“It’s time to do something in Brussels”.
The de facto capital of the European Union gained its political significance much due to its geographical advantage. London, Paris, Amsterdam are within reach in less than 90 minutes by train and Berlin in two hours by plane. The Brussels art galleries benefit from such strategic location as well. Adding to it: affordable rent, active collecting activities, correct pool of audience, and growing number of artists and institutions, all together makes an attractive recipe for commercial galleries.
Some more subtle reasons are equally essential to young galleries. The market is not as saturated as in London or in Paris, a young gallery can still earn a presence in Brussels which is something almost impossible in Paris. The competition among young galleries is not as keen as in Berlin given the proportion between number of collectors and number of new galleries. In the last two years, the city has indeed attracted international dealers (such as Barbara Gladstone and Almine Rech) as well as young ambitious adventurers to open their space in its two gallery districts, the so called uptown area near Louise and the downtown area in the historical city centre.
In this interview, we talked to Sébastien Ricou of Ricou Gallery, Jonas Zakaitis of Tulips and Roses Gallery and Lilou Vidal of Galerie VidalCuglietta about their observations of the art market in Brussels.
Sébastien Ricou Gallery
14, rue de l’Hectolitre, 1000 Brussels
In the 150-square meters gallery space, the young Frenchman Sébastien Ricou, aged 27, installs his galleries shows with a unique sense of spatial aesthetics. After earning a degree in Art History from the famous La Sorbonne and a Master’s degree from the EAC (Ecole des métiers de la culture Paris), Sébastien decided to open his own gallery at the age of 25. “I don’t think you need to wait for years to start a gallery if you have the desire and the passion to do so”. With the precise “desire and passion” in mind, Sébastien started his marketing research while still in school. After interned in different galleries such as Gallery 1900 – 2000 and Gallery Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris, and later Gallery Almine Rech in Brussels, Sébastien settled down in the Marolles district of Brussels with his Ricou Gallery.
Selina Ting: You are courageous to open a gallery at the moment of a market downturn.
Sebastien Ricou: It was very hard at the very beginning, but it was hard for everyone. If you look at the newly opened galleries, what is their profile? They are either opened with a huge family fortune or in partnership or by an experienced former director of an established gallery. I don’t belong to any of these categories but I have a passion for art. Besides, there were also galleries opened during the crisis in the 1980s, such as Daniel Templon, Yvon Lambert, Almine Rech Gallery, so I don’t think that a financial downtown equals to a bad moment.
ST: You think it’s the right time to start your own gallery instead of gaining some experience in a gallery first as most young people do?
SR: I wanted to start as soon as I could because very often after working for some years as a curator or a gallery assistant, we become tired and less motivated to start a new project. I started my gallery at the age of 25. I don’t think I would be able to do so at 35 when there is a family to support and a mortgage to pay off. Opening a gallery is a big sacrifice; it takes up all of your time. It’s a non-stop everyday operation, and a lot of tasks are actually done outside the gallery, so it really leaves you no personal time, specially that I am working alone.
ST: Now do you have enough sales to support the gallery?
SR: I have to count a lot on the fairs. Now I have Brussels as the base but I need to increase my visibility through participating in different art fairs. These are important occasions to meet collectors and to be tested by the selection committee which consisted mainly of other galleries. So, if I am accepted to the fairs, it means that I am accepted by the other galleries too.
ST: How many artists do you represent?
SR: I work with four artists, one Belgian, one German and two French. In average I do 5 shows per year. But I don’t limit my exhibitions to these four artists. It’s important to present solo shows, but it’s also important to try other formats and work with other artists even though not necessarily in the long term.
ST: How would you describe your relationship with the artists?
SR: Well, it’s not an intimate relationship but one of trust and good will. Someone said that it’s like a couple that you need to meet the right person, spend time to know each other and to work it out. I think it’s a good comparison. I don’t rush to represent an artist but rather take some time to try it out. For example, I presented Stef Heidhues in a group show last year, this time I proposed a solo show to him, and afterward why not a long-term collaboration. I think it’s good for the artists too to progress like this.
ST: Are they mainly young artists? How do you choose your artists?
SR: Yes, young artists in their 30s. I choose artists whose work corresponds to my aesthetics. It’s important to maintain a coherent artistic link among the artists I work with. Generally speaking, they have a strong aesthetical sense in their work and an interest in spatial interaction.
ST: In view of the way you install your shows, I believe the arrangement of the space is very important to you.
SR: Yes, as a gallery owner, I think it’s important to be able to propose an interesting and functional space for the artists to express and to present their work. The artists I work with employ different kinds of support, so when I install a show, I want my space to adapt to their work and I personally like to try out different compositions, to create an aesthetical scenography. So, yes, the space matters a lot. Another reason is that I like to work with young artists, and it’s important to have a bigger space which allows them to create and show big installations which may not be salable but important to build their career.
ST: How do you feel as a French in Brussels?
SR: Very often, people don’t know that I am French at the very beginning! It’s a bit difficult as I don’t speak Dutch. But my artists who don’t speak French speak English. I think English is pretty enough to talk to everyone here. Now the galleries are more international, even though the nationality of the owner still matters a bit. After all, it’s a problem for me to adapt to the life and mentality here as well, just like the French artists who work here, same for them.
ST: What about the Belgian Collectors? It’s there any difficulties approaching them?
SR: Some of them are more discrete, they are not like the Parisian collectors who buy to show their collection. There are less collectors’ groups or clubs, like the Friends of museums in Paris, etc. So here, they buy at their own pace. They travel a lot and most of them buy at the art fairs. They attend less the galleries other than the openings. As a young gallery, it’s not easy.
ST: What about some more proactive ways to approach collectors and the public? Perhaps nowadays we can’t wait for the public to push the doors but to approach them more proactively?
SR: We are trying to do so. The Brussels ArtDays in September is a good example. During a weekend in September all the galleries open their doors and mini coaches are arranged to take people from one gallery to another. It’s an idea started in Berlin, but we are doing it differently. In Berlin, a company is overseeing the operation and each gallery has to pay a participation fee of 1,000 Euros, which is a huge sum for a two-day event. Here, the galleries are joining effort and doing it ourselves. For this, the gallery owners and directors really work together, dinning on the same table, which I think would only happen in Belgium.
ST: No competition? No distrust?
SR: There is competition because we are in the same art fair, selling to the same collectors, meeting the same curators, etc… But after all these, it’s quite natural here that we work together and discuss different things.
ST: Thank you.
Tulips & Roses
Rue de la Clé 19, 1000 Brussels
Tulips & Roses is the name given by Jonas Zakaitis and Aurime Aleksandraviciute to their gallery.
The two young dealers first opened their gallery space in Vilnius (Lithuania) in 2008, after six months of wandering exhibitions in Berlin and Paris, the gallery finally settled down in the downtown Brussels in September 2010.
Selina Ting: Why Brussels
Jonas Zakaitis: It’s a mix of pragmatic and personal reasons. It’s central, relative inexpensive to run a gallery business, a good set of people, there is a collector market, it’s not the epic centre like Paris or Berlin, but it has enough people to make it work. It’s really an all-rounded art market. Personally I like Brussels, it’s an easily accessible city and not so insanely competitive, not so over-loaded with art galleries. Coming from Vilnius, I really enjoy being a bit outside but at the same time fully participate in what’s happening here.
ST: Are you trying to bring artists from Central or Eastern Europe to Beligum?
JZ: No. We work with artists of our generation, but without geographical limitations.
ST: The way you present the work is very special, very experimental…
JZ: Yes, this show is a bit particular. Sometimes we do shows that are not necessarily experimental but we always like to challenge ourselves. Very often we don’t know what the result would be… So yes, always something else happen, I guess.
ST: We can even say that it’s an alternative presentation of work of art, very much deviated from the norms of commercial gallery. For example, instead of framing a picture preciously, you show it just like that on a piece of paper stick on the wall.
JZ: Yes, right. I have nothing against the tradition of making art precious and doing expensive-looking exhibitions, but we are not really into it.
ST: Is it a choice to build up the gallery’s identity?
JZ: Yes, I would say so. But there is continuity in the gallery programme and the artists we work with. It’s also because of my background. I studied Philosophy and I am very much involved in Conceptual Art, so there’s a link joining all the forces of the gallery together.
ST: What’s the reaction of the Belgian public?
JZ: The reaction is good because as I said it’s a very accessible city, so we don’t need to chase around to tell everyone what we are doing. We have been doing this for a while already, we have our public and people know what to get from us. It’s always the same everywhere, some people like it, some people don’t. It’s just a matter of choice.
ST: Just now you said you prefer to stay as an outsider… Do you speak French or are you learning French or Dutch?
JZ: I think it’s a good thing to stay a bit outside and speak English, because there is a tension between the French-speaking population and Flemish. So, English is really a very comfortable language to use here.
ST: More neutral… But nevertheless, would that be a problem in promoting your artists, especially when dealing with the local media?
JZ: We have press releases, newsletter, etc. But we are not pushy with the press. And the gallery is quite well reviewed in the press, so that’s ok.
ST: Six months new to Brussels and you are admitted to the Art Brussels this year already.
JZ: Yes but it’s not such a surprise because we have participated in different art fairs over the years. We already did Frieze (London), Art Forum (Berlin), Liste (Basel), Artissima (Turin), so we have quite a strong presence. We are happy to do Art Brussels this year and it does make sense for us to be there.
ST: Thank you!
5 Boulevard Barthelemylaan, 1000 Brussels
Lilou Vidal and Barbara Cuglietta opened their gallery in Oct 2010. The two young women met a year ago at what they called “the good moment” when both determined to have a career change.
Lilou is a former gallery director while Barbara worked in the field of International Finance in the past years, “it’s stronger to walk in two than one”, they said. The partnership synergy gives them confidence in the new adventure.
Selina Ting: How long have you been working in the contemporary art market?
Lilou Vidal: 11 years. I had an opportunity to open a gallery in California when I was 23. I was too young at time so finally I returned to France. Then I worked during 3 years with the Galerie Catherine Bastide and later another 3 years with the Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire.
ST: Now with your own gallery, you have absolute freedom in planning your gallery programme.
LV: That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to start my own gallery. For me, a gallery director’s role is to manage the gallery and to plan the exhibition programme. I was lucky to have participated in the programming when I worked for Les Filles du Calvaire, but I wasn’t completely free in making my choices. Besides, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of following a precise programme.
ST: Freedom comes with responsibilities. What are your considerations when planning the gallery programme?
LV: As you see, we work with 10 artists and there are still many interesting artists that we wanted to work with. But we have to be reasonable because to develop the career of an artist needs a lot of time and energy. At the same time, it’s important to develop a clear and distinctive artistic line for the gallery. I would say now we are more into conceptual art but with some links to subjectivity, objects, forms, etc. For example, our Canadian artist Zin Taylor has developed a very conceptual approach to art with a strong reference to literature and narration, but the final work takes form as sculpted objects. The installation we have here presents a kind of conversation between different forms. The second artist George Henry is English. His work is also sculpture but closely linked to architecture. Their work looks very different but works very well when put together in the gallery space.
ST: Do you work with artists from a specific region?
LV: It happens that half of our artists are Anglo-Saxon, some are Belgian, of course. I think there is a certain kind of affinity in their work and in the evolution of my career as well. I am more familiar with the art scene in the States.
ST: From your observation, why so many new galleries opened in Brussels during the financial crisis?
LV: I think we have a greater freedom in running an art business here in Brussels than in London or in Paris. Firstly, the rent is much more affordable in Brussels. Secondly, the space you can have allows the work to be presented in a better condition and gives us more flexibility in trying out different hangings. Thirdly, as a country, Belgium gives more opportunities to their young generation. For example, you see far more young curators in museums and institutions here than in France. Also, there are more and more young artists settled down in Brussels. It’s easy to meet artists. Finally, the Belgian collectors are very present and attracting a lot of attention from the art world. They travel a lot but they also support a lot the local galleries.
ST: When compared to Berlin for example, it’s not expensive there neither, and a lot of artists too…
LV: But the competition between young galleries is very keen, whereas the art market here is not yet saturated, especially when compared to London or Paris, so there is still a space for the young and new galleries.
ST: Thank you!