Art Brussels draws big-name dealers

BRUSSELS • This staid capital of Europe suddenly has its own mini-equivalent of Frieze week in London.

The addition of Independent, the highly regarded New York fair, to the city's perennial "discovery" event, Art Brussels, could potentially turn Belgium this month into a serious destination for collectors of contemporary art.

With the art trade facing challenging times and given the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris, it would seem to be a less-than-ideal moment for Brussels to crank up its reputation as a city for discovering and acquiring innovative new art.

The inaugural European edition of Independent offered a preview last Wednesday, 72 galleries showing in a stylish, partition-free space in a disused 1930s department store near the Grand Place.

Art Brussels itself opened on Thursday, for the first time in the "sheds" of the former customs warehouse, Tour & Taxis, having relocated from the less-central Brussels Expo.

So would the art world descend on Brussels the way it does in London in October or Basel, Switzerland, in June? One of the few American visitors at the preview of Independent Brussels was the New Jersey art adviser Clayton Press.

"Americans are generally orientated to Art Basel and Frieze and Fiac," he said, referring to the fall Paris fair. "They have a perception that most European art fairs are regional events. There's just so much art available at the moment and there's a lot of confusion about price. They're comfortable with what they know."

In fact, nearly every nationality, other than Belgian, was conspicuous by its absence among the knowledgeable crowd at the Independent preview. And yet Belgium's pool of discriminating and discreet contemporary art collectors continues to be a draw for big-name international dealers.

Gavin Brown of New York, Maureen Paley of London and Chantal Crousel of Paris were among the major international exhibitors having faith in Independent's decision to open in Brussels, rather than trying to crack the saturated markets of London or Paris.

Brown was showing five new paintings by the young Los Angeles artist John Seal that embedded psychedelic abstracts in wooden silhouettes of everyday objects. Two sold at the preview, priced at US$21,000 (S$28,441) each.

This week was all about such "discovery" quality art. The young Belgian artist Kasper Bosmans, 25, emerged at Independent Brussels as another name to watch.

In an effort to raise the overall quality at its new venue, Art Brussels, which is part of the Belgian-based Artexis-Easyfairs group, reduced the total number of participating galleries to 141 from 191, while increasing the price of booth rentals by about 30 per cent.

The popular "Discovery" section, devoted to emerging galleries and artists, drew the biggest crowd, with local collectors intrigued by the work of Alastair Mackie.

A pile of what looked like grey posters were in fact recycled wasp nests. These were priced at £10,000 (S$19,508) and a black marble geometric relief, filled with 474 cowrie shells, was marked at £8,500.

"What happened a month ago hasn't affected the mood of Belgian collectors," said Mr Sebastien Janssen, the owner of a Brussels gallery, Sorry We're Closed.

He said that the attacks last month in Brussels were not unexpected, at least among Belgians.

"The Americans haven't come and the attacks have been terrible for tourism," he said, "but it's still been an exciting week. Brussels has become a new centre for contemporary art."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Art Brussels draws big-name dealers'. Subscribe