Brussels Gets to Test Drive $150 Million New Art Center in a Former Citroën Showroom

Crowds flock to see inside the Kanal–Centre Pompidou for the opening weekend of Brussels's long-awaited answer to London's Tate Modern.

Kanal - Centre Pompidou. Photo: ©Veerle Vercauteren.

It’s the talk of Brussels: Kanal-Centre Pompidou, a long-awaited art center in the Belgian capital, opened its doors this weekend, welcoming over 20,000 people to the huge, Art Deco, former Citroën garage. Upon full completion in 2022, the center aims to represent Brussels’s answer to Tate Modern or Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia.

Despite being in the heart of Europe and boasting a hefty headcount of dedicated art collectors, Brussels has so far not had an influential international contemporary art museum comparable to those in London, Madrid or Paris. Kanal-Centre Pompidou is the result of a novel, 10-year partnership between the Paris institution and the Brussels-Capital Region. This first, “experimental” phase forms a test drive ahead of the opening of a full-blown international modern and contemporary art complex.

The 1930s industrial building housing the Kanal-Centre Pompidou is a Brussels landmark on the canal in Molenbeek, a neighborhood that became infamous internationally in 2015 when seven people were arrested there after the Paris terror attacks.

The Brussels-based firm noAarchitecten, along with Zurich’s EM2N and London’s Sergison Bates Architects, won an international competition to convert Citroën’s former showroom, garage, and workshops into an arts center after the city allotted a €125 million ($150 million) budget to transform the 39,000 square meters of space as part of an urban redevelopment plan for the area. The new center will house a modern and contemporary art museum, as well as the architecture and urban planning collection of the local CIVA architecture foundation.

Yves Goldstein, the CEO of the Kanal Foundation in charge of the project, told artnet News: “We want for this to be a meeting place, a place where the people can come not only to go to museums but also to live, to eat and drink with friends, and to work.” Goldstein stressed that 12,500 square meters of space—roughly a third of the center—will be accessible free of charge.


Kanal – Centre Pompidou. Photo: ©Veerle Vercauteren.

Bernard Blistène, the energetic director of the Centre Pompidou, drew attention to the project’s experimental and multidisciplinary focus, which he cites as an important way of “resisting the art market.” He stressed that the 10-year partnership is “extremely important” for the French institution, adding that “it was definitely time for us to start to think from another context in Europe.” Its third Eurozone satellite, the Centre Pompidou already has a partnership with the city of Málaga in southern Spain and an outpost in Metz, in the northeast of France.

Original Features

Construction work to convert the Brussels’s garage is expected to begin in fall of 2019. In the meantime, the practically untouched, raw space is open for a preliminary, 13-month experimental phase to test and fine-tune its potential as an exhibition space.

Dubbed “Kanal Brut,” little has been changed within the former car showroom and workshop, including the office spaces and even the workers’ old changing rooms. 

Kanal – Centre Pompidou. Photo: ©Veerle Vercauteren.

Phase One 

The Brussels capital region has allotted €1.25 million ($1.48 million) for the first phase of exhibitions and multidisciplinary programming, lasting 13 months, which will be overseen by Blistène. Highlights of this first phase include the display of more than 300 works from the collection of the Centre Pompidou.

Robert Rauschenberg, Oracle (1962 – 1965). Photo copyright the artist, Centre Pompidou, MNAM, RMN-GP, ADAGP Paris, SABAM.

Kanal-Centre Pompidou will also present several simultaneous exhibitions mixing contemporary art, design, and architecture, immense installations, and live shows co-produced with various Belgian institutions. These include the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, the BOZAR, le Festival Performatik, Flagey, and le Kaaitheater ou la Raffinerie (Charleroi danse), among others.

Also during the prelude, €250,000 ($296,000) has been set aside to commission 10 young Brussels-based artists to create new work for the Kanal Foundation’s collection. It hopes to continue to build the collection during the 10 years of the partnership with the Centre Pompidou, ultimately becoming autonomous. 

“The question is to explore how Brussels, like Berlin, has developed an international art context,” Blistène said.

An independent jury that includes Blistène and the Brussels-based collector Alain Servais has selected the Brussels-based artists: Emmanuel Vander Auwera, Ariane Loze, Saddie Choua, Younes Bab-Ali, Simona Denicolai and Ivo Provoost, Raffaella Crispino, Suchan Kinoshita, Gabriel Kuri, Vincent Meessen, and Lázara Rosell Albear.

After this initial phase ends in fall of 2019, the renovation period will begin, for which the city has allotted €150,000 ($178,000) per year. Once construction is completed in late 2022, the final phase of the partnership will kick in: For five years, between 2022 and 2027, the city will provide €2 million ($2.4 million) each year to support the museum. The art museum and architecture center will be accessible with one, €14 ($17) ticket.


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