It’s rare but invigorating when a city surprises me. "Cutting-edge" and "hip" are not necessarily the first words to come to mind when thinking of Brussels. The heavily administrative grip of European institutions has put the city under a strict clerical spell where, to the outsider, everything seems painstakingly organised, serious and, ultimately, dreadfully boring.
But last weekend Art Brussels took place, and the city blossomed into its unexpected edgier creative side, attracting art connoisseurs from near and far to pep up their knowledge and make a deal or two. For four days, the Brussels Expo’s rather blunt grounds were transformed, with everyone who claims to be someone heading to the fair.
Whether local or international, established or a newbie, close to 200 galleries from Europe and beyond set up booths at this year’s 31st edition, the first one under Greek-born, Brussels-based curator Katerina Gregos. London’s Hannah Barry, Bernier/Eliades from Athens, Dubai-based Gallery Isabelle Van den Eynde and local institution Rodolphe Janssen were all there to present their best artists, see old friends and, hopefully, make new ones.
Over the years Art Brussels has subtly grown into one of the leading contemporary art gatherings in the heart of Europe for the select few who really know what they’re after – the invisible wizards that pull the strings and shape the art world. And neither the sporadic empty booth (due to art works being stuck at customs) nor the lower visitor numbers (blamed on clashing schedules with Art Cologne) dampened the buying spirit as collectors browsed through peculiar installations and paintings by the 2,000 artists on show at the fair.
New York might have Armory and London its Frieze, but Brussels, though less renowned, doesn’t appear to shy away from the heavy-weights. Nonetheless, it looks more mature, more laid-back, more sophisticated. The occasional nosy hipster that usually makes the crowds in London and New York seems quite timid here while highbrow collectors and gallery owners insightfully discuss art and shake hands over a flute of bubbly Ruinart.
And even if Ghent is considered Brussels’ younger, artier sister, the capital has proven itself as a focal point for the big players. Shanghai’s Feizi Gallery, Michel Rein from Paris, Amsterdam’s Motive, and Galerie Paris-Beijing all have opened a space in the city...It might not be long before more follow.
Nelly Gocheva is Monocle's associate editor