Brussels, with its gothic spires, narrow paved lanes and art nouveau gems, conjures the past. When it comes to art, we think about the 15th century, perhaps, when nobles and traders were proud to be patrons to Flemish artists such as Van Eyck and Van der Weyden, whose luminous devotional works still draw crowds to the city’s Beaux-Arts Museum. Others think of Brussels as the birthplace of surrealism, home to Magritte, or as the place of origin of comic book hero Tintin.
Now, though, there’s a brand new art story to be told. Brussels – a scrappy, eccentric city in the heart of Europe – has become a magnet for contemporary art.
‘The contemporary art scene in Brussels gets a little larger, a little crazier and a little better every year,’ says Harlen Levey, an American whose eponymous gallery shows an exciting group of international artists. Big-name gallerists like Almine Rech of Gladstone Gallery in New York and Paris opened satellite branches in the city, and local heroes such as Xavier Hufkens, who represents the likes of Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley, are flourishing. Art fairs have proliferated: Art Brussels, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has become an unmissable event on the international art calendar, with 146 participating galleries from 33 countries.
‘Art Brussels showcases some of the most cutting edge contemporary art and brings in an incredible number of international collectors,’ says Stephanie Manasseh, a Canadian who moved to Brussels in 2004 and founded The Accessible Art Fair. She launched a New York offshoot of the event in 2016.
The sheer effervescence of the city’s cultural life is jaw dropping. On a single day last week, I counted 21 private views and openings. There are events such as Truc Troc, where visitors fill in Post-it notes offering to exchange services or gifts (piano lessons, a night in a yurt or a designer jacket) for art works, and Nuit Blanche, a themed evening of creative discovery across the city, with special happenings, installations and performances. Most of Brussels’ districts host annual Artists’ Trails, where you can tour studios and meet and chat with artists, young and old, professional and amateur, working in your local area. Sometimes it feels that all of Brussels is involved in the scene, whether creating, buying or simply enjoying. ‘There’s a real openness to art in this city; it embraces it in all its forms,’ says Manasseh.
But why? One key factor is space: Brussels has it. This is thanks to the conversion of old industrial spaces into spectacular venues. The world-class WIELS art centre, for instance, occupies a brewery that once produced traditional Belgian gueuze (the sour beer the city excels in). MIMA, the iconoclastic museum that burst onto the Brussels scene in 2016 showcasing street-style art, took over the Belle Vue brewery, while other venues are converted from skating rinks and power stations. Kanal, a modern art and architecture venue soon to be built in partnership between the city and Paris’ Centre Pompidou, will take over the bones of a gorgeous art deco Citroën garage. Work starts in 2019, but visitors can get a taste from May when temporary exhibitions will begin to arrive in the space.
Crucially, rents in the city have remained far lower than in other European capitals, meaning artists can still afford to work here. ‘Unused industrial space around the canal has been reinvested by artists, so there are a lot of collectives and collective use of these spaces,’ says Dirk Snauwaert, director of WIELS.
For Raphaël Cruyt of MIMA, which sits on that canal-front in Molenbeek, where artists’ studios, co-working spaces and organic cafes rub shoulders with a young, hugely diverse, fairly poor population, affordability is Brussels’ unique selling point. ‘The reason Brussels is flourishing is that it’s cheap,’ he says. ‘It’s cosmopolitan and cheap, and it’s not easy to find that in Europe. For artists, there are people who can support them and there are other artists, which creates an environment that’s both reassuring and enjoyable to live in.’
The city’s diversity has played a part in the vibrancy of its art scene; about a third of the population is from another country. Wherever you wander, from the grimy energy of the backstreets and markets around Midi station to hipster St Gilles or the Eurocrat-packed cafes around the EU institutions, this is obvious: the city is a melting pot of languages and cultures clashing and collaborating.
WIELS’ residency programme for young artists fosters this diversity, with recent beneficiaries including people from Canada, Norway and Syria; collaborations with Middle Eastern and African artists are in the pipeline. ‘Our initial goal was not to work with the usual suspects,’ says Snauwaert, ‘but to work with artists who have absolutely no market or support system.’ It’s an aim that reflects the broader art community in Brussels: building from little and set to thrive.
Opened in 2009, this beautifully displayed collection gives a fresh perspective on the high priest of surrealism, a precursor of much contemporary art. As a bonus it also offers insight into the Belgian psyche.
WIELS occupies a spectacular converted brewery – the huge polished copper vats still grace the entrance – and treads the line between challenging and welcoming visitors. Expect anything from participative installations to children’s activities.
The city’s flagship arts venue never disappoints with its diverse offerings. Check out its exhibitions – currently there’s one on Fernand Léger – concerts, seasonal themes and prestigious visitors: Ai Weiwei presented his film Human Flow here in January.
This former power station turned exciting contemporary art centre in the historic heart of the city is currently showing works from 11 Brussels private collectors, each with a singular approach to collecting. It’s a wonderful snapshot of very different passions, featuring artists as diverse as Man Ray, Cy Twombly and Louise Bourgeois.
This perfectly preserved art deco villa is slightly outside the city centre but so worth a detour. It hosts the Boghossian Foundation’s thoughtfully curated contemporary art exhibitions, full of works by big hitters from around the world, and offers residencies to emerging artists.
Cathay Pacific flies to Brussels from Hong Kong four times a week