after The Servais and The Vanhaerents Collections we moved on to yet another private collection at the home of Gilbert Van Marcke de Lummen. We were met at the door by a mild mannered, white-haired, 70 year old man, who welcomed us into what was a meticulously kept, architecturally redesigned former paper factory that he had transformed into a lofty, modernist residence situated in the outskirts of Brussels. Not only did he have museum-quality, monumental works by artists such as Anselm Kiefer sitting his living room, in edition to many other contemporary masterpieces, he also had a giant Allan McCollum vase outdoors in his sprawling, lush back yard, sitting (quite unceremoniously) right next to his very own chicken coop (which was the most meticulously clean chicken coop Ive ever seen). This was another example of the seeming irreverence and refreshingly individualistic tastes displayed by the many Belgian collectors I met over the weekend. These collectors private collections were singular and intrepid and they certainly stood apart from the more American "herd mentality" predominantly observed in NYC and Miami, where collectors typically have an aversion to anything other than well recognized, blue chip names. As we were not permitted to take photos this is the only snap shot I got upon entering the private collection of Van Marcke de Lummen.

Late that afternoon we continued with a visit to the Boghossian Foundation at Villa Emapain for a guided tour and drinks at "Flamboyant. An Art de Vivre in the Thirties." This was is an immersive exhibition, inviting the visitor into the house of a fictional collector of the '20s - '30s at the Villa Empain, where we rediscovered this unique architectural jewel built in 1934, entirely refurnished in the Art Deco style, with a multitude of paintings, sculptures and furniture from this period. We ended with a glass of champagne in the chic bar overlooking the villa's pool which was worthy of F.Scott Fitzgerald's "Great Gatsby."

Boghossian Foundation at Villa Empain

Later that evening, after some much needed downtime, we met up at the brand new Kanal — Centre Pompidou. This imposing 38,000-square-metre Art Deco building will show works on loan from the Paris Pompidou Centre, which holds one of the world's leading collections of 20th and 21st century art, making Brussels even more of a cultural draw. Located in a former Citroën garage, Kanal – Centre Pompidou is currently in its first phase; “Kanal Brut” where contemporary art exhibitions are featured throughout the space, which visitors can enjoy in the raw architecture of this iconic building. The garage has yet to be renovated but once the brut/experimental phase is over, renovations will be made and the Centre will permanently host a (Pompidou) modern & contemporary art museum, the Brussels Architecture Center CIVA, and multiple public spaces dedicated to artistic endeavors, becoming one of Brussels’ main cultural hubs.

Kanal Center Pompidou, Brussels

Saturday morning I headed back to the fair at Tour and Taxis to make sure there was nothing I missed. With your Art Brussels VIP card you have access to several chauffeur driven luxury cars, including a Jaguar, Porsche and a Tesla and while the service was first come first serve, I was lucky enough to somehow snag the same driver several times, who turned out to be a fantastic local guide. This was extremely helpful given the number of events scheduled around town each day. Saturday hosted several more visits including a private tour and breakfast at Foundation Cab; a visit to La Loge, a space dedicated to contemporary art, architecture and theory, located in a former Masonic temple built in 1934 by Modernist architects Fernand Bodson and Louis Van Hooveld; a visit to the artist run space Société; and finally a visit to the home of and collection of Alain Servais in Forest -- a quiet, verdant, residential area just outside Brussels city centre. I found the collection in his private home that included works by Paul Pfieffer, Mickalene Thomas, Mark Manders to be much more impressive than that in his Loft in the city. As always, Alain was outspoken and quite critical of the current art market. He made many points which I tend to agree with, but I won't share here as I look forward to sharing my interview with him in my upcoming blog on "The Hyperfinaicialization of the Art Market" coming this Fall.

Private Collection Alain Servias

On my final night in Brussels I was invited to the home of a young, private collector who lived in the trendy and lively St. Gilles neighbourhood for a cocktail party. This young collector had a magnificent four story town house, filled with top notch modernist furniture, contemporary art and an extensive library and the fantastic food, wine and the crowd were even more memorable. I met a wonderfully eclectic mix of art world colleagues from all over but also many scholars, artists and even a scientist from NASA and his wife who was a neuroscientist from the U.S. This party with its eccelctic and sophisiticated crowd was a wonderful way to end my visit to Brussels and has baited my breath for next year's fair which I look forward to returning to next Spring.

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