When I moved to Brussels a decade ago, the talk about the city being the new Berlin had already started. There were a small group of well-known international artists living here in 2006 and the contemporary art centre Wiels had just opened. There were several good galleries and a few non-profit spaces, but not enough to justify the “new Berlin” hype. Ten years on the gallery scene has expanded (but not exploded) to include a number of international players, mainly coming from neighbouring Paris for financial reasons and due to the reputation of the Belgian collectors. There are more non-profit spaces, a handful of new private spaces, more artists moving into the city, but still no major museum of contemporary art comparable to ones found in London, Paris or Berlin. (The recent announcement of the future arrival of “Pompidou Brussels” was met with considerable scepticism in the Brussels art world, much of it justified.)
Ten years ago there was one art fair, Art Brussels, now there are five, including the recently arrived Independent from New York. However, it is questionable whether there is a market large enough to sustain the smaller ones. True, there has been an interesting evolution in the Brussels art scene but it has been slow, and additions to the landscape are mostly small in scale, whether private or public. At openings one usually sees the small crowd of usual suspects.
This is why it was somewhat perplexing to read articles unequivocally stating “Why Brussels is the New Berlin.” Though we all know that the art world thrives on hype around what is the next “cool” thing or place, regardless of whether it is true or not, it is time to debunk this particular myth.
Brussels is not the new Berlin, it never has been, and it is unlikely to become so. The small-world city that is the capital and decision-making centre of Europe certainly has its hidden charms, but it is nothing like Berlin.
Berlin became Berlin for its heavy history, its cheap housing, its alternative way of living, its resolved disunity, its climbing out of the bleak communist era of East Berlin and the special atmosphere that it brought to the city. Brussels has a totally different story to offer; interesting but not comparable. It has neither the history, nor the edge that Berlin once had, nor, in fact, the ample, cheap space that came to house the countless artists that moved there since the Wall came down.
Certainly, Brussels punches above its weight in terms of art, design, fashion, dance, theatre and music. As far as the contemporary art landscape is concerned, it is rich and diverse but not inexhaustible. True, several things are happening, but they mostly occur modestly, with a whisper, often below the radar. There is no “scene”. Gigantism, glamour, over-statement and conspicuous consumption are not appreciated. The art world here is a more intimate, close-knit affair, as is the general tone of the city which is easy going, relaxed, no-frills, and somewhat rough around the edges. Artists and curators hoping to partake in a “buzzing, happening” city, with abundant networking and career opportunities might not find what they imagine. The pace is slow, sometimes even sleepy.
Often the lack of ambition for the city is annoying, including the lack of investment in the visual arts, but there is a reason for this. Brussels is politically very complex, so stakeholders shy away from significant investment. Apart from being the de facto capital of Europe, Brussels is a capital of three entities: the Belgian Federal state; the French Community and the Flemish Community of Belgium. (The Brussels Capital Region itself consists of 19 politically independent communes, each with their own government, which make up the city of Brussels.) In that sense Brussels is a perpetually contested space. This means that there is no vision for the city. The city has largely escaped uninspired marketing concepts and rampant gentrification, however. It retains its unique, highly individualistic and somewhat anarchic character.
Brussels is a city for those who have patience, time and imagination. It is for those who question the increasingly frenetic pace of urban life and work. It is for those who appreciate understatement and refuse homogenising labels and manufactured “hip” concepts. Perhaps, however, what keeps Brussels attractive is its latent sense of expectancy, the promise of a perpetual becoming which is never fulfilled.
• Katerina Gregos is a Brussels-based curator, writer and lecturer