‘We Are Part of the Appeal’: To Fete Art Brussels, Savvy Local Collectors Host Sophisticated Tea Parties While Snapping Up Works By Young Artists

The collector-rich region held the 39th edition of the fair, known for being ripe for the discovery of emerging talents.

Art Brussels 2023. Photo: © David Plas.

Galila Barzilaï-Hollander flopped down on a bench at the Art Brussels fair with a satisfied smile. Wearing a blue pleated ensemble with shocks of fluorescent orange accessories, the 74-year-old local collector proudly held up her worn map of the fair. On it, she’d checked off each of the booths she’d visited—all 152 galleries exhibiting in this year’s Art Brussels, held from April 20 to 23 at Brussels Expo.

It’s a method Barzilaï-Hollander has adopted since becoming a globe-traveling, ravenous collector after her husband’s death in 2005. She now averages about one art purchase a day, and owns a few thousand works, but who’s counting?

“I buy a piece first, and then ask the name of the artist afterwards,” she told Artnet News. If a dealer tries to explain too much, she stops them. “I don’t want that bullshit,” she said. “I trust my gut, and history will say whether I’m wrong. But what does it mean to be wrong? This is my type of freedom.”

Barzilaï-Hollander may feel she’s atypical of Belgium’s disproportionately large community of well-versed collectors, due to her “late start,” and non-scholarly approach, but she shares one underlying quality with them: an openness to collecting little-known artists. That is partly why the 39th edition of the fair has such a wide-range of price points available from a diverse array of emerging talents; works go up to about $1 million but begin at about $1,000, and many fall between the $10,000 to $30,000 marks. The fair’s annual Discovery Prize, which champions an emerging artist, went to Capsule Shanghai gallery for their presentation of work by Curtis Talwist Santiago; the booth included miniature diorama sculptures in jewelry boxes and paintings around the theme of carnival and the artist’s Trinidadian roots.

Barzilaï-Hollander reading a map of the fair. Photo courtesy of Art Brussels.

“What is absolutely unique about Belgium, is that its collectors will buy without validation [from the art world],” collector Alain Servais told Artnet News. However, the question remains whether the region’s highly engaged collector base is large enough to prop up a truly international fair, which Art Brussels aims to be. Whatever reservations may linger about the fair for some, the city’s vibrant art scene significantly tempers them, thanks to an electrifying program of events and exhibitions that any art lover can appreciate.

At the elegant private social club The Merode on Wednesday night, visitors were greeted with cocktails meant to prevent insomnia, served in sculptural, handmade white cups. For the evening organized by Brussels-based artist and curator Els Vermang, guests sat on plush chairs in the venue’s cozy theatre, and listened to “The Night Watch,” a new series of sound broadcasts by ten artists, imagined by Vermang and curated by Claire Contamine, that are meant to spark creativity awakened by sleepless nights.

“Not having serious economic pressure opens up more mental and creative options,” said Vermang when asked why the area has fostered such a rich, alternative art scene. Vermang, who runs the exhibition platform Société d’Electricité out of a former electricity factory, said fellow artists are well-connected, both to nearby large art capitals, like London and Paris, and within the local art community.

Photo credit: HV-studio. Courtesy: Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Jaqueline Martins gallery in Brussels, for instance, is working with Vermang to curate a downstairs “boiler room” to be used for guest projects. However, in a possible sign of the fair’s weaker international clout, the highly regarded gallery opted out of this Art Brussels edition, after attending last year. “We decided to focus on other projects,” said gallery partner Yuri Olivera. “For us, it is most important to support the environment in Brussels and help create an exciting experience in the city.”

Despite glowing praise for its team of engaged organizers, now led by Nele Verhaeren, and some great finds, particularly amid many much-appreciated solo booths, the fair’s offering left some underwhelmed. Sales also appeared slow on the first days, even with a clever initiative to invite collectors to breakfast at the venue, to kick the day off earlier.

Still, this edition had plenty of positive take-aways and avid buyers. Brussels-based Xavier Hufkens had a sold-out booth of arresting portraits of the everyday, by young French-Israeli artist Nathanael Herbelin. A new addition to the gallery’s roster, Herbelin’s works ranged from $13,000 to $37,000, a slight increase from prices for her works last sold at Paris + by Art Basel.

Servais also bought the entire solo installation of artist Louka Anargyros at Septieme Gallery, from Paris. A newcomer to the fair, the gallery priced the whole booth at about $66,000. The installation, called Locker Room, featured motoGP racing suits hanging limp on hooks, made in ceramic by the Parisian-born young artist. What first seem to be sponsor logos on the suits, are on second glance homophobic slurs that have been thrown at the artist during his life.

At Les Fille du Calvaire, also from Paris, a solo exhibition by self-taught artist Jeremie Cosimi, born 1987 in Marseille, included paintings and sculptures of imagined myths, with references to antiquity and Fayum mummy portraits from ancient Egypt, priced between $1,100 and $20,000. The gallery recently began representing Cosimi, whom they discovered after he sent them his unsolicited portfolio.

Les Filles du Calvaire gallery’s booth at Art Brussel 2023. Photo: GRASYC.

Another highlight was a solo presentation by Thu Van Tran at Brussels-based Meessen De Clercq, with sold-out works priced between $20,300 and $50,500. It included layered abstract paintings using colors symbolic of defoliants, such as Agent Orange, which were used by the U.S. army during the Vietnam war. Olivier Meessen, the gallery’s co-founder, said he had a very successful fair, and had added a host of new clients, who were mostly regional, smaller-scale collectors.

Belgium’s unique blend of cultures, and its influence on an open-minded collector-base, is among the reasons the new gallery KIN chose the city as its landing pad. Founded by renowned German curator Nicolas Schafhausen, it launched the same week as the fair, on April 19. Brussels’s “size allows for stronger connections while remaining an international city at its core,” said Schafhausen. “I believe this is critical to the success of enterprises like ours.” The gallery’s first show features the “micro” part of a dual exhibition shown with Gladstone Gallery, of works by Belgian duo Jos De Gruyter & Harald Thys. The work at KIN included strange creatures with human parts and adult faces, along with hairy, and insect or animal-like, morphed bodies.

At another event further afield at Ghent’s S.M.A.K museum, South Korean artist Haegue Yang mingled with visitors at the Friday opening of her solo exhibition, where nobody blinked at her cat-eye black sunglasses, despite the surrounding darkness. The exhibition opened simultaneously with a playful, historic overview of influential Dutch conceptual artist, Pieter Engels.

Meessen de Clercq’s booth at Art Brussels 2023.

Among the opening guests was 34-year-old collector Lien Lannoo, who described her love for acquiring artworks, however modest her collection might be. “It’s a prolongation of our bodies and minds,” she said, adding she was pining over works by young artist Olivier Souffrant, which were on view at the local Stems gallery, which had just opened that week exhibition with a humming, alternative, and fashion-savvy crowd.

Back with Barzilaï-Hollander at her space called P.O.C. (Passion, Obsession, Collection), the collector served tea and cookies to guests on an Alice in Wonderland-length table adorned with sculptures shaped like food. Her joyfully abundant semi-permanent exhibition called “Overdose” includes countless works by rising stars as well as blue-chip artists—though artist names are not made automatically available. In fact, she gets tickled when guests fawn over a cheap purse or a sappy sign she picked up at five-and-dime and threw into the curatorial mix.

Asked whether she had made it to any of the off-program events, Barzilaï-Hollander explained she was too busy tending to round the clock visits. Servais felt similarly. “This week, I’m as much a host as the fair,” he said, noting fellow Brussels collector Frédéric de Goldschmidt, had rushed to make himself available for a new request, because he was, “at the service of the community this week.” Both are featuring must-see exhibitions from their collections, in The Loft and Cloud 7, respectively.

“We are part of the appeal of the city,” added Servais. “We balance the whole thing, by making a community effort, because we love this community, and we would like people to visit it more.”


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