Behind the young and dynamic art gallery, Meessen De Clercq, are two men of opposite but complementary talents and temperaments. Jan De Clercq has the physique of a rugby player while Olivier Meessen gives one the impression of a fantasy writer. Economist by education and strategic planning expert by profession, Jan teams up with the art historian and curator Olivier to open the gallery in 2008. Set up at the time of unfavourable financial and psychological climate, however, the gallery experienced and still experiencing continuing growth and is making its name seen in a broader art scene.
It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. Meessen De Clercq shows us another facet of the art world which is not necessarily gloomy as we might have imagined. When asked how they project the gallery in the future, “Bright and Shine!” they answered. How did they make it? Let’s listen to Jan De Clercq.
28 Feb 2011
Selina Ting [ST]: You set up the Gallery Meessen De Clercq with Olivier Meessen in Sept 2008. You previously worked in the marketing and communication and Olivier has always been working in contemporary art…
Jan De Clercq [JDC]: Yes. Olivier is always interested in contemporary art. He started working with a dealer after his studies in art history and he did exhibitions with some important artists such as Sam Francis, Lucio Fontana, etc. He had worked for a while in France and then came back again to Belgium. We met some years ago. At that time he had the passion to start his personal projects, so we started talking about the idea together.
At that time I was working as a Strategy Director for a company specialized on IT marketing. My initial idea is not to be full-time involved in the gallery operation, and now it’s more than full time, but lots of satisfaction!
ST: And what brought you to contemporary art in the first place?
JDC: I was naturally attracted to what I am doing now. I grew up with books. Olivier and I, we share an interest in Literature. I was surrounded by art books growing up and I collected moderately before setting up this gallery with Olivier. When we started thinking of the gallery, my business experiences proved meaningful as there’s a lot of strategic thinking involved. There is a lot of personal growth as well. I would say it’s closer to a personal desire combined with an activity that has certain economic sense.
ST: Do you think it’s in a certain way combining the two worlds?
JDC: It’s not really two worlds but a part of the art world that nobody talks about. You need funding and
finance to make sure that you can invest in the production…
ST: Is there any compromise?
JDC: Compromise be that… say if we think an artist is very interesting but we can’t possibly see that we can sell a piece in two years, we can’t invest in such case because it’s impossible for us to make it into a success. As a young gallery, we try to be a good partner for a number of younger artists but we can’t have only young artists because the role a gallery plays is different. With young artists we have to try to get institutional attention and make sure they are represented by good galleries in other countries, etc., whereas for a more confirmed artist, let’s say he’s well-known in Europe but less known in America or Asia, then we have to do different things and investments, sometimes the production can be different, etc. We try to be aware of the ways we can play and make sure that we can help each other. But if we are too limited to younger artists, I think it would be fairly impossible to invest and to survive. We need to keep a balance. The compromise is also the fact that if you have a number of young artists, you wait longer to take on one more artist.
ST: How do you function as a two-man gallery?
JDC: Working on two gives the project more ambition. Olivier started the idea. He is the one who makes artistic decision and works with the artists. I take care of the other aspects of the gallery, from book- keeping to communication, etc. As you said, we are being perceived as dynamic, it’s also because from the beginning, Olivier decided to come up with an international program. My idea is how we can be conceived as an interesting and serious gallery faster, because it’s very expensive to set up a gallery and program. So we decided to do solo shows, to try out our programs and to apply for international art fairs.
ST: Do you have a clearly defined artistic line?
JDC: In terms of the actual program, we don’t discriminate in the sense that we have artists who are very confirmed as well as very young artists. We don’t define a line in terms of age, medium or nationality, the art scene is international, there is no need to define local or global. We didn’t put the theoretical line to follow. What we notice is that most artists we work with have an aspect in common, i.e., their works are more poetic in terms of aesthetics and ideas, with lots of references to literature, memory, etc. Quite some people see this line now but we didn’t choose artists by judging if they fit into this line or not. We are more interested in their individual artistic concept at the beginning. But it’s in constant evolution that, sometimes we can have a group show and try to integrate other artists into the program, but you are not yet representing the artist, not yet in the publication, etc., just a collaboration which can lead to something interesting.
ST: It seems that you are now working with some young Belgian artists.
JDC: We started to have more Belgian artists because initially when we started, the good Belgian artists had galleries, etc. Now some artists come to contact us and we realize that we can be the vehicle for what they want to say.
ST: What about institutional support? Is it difficult to seek their attention as a young gallery?
JDC: It’s important because it’s a different platform, a different audience. But yes, it’s very difficult with young artists since the museums are very much solicited. At the same time, we are not curators or people came from institutional background, so we have to do it gradually, and now we start to be in the circle…
ST: What other ways can a gallery do to promote their artists?
JDC: We try to work with artists from different aspects, such as publication, shows, and to be a platform to carry out their message. The gallery is only a small part of our mission. Behind that, we do publications, editions, art fairs, etc., as it’s important to have a broader channel of distributing the ideas.
ST: How many art fairs are you participating each year?
JDC: We did Art Basel Miami last December as a young gallery, and this year we did a small project in Art Rotterdam, it was a small test since there is good feedback from other Belgian galleries and not many Dutch collectors come to visit Brussels. We did a bigger booth in ARCO in Madrid because we have three Spanish and Mexican artists, so that’s a very good platform for them to show. We will also do a small test in Art Cologne where we will only show two pieces. We will do Art Brussels this year and a small video festival in Barcelona. For the second semester of 2011, we are still in the application process. We were accepted in the waiting list for the Paris FIAC last year. We don’t know yet about this year because FIAC is restructuring the space. We will also try Miami this year. Things are running but as a young gallery, we are sometimes in the waiting list. It’s a tough world! Many people want to be in the same place because there you meet interesting people, interesting collectors.
ST: How do you feel after 2.5 years of adventure?
JDC: I feel happy!
ST: And the art market? We are in three gloomy years of economic setback.
JDC: We started at an awkward moment, just a month before the biggest Belgian bank almost went bankrupt. So we started at a very bad psychological climate and didn’t know what to expect. But I think the Belgian collectors remain quite active, so we experienced continuing growth. Belgium has a tradition of collecting art in a huge range and we draw certain international attention. But I have the impression that in other countries such as Spain where we were the week before, collectors are less in number and more prudent in buying.
ST: Galleries are closing down in New York but opening in Brussels and Berlin…
JDC: But on the other hand when the economy goes better in the US people start spending much more. The market in Europe is more stable and less fuelled by exuberant behaviour. If you look at the auction house, you will see there is an appetite for investment in art. We know that people of my generation, say 35 – 45 years old, are more interested in art than the generation of my parents. So, there is a broader base of collectors that fuels the market for tomorrow, and they are the people who want contemporary creation at an affordable price. But I believe that small signs can change things, such as if three banks in Europe went bankrupt, then we would think that we are not yet out of the crisis.
ST: What’s the projected future for the gallery?
JDC: Bright and shine!!
ST: No undercurrent? No worries?
JDC: It’s easy to set a gallery project that won’t work! You can see a lot of idealist people bring in very interesting artists but can’t make a gallery work out because you need to survive, you need to have a lot of variables and controls that make it go forward. For us, we are not surfing on anything. I try to look at it subjectively and to see how we can do something meaningful with our artists and how to be successful with our artists. We try to build our own way even though the climate in changing… it’s not that I don’t care about the market but that we have to make this adventure work and to do what we believe. After that there are lots of variables that we can’t take into account. But we are not into the idea of attracting somebody from India and open the market, etc. We don’t have such element in our plan. We are young and small, we are only five. But big galleries would have different needs and approaches. Maybe if you come back in 5 years then we will see the changes.
ST: I have the impression that galleries in Paris are still suffering but the energy in Brussels is very different.
JDC: I can imagine the galleries in Paris are under pressure because the cost is much higher; you need a high quantity of sales to be able to carry on. But Brussels is less demanding, like Berlin.
It’s also interesting in what you said that Brussels is changing… Indeed, when we found this venue, we learned that Almine Rech moved in here, a few months later Barbara Gladstone set up a new space nearby as well. I think what’s definitely true is that Brussels has a young scene that’s making it attractive. It’s becoming a city where there is a certain contemporary art dynamism which is very valuable. Adding to it is the Wiels which is bringing interesting artists and largely supported by private persons, it’s definitely something very positive for Belgium.
ST: Does this positive dynamism come from the openness in the mindset as well? Such as the relationship between galleries and with collectors is more relaxed and friendly?
JDC: It’s true that we have good relations between galleries, we did the Gallery Day, etc. We are also quite fortunate in Belgium to have many atypical people who are interested in art. I mean for a small country to have a big group of collectors who are really involved, and they are very diversified, it’s not just a big group from Brussels but you have people from Oostend, Antwerp, Gents, etc. and even in Brussels you have very diverse group of people who love different kinds and forms of creation. That’s a big platform and in general they get along quite well.
ST: Thank you very much!