To Swiss artist Beat Streuli, who regularly steps out his front door in the city with a long zoom lens to photograph the human panorama, Brussels itself “inspires a lot,” he says. “It’s much less sterile than London or Paris can be.” Shockingly affordable real estate, a strategic location within Europe (London, Paris and Amsterdam all are brief high-speed train jaunts away), and tax advantages for foreign businesses and new residents are some of the factors helping to fuel the expansion of the Brussels scene. An estimated 132,000 French are believed to have relocated to Belgium in recent years.
These include the unfailingly chic Almine Rech, a prominent Paris dealer who decamped to an Art Deco mansion on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt two years ago with her husband, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso (a grandson of the artist), and their children. That she opened a large gallery in uptown Brussels this fall speaks to a compelling equation: Wealthy residents plus cheap real estate equals great art business. “People have more walls and gardens to put sculptures,” she says, looking out at her own verdant lawn that not long ago displayed giant works by Ugo Rondinone and Sylvie Fleury. “Proportionate to the size of the country, the passion for art is huge.”
At the end of November, a show at Wiels titled “Un-Scene” and devoted to some 20 emerging Belgian-based artists promises to heat things up further. Still, Wiels director Dirk Snauwaert declines to name the participants so as not to ignite a commercial maelstrom. “If you throw a young name on the market, they’ll fight for it,” he demurs. “The Belgian art world is very collector-driven.”
Among the most prominent are Anton and Annick Herbert, early aficionados of Minimalist and contemporary art. But the vast majority of Belgian collectors operate well under the international radar. As Kuri, who has visited a few collectors in the Flemish municipality of Kortrijk, marvels, “I think only Manhattan is denser in good contemporary art collections.”
While well-heeled French citizens are apt to buy a hôtel particulier and stuff it with 18th-century art and antiques, not so the Belgians, says dealer Rodolphe Janssen, whose home is in a former coffin factory and filled with challenging works by Gilbert & George and George Condo. “We have no nostalgia about our past,” he says, noting that Belgian collectors were recently among the first to buy large-scale pieces by Banks Violette and Terence Koh.
Some collectors are parting the curtains on their private bounty. Walter Vanhaerents, a construction entrepreneur who started buying in the Seventies, last year opened a 32,000-square-foot showcase in a former warehouse, making it available twice a month for private tours. “Artworks are not meant to be hidden away,” he says, leading a visitor past eye-popping pieces by Matthew Barney, Bruce Nauman, Takashi Murakami, Tom Sachs and Francesco Vezzoli, to name but a few.