Meeting Xavier Hufkens

While some of the most powerful galleries are branching out to the world, Xavier Hufkens is leading his gallery to a new stage of development by opening a second space today (16 April 2013) – in the same street as the mother gallery, at 107 rue Saint-Georges in Brussels. “I am a practical guy!” Geographical boundary doesn’t define the ambition of an art dealer like Xavier. He simply doesn’t buy the game. “If [Ernst] Beyeler [the great Swiss art dealer] could make it in Basel, why can’t I do it in Brussels?”, said Xavier recently at an interview with The Bulletin

A die-hard defender of his home-base Brussels, Xavier Hufkens opened his gallery in 1987 in a warehouse near the Midi train station when Brussels was totally off the centre of the art world. Five years later, he moved his gallery to the present location at 6-8 rue Saint-Georges in Ixelles.

The townhouse was expanded in 1997 by adding in the adjacent building. Over the years, the gallery has introduced some of the most influential contemporary artists to Brussels at a time when they were still relatively unknown. British sculptor Antony Gormley (who’s currently having a solo show in the main gallery space), Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Rosemarie Trockel all showed in Belgium for the first time with Xavier Hufkens. Today, the gallery is known as one of Europe’s leading galleries for contemporary art.

This spring witnesses yet another expansion of the gallery – a second space measuring 300 square meters over two floors opened today, inaugurated by the Belgian artist Harold Ancart (*1980, live and works in New York), the youngest member of a league of some 30 artists of the gallery.

Selina Ting
16 April 2013

Call me unpredictable…

ST : The first show will be a solo show by Harold Ancart, the youngest artist in the gallery. The second show will open in September with Danh Vo. Let’s say, the first shows of a new gallery or a new space always have some symbolic meaning, a kind of statement-making shows. From the choices of the two young artists, can we say that having a second space in a way allows some experimental spirit for the gallery?

XH : I do appreciate that you try to predict what we are planning for after the first two exhibitions but I will try not to be predictable! [Laughs] The new space can be for younger artists although it’s not specially designed or programmed for younger artists. To have a second space is to give the gallery more flexibility. Our programs are organized a long time in advance, which leaves little space for last minute decisions. So, it’s nice to have this new flexibility. The main reason for having a gallery is to have the freedom to decide on your own program. For me, this freedom is very important. And I assure you that it’s going to be a very exciting program and we are going to have many surprises.

ST : You are the first gallery in Brussels to have a second space although they are on the same street… Seems that the idea of « Home-Base » is really at the core of your strategy!

XH : [Laughs] I am a practical guy! I love Brussels and it seems to be a natural evolution to create a second space in the city. I think that the quality of life in Brussels is amazing, which we often forget.

ST : The outward-looking spirit of small countries always interests me. It seems that there is absolutely no complex in the way you presented it even though Brussels has been for many years staying at the periphery of the international art scene. How can a gallery keep up its competitiveness without being geographically isolated? How do you relate to your colleagues in New York, London or Paris?

XH : To be honest, I do think of myself more as European, maybe that’s why I don’t have the complex. I think small countries have a regional aspect that brings character and identity. In the end, we are the capital of Europe; we are at the crossroads of Europe, people come and go with Eurostar and Thalys, and we are Europeans. Today, we are living in the world of internet. As a small country, the moment that we are least isolated in history is now. Being small has never been less relevant than today. I would even say that, as a dealer, maybe we are at the moment when it’s the least important to be in cities like New York or London. New York was important 25 years ago because what mattered at that time was the neighbourhood. Today, with all the means of communication, you are everywhere. If I can stay home and fulfill my dreams. Listen, I am the first to stay!

Being small has never been less relevant than today.
[…]as a dealer, maybe we are at the moment
when it’s the least important
to be in cities like New York or London.

– Xavier Hufkens

ST : What do you think of the mega-galleries building branches out to the world?

XH: If you think of your gallery as a luxury brand, then I suppose that’s fine. But I believe that art shouln’t be like that. An artist should have a different experience in every city of the world where he shows his work. If you are in a branded gallery, you would not have different experiences as an artist. It becomes a travelling circus. Apparently, some of the actors believe that such a system is viable, but I think we still have to see. I cherish individual relationships, different temperaments, and believe in the saying of “think global, act local”.

ST : You mentioned several times a character unique to Belgium and the local art scene. Can you describe that character?

XH : What I like about doing business in Brussels is the non-violent environment. The community is relatively small, we are colleagues, we have different tastes and we all have our own identity. We don’t have to be in a competitive environment that you would see in other cities. But we are not asleep. There are enough things for an avid cultural visitor to see and to enjoy.

To be a good gallery is a bit of luck…

ST : If we look back at the different stages of development in the last 25 years, is there a moment that you have had to make a choice between becoming a historical gallery and becoming a commercially successful gallery? Is there a conflict between the two? If so, is there a moment of struggle of which direction to take?

XH : This is a very good question. I think it’s all about perception. To answer the question, I would like to know your perception of my gallery first.

ST : I could very well imagine that you started your gallery with a very exciting program, full of energy, engaged with the most avant-garde artists and presenting cutting-edge works. Afterwards, at a point when the gallery became established and with influential power, and the gallery artists became famous and prices went up, then there left little room for experiments, for risk-taking shows… Many major galleries have been through the same trajectory. Some choose to continue and expand, some choose to let go of the big star artists and continue to explore the young. I think the artists who entered your gallery in the last decade are relatively “certain” and established even if they are still young.

XH : To answer your question, it’s not that the gallery becomes older, but the owner becomes older! [Laughs] What I mean is that, maybe my choices at 22 would not be the same as at 42. But that’s logic. That’s human. I don’t have the feeling that I become more conservative but I do have the impression that the art world in the 1970s was clearer than the art world today. Clearer in the sense that when you went to New York, London or Paris in 1970s, within a week you knew what was going on there. There were fewer artists, fewer collectors, fewer people interested in art. Now, the art community expanded a hundred times. When you go to a city, it becomes less clear what’s interesting and what’s not. Also, in the 1970s, we came out of conceptualism, of minimalism… everything was well-defined. Today things are not as defined. You can show Malcolm Morley (*1931, UK) and at the same time Roni Horn (*1955, New York), two artists who are making art at the extreme opposite but they are both great artists. I hope you can feel that in the gallery, it’s not dogmatic. I want to have extremely different but good artists under the same roof. The works showing here have to be high quality work and not dogma.

A second point to answer your question is that, I would say, proportionally to the number of artists and works produced, there are not so many great artists today. It’s rare to come along a great artist. You are very lucky as a dealer if you have the privilege to work with a few great artists. But then there is also life. You could have met Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1959 – 1996) in your life as a dealer*, but then Felix died. I am not divine, I can’t change that.

Xavier Hufkens met Felix Gonzalez-Torres in New York in early 1990s and organized the artist’s first European shows in his gallery.

I have been in the gallery business for 25 years and I have never been bored one day! Of course I made mistakes but I feel very lucky. I am in contact with artists every day and I have never been bored. It’s a big privilege if you can do something you like. Successful or not, time will tell. I hope that in 25 years, it will be proven that I was right sometimes. But we will only be able to tell in another 25 years! I think it’s also very exciting to have this kind of uncertainty.

ST : Do you have role-models as a dealer? Are there any galleries that in your opinion have changed the art scene and the history of art?

XH : Well, as I just said, to be a good gallery is a bit of luck. If Kahnweiler (Daniel-Herny Kahnweiler, 1884 – 1979) didn’t walk into Picasso, then he could have been non-existed as a dealer. So we need to walk into great artists and that needs a bit of luck. And your intuition and experience should be able to help you identify who is a “Picasso” and who is not! You have to catch the moment! I think there are people that we remember historically as great dealers because of the time distance. It is too early to speak about today’s dealers.

These mega-galleries, we don’t know in what sense they are influencing the production of art today! We still don’t know if such model is going to work. What interests me is to see if the younger generation of artists wants to go into that system. It’s a question to which I have no answer. You can be an amazing artist and choose not to go into that system. Thierry de Cordier (*1954, Belgium), for example, can go to any gallery he wants but he purposely chooses to stay outside of the system. Even for younger artists like Jacob Kassay (*1984, US) who is so much in the spotlight, I don’t think he would like to go into that kind of system.

The dream of a 15 year-old boy…

ST : You were studying law when you decided to become an art dealer…

XH : I studied law but I was totally bored. I was always interested in art and seeing art even when I was a 14 year-old kid. I always wanted to have a gallery when I was 14, 15…

ST : … not an artist?!

XH : Not an artist! It has never crossed my mind. Some kids wanted to be an artist, but I wanted to be a dealer. [Laughs] It was always evident, I never doubted.

ST : What is it being an art dealer for a 15 year-old boy?

XH : To be the link between the artists and the world, which is amazing! I also thought of a career in the museums. But in museums, you work with artists on a temporary basis. You curate a show, artists come. The show is over, the artists walk out. As a dealer, the relationship with the artists is such a long-stretch. Imagine the show that we are having right now in the gallery with Antony Gormley (*1950, UK) is the 7th show in the collaboration! We started working together when I was 24, Antony 37. Now, 24 years later, we still cherish the longevity of the relationship.

ST : What made you feel that you were the right person to develop the career of the artists when you were 22?

XH : I didn’t think about whether I was the right person to do this. When you are 22, you are unconscious, you are not scared, you have no needs and you have no fear. That is a perfect cocktail to succeed.

When you are not scared of failure, you are going to jump!

– Xavier Hufkens

ST : Even when young, you knew you would not give up easily?

XH : I think that depends on your personality. The first 10 years were very hard. I didn’t experience them as hard but actually they were very hard. You know, 10 people coming to the openings, very few or no collectors at all…

ST : What about comparing to the young galleries today, is today’s environment tougher for a young gallery to survive than 20 years ago?

XH : …. I can only say that you have to be passionate! That’s the only way! You are capable of not giving up only if you have love. If you don’t have that passion, then you are in the industry for a wrong reason! Then you are in for the social aspect, for the exchange value of art, etc… At a certain point, you are going to give up!

ST : Are you a smart guy?

XH : Me?! If I were smart, I would probably be doing something else! [Laughs]

ST : [Laughs] Thank you very much!

Xavier Hufkens
6-8 Rue Saint-Georges | St-Jorisstraat, Brussels
107 rue Saint-Georges | St-Jorisstraat, Brussels
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 6 pm

Posted by:initiart