Belgium has its own microclimate for art.
On the one hand, since the ’70s the country has developed an established tradition for boundary-pushing art collections (see for example the fabulous Herbert foundation in Gent (www.herbertfoundation.org) and MoMA’s purchase of Belgian radiologist Herman Daled’s conceptual art collection in 2011).
On the other, there’s been the arrival en masse of rich French tax exiles over the past few years who are joining the movement and buying contemporary art in step with local tendencies.
This conjunction of facts gives Brussels, the capital of Europe, a significant profile in the art market.
Plus the property market is relatively affordable, which means that galleries looking to expand in Europe are locating here. Take the influential Brazilian gallery Mendes-Wood, also based in New York, which this April is inaugurating a large space in the ultra-chic rue des Sablons.
Last year saw the arrival of the leading Israeli gallery, Dvir, following in the footsteps of international contemporary art stalwarts such as New York’s Barbara Gladstone and France’s Almine Rech etc.
The high point of Belgium’s contemporary art business takes place this week, with the opening of the Art Brussels fair.
It’s back at Tour & Taxis for the second year and brings together 145 exhibitors including ‘historic’ dealers from the local contemporary art scene such as Xavier Hufkens and Rodolphe Janssen.
For the second year, too, the show is facing stiff competition from a smaller yet hipper Independent Brussels (in other words scruffier and with stands of differing quality), an ‘anti-fair’ that has the advantage of being located centrally.
With strong New York overtones, Independent boasts 72 exhibitors, ranging from international behemoth David Zwirner to Clearing Gallery from the French dealer Olivier Babin, based in Brooklyn and Brussels.
Clearing has maintained a space in Belgium since 2012 but had decided to expand. This week it’s inaugurating 600 m2 of space in a nineteenth-century warehouse.
‘People still visit galleries a lot here. We decided to take a space that means we can have real exhibitions,’ Babin explains. The gallerist well known for his young artists is this time using the space to show the spectacular work of Austrian sculptor Bruno Gironcoli (1936-2010), long forgotten but revered by such influential artists such as Ugo Rondinone and Franz West.
Gironcoli made futuristic-looking sculptures using disparate materials and forms, often with sexual connotations.
Prices from 300,000 euros for big sculptures.
At his Independent stand that he’s sharing with the Parisian modern art Galerie 1990-2000, he’s showing the American painter Aaron Garber-Maikovska (born 1978) who produces multi-coloured abstract paintings from real-life choreographies (prices from 25,000 euros).
‘Even if the first edition of Independent wasn’t a success [the show was held ten days after the terrorist attacks] it’s a better fit for our programme and our spirit than Art Brussels,’ explains the gallerist.
At Art Brussels, the stand of Viennese gallery Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman also has small-format sculptures by Gironcoli starting from 9,500 euros.
‘I like coming here, people understand quickly what’s good,’ remarks Pietro Sparta, an unusual gallerist from the village of Chagny en Bourgogne who is showing, in amongst work by his stable of young artists, a series of round conceptual paintings from the ’90s by Niele Toroni (born 1937) who is in various European public collections (70,000 euros).
Serge Maruani, a specialist in American art in Belgium, is also following the local trend for expansion and has recently doubled his exhibition space by taking a 450 m2 gallery in Brussels on the avenue Louise.
At Art Brussels, he’s presenting the work of American artist Lyle Ashton Harris (born 1965), known for chronicling his own life as a gay, black artist through documentary photos and assemblages.
MoMA New York owns several of his works and the Whitney Biennale in New York, taking place until 11 June, is dedicating a large space to him.
One of his photos, designed as a collection of memories, is on sale for 45,000 euros.
Still on the subject of works that are recognised and collected by institutions, Parisian photography dealer Sage is offering a poetic still life print, a close-up of lemons, by the American painter Cy Twombly (50,000 euros). His remarkable retrospective is ending at the Centre Pompidou on 24 April.
He’s also presenting a photo of a sublime starlit sky by Wolfgang Tillmans (who currently has a retrospective at the Tate in London) offered for 11,000 euros.
Brussels holds a special place in the international contemporary art world, a far cry from the prohibitive prices of New York.