Art dealer Barbara Gladstone, a power player in downtown New York for 25 years, is finally reopening a gallery uptown. “Only it’s uptown Brussels, in Belgium,” she says with a yelp of laughter that echoes through her still-empty 1890s town house, situated steps away from the luxury shops lining Boulevard de Waterloo.
Why open in Brussels, a capital dense with diplo- mats and maligned for its dreary weather? Surreal though it may seem, this is an emerging art city. A slow but steady stream of international artists, dealers and curators is arriving, fanning its reputation as a happening spot for contemporary art.
But please don’t call it a scene—especially to an artist as prone to provocation as Kendell Geers, a South African transplant who recently displayed a neon piece proclaiming fuc king hell in a Brussels storefront. “Brussels has the best beer, best restaurants, bars and brasseries in the world. That’s primary in creating good art,” he conveys in an e-mail as blunt as his work, which includes skulls, walls and scooters plastered with profanities. And even if Walvis Café, an achingly hip bar at the gritty end of fashionable Rue Antoine Dansaert, is a magnet for the Duvel-swilling downtown art set, Geers calls it a “place to be yourself without getting disturbed by posers and yuppies.”
“Unpretentious” is a term all the movers and shakers of the Brussels art world seem to treasure as much as their rumpled Margielas: Theirs is a low-key community, driven by bold collectors and honest dialogue.
The focus of the Belgian art scene, long centered in Antwerp, began to shift to Brussels in the mid-Nineties, according to leading dealer Xavier Hufkens, who represents the likes of Louise Bourgeois and David Altmejd. Like many seasoned local art figures, Hufkens describes the city as a less congested alternative to an overheated Berlin. “Berlin is really almost in Russia if you think about it, and has no collectors,” he says, in his gallery. The opening this year of Wiels, a contemporary art center in a former brewery, is a hulking concrete expression of how Brussels is flexing its muscles as a new European art capital.
“It’s a very strange city,” notes Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri, whose poetic, socially charged sculp-tures, made with found objects, often incorporate sales slips and those numbered tickets you get while waiting your turn at the bakery. Kuri has called Brussels home for the past five years—and not because it is trendy or glamorous: “It’s in a perennial state of becoming. It’s never there yet,” says the artist, the subject of a solo show at the London gallery Sadie Coles HQ in November. “There’s a degree of chaos that I find interesting.... Brussels isn’t incredibly eventful, but it’s not boring either.”