As a renowned art historian who has worked as the founding director of Dakis Joannou’s Deste Foundation and curated two Venice Biennale pavilions in the past five years, Katerina Gregos may seem to be an unusual steward for a commercial art fair like Art Brussels. However, it’s exactly these intellectual chops that have enabled her to transform one of Europe’s longest-running art fairs into a true destination event on the international circuit, featuring tightly conceived and pleasantly cerebral fare to feed the curious minds of Belgium’s famously active and well-informed collecting community.
As artistic director of Art Brussels, Gregos is able to leave the business of the fair (which runs Friday April 22nd to Sunday the 24th in its new home at Tour & Taxis) to managing director Anne Vierstraete in order to focus her energy on what she does best: finding, organizing, and presenting artistic talents of all kinds. In this interview with Artspace’sDylan Kerr, she tells us why this erudite approach is fast becoming the future of art fairs.
In an increasingly crowded international fair calendar, why is Art Brussels an indispensible stop for collectors?
First of all, it’s important to remember that Art Brussels didn’t just appear this moment. It’s one of the oldest art fairs in Europe and it was established in 1968, so it has, I would say, a fairly long history.
I think an art fair should make sense within the region where it is taking place. Art Brussels has a quite distinctive character in the sense that it’s an international fair with a very European flavor. It addresses an international art audience, but of course it also addresses an audience that comes from the wider Benelux and Euregio, meaning the Netherlands, France, and Germany. We mustn’t forget that this is, culturally, one of the richest regions in the world, particularly in terms of collections and collectors of contemporary art as well as institutions. We are very much a fair that is tied to its region.
Art Brussels also has a very distinct identity. We are known as being a discovery fair, which means we are a fair where one can identify artists at the beginnings of their careers. Apart from bringing together important international galleries like Xavier Hufkens, Krinzinger, Pace, and Timothy Taylor, for example, we gather galleries that I sometimes call the "unusual suspects"—exhibitors that are not the usual galleries that you would see in the mainstream fairs, exhibitors who champion young and emerging artists.
How is the fair organized?
The fair has three very distinct sections. One is the "Discovery" section, which has been enlarged this year to include 30 galleries. This presents galleries that are actively supporting very emerging and young artists that are not known in the international and European scene. The galleries are no more than eight years of age, and they have to bring very recent work, in this case work produced after 2013.
We have a new section this year called "Rediscovery," which ties into our "Discovery" section, but in reverse. This section includes galleries who are presenting artists who produced work between 1917 and 1987—loosely, from the beginnings of Conceptual art to the beginnings of neo-Conceptual art—and who have played a role in the international avant-garde but have somehow been unduly overlooked, forgotten, or marginalized. Then we have the "Prime" section, consisting of established galleries bringing established and internationally known artists.
As a fair, we also place considerable emphasis on solo presentations—we have 24 this year. Art Brussels is also a curated fair, which I think is an indispensible part of our identity. I’m the artistic director, and as you know there are not many fairs that have artistic directors. We thus bring very strong programming in terms of special projects.
This year, we have a very unique and exclusive exhibition at the fair, entitled "Cabinet D’ Amis: The Accidental Collection of Jan Hoet." It presents the collection of the late Belgian curator Jan Hoet, who died in 2014. He was a household name in Belgium but also had a very important international reputation in his day—he curated Documenta IX in 1992 among other events. During his life Hoet amassed a collection of more than 500 works of art, about 200 of which will be on display at the fair in a specially conceived scenography by the Brussels-based artist Richard Venlet. While I was curating the exhibition I had the unique opportunity to do research in his personal archives. This was absolutely fascinating because I came across a wide variety of documents, letters, sketches, postcards, drawings, objects, and faxes by some of the most important international artists. These will be shown for the first time in this museum-quality exhibition, which will only be on view during the four days of the fair.
On top of that, we’ve always had a very strong discursive program at Art Brussels. This year we have an excellent selection of Readings and Conversations, which we co-organized with Contemporary Art Heritage Flanders. Whereas the readings operate as spontaneous interventions in the collection of Jan Hoet, thinking through actual collected material, the conversations address institutional frameworks, whether private or public, for collections and archives.
We also have a strong nonprofit section, which this year includes spaces from Athens, Tallinn, Paris, and the Hague. Since 2013, every year we have invited different non-profit spaces and given them a carte blanche to develop special projects of a more experimental nature. Then there are also various artistic projects inside the fair, from the specially commissioned site-specific video installation of Rafaël Rozendaal, which will be the first artwork that visitors will see when they come in, to sculpture projects within the fair. Of course business is very important in a fair, but so is artistic programing inside the fair, as we also address a large public who don’t necessarily have the means to buy art.
Last but not least there is the city of Brussels itself, with which we have a very strong link. Brussels is becoming a very important destination for contemporary art, particularly in terms of international artists, more and more of whom are moving to the city. There are also more international galleries setting up in Brussels. For all these reasons, I think Art Brussels is a must-see destination, as is Brussels at the moment.
What can you tell me about your position as Artistic Director of Art Brussels and how you go about curating the fair?
My position didn’t exist before I got to the fair—as a curator, I don’t come from the commercial art world. When I started the position in 2012, one of the first things I did was I asked to have a vote on the selection committee. That’s because I think that it’s important to have voices other than gallery voices on the selection committee. As I don’t personally have commercial interests in the way that gallerists do, I believe I bring a more objective view to the selection process while also putting into place a rather stringent set of criteria for the selection process.
I’m responsible for the side programming, for the campaign, for the architect that we choose each year to design the fair, and for developing the long-term strategy and identity of the fair, together with the managing director Anne Vierstraete. I also select the solo exhibitions, and am responsible for the planning all of the discursive programs. In the past, we’ve also done some things that have been quite unique within the context of art fairs, in that respect. We were one of the first art fairs to launch performances, and last year we did a very successful series of concerts by artists who play in bands.
You mentioned that you have strict criteria for what gets into the fair—what kinds of things are you looking for in an artist or an artwork?
As the selection process is confidential, I cannot go into great detail, but I can tell you that we look at the gallery’s track record and vision, at the artistic content of the proposal, and at the artists and the work itself. One of the things we try to pay attention to is the overall presentation that galleries make at the fair. Art fairs aren’t the best homes for artists’ works, so we try to emphasize the importance of presentation to the participating galleries.
Why did you feel that now was the time to introduce the new Rediscovery section?
One of the things that art fairs are guilty of is presentism—focusing on contemporary art and mostly the here and now. Often, collectors are in pursuit of the young, the hot, and the new, and they sometimes forget about art history and artists of a certain age that have been unfairly forgotten because of that age. As historical memory is important, so is art-historical memory. I decided to instigate this section precisely to counter this presentism. An artist can be interesting regardless of his or her age, and age should not be a criterion when we’re looking at contemporary art.
Sometimes you also have artists that have been unfairly forgotten for market reasons or reasons of fashion, and I think it’s very important to address this issue. At the same time, mid-career artists are often unjustly overlooked. This small section—there are only 14 galleries, because we have to take care to include material that merits being where it is—tries to address this issue and revisit those practices that need reevaluating, in the art historical sense.
What kinds of collectors do you see at the fair?
We have a lot of collectors from the region—a lot of people come from France and the Benelux [Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg] in addition to the United States and other countries. And of course, we have many Belgian collectors who are known all over the world—Belgium has the highest number of collectors per capita in the world.
I recently interviewed the Cologne gallerist Natalia Hug, who said that German collectors tend to take their time and do their research when purchasing art, in contrast to the impulse buys and trophy hordes of American collectors. How do collectors at Art Brussels compare?
I think Belgian collectors and the collectors who come to Art Brussels in general tend to be very informed—they travel a lot, and also take their time to reflect before buying. We don’t attract the kind of collectors who wave big money around and look to buy trophy objects. Rather, they’re people who are interested in art and artists and who invest time in learning about them. They may have a good budget, but they’re not the kind of collectors who are going to buy an artist that has been hugely overpriced and overinflated. We also don’t have many collectors who are speculative buyers.
Why is there such a robust collecting culture in Belgium?
That’s a good question, and I’m not sure. First of all, I’m not Belgian—I’m actually Greek, and I’ve been living in Belgium for the last ten years—but I would say it has something to do with the Belgian sensibility. There is an extraordinary amount of creativity here, not only in terms of contemporary art but also in music, theater, performance, dance, experimental music, cinema, and fashion for a small country of only 10 million people.
There is of course also a very strong tradition in the visual arts. If one looks at the whole Flemish tradition in painting, visual arts has always been very important even before Belgium established itself as a separate nation. There aren’t many large-scale cultural institutions here, but practically every small town or village has a small art center. This plays a role in educating a wider public.
Brussels is certainly in the midst of “a moment” right now in terms of gaining recognition as an art destination.
Yes, but we shouldn’t overstate that, either. I recently read an article in the New York Times that said that Brussels is the new Berlin—this is the kind of cliché that’s been repeated over the last 10 years that is simply not true. Yes, Brussels is very interesting and has its own distinct identity, but it is far from becoming a metropolitan contemporary art center like New York or London. We don’t have the important museums those capitals have, and it’s a much smaller scene here. Whatever goes on here happens in a very modest way—we don’t have any of the mega-galleries that you have in New York or London, so things are much more low-key and small- or mid-scale. It’s a mistake to think that Brussels is the new Berlin or the new London or the new anything—Brussels is Brussels.
Do you think that it’s possible for Brussels to experience the kind of boom that affected Berlin over the past decade or so?
I hope not because that means we would risk losing this character, but I don’t think it will happen because we don’t have the infrastructure here. We have a lack of world-class cultural institutions in Brussels—there is WIELS, the center for contemporary art that has come to play a very important role in Belgium, there is BOZAR, which is a cultural center, and of course there is the Royal Museum of Fine Arts—but apart from those all other institutions are fairly small-scale.
Brussels is also extremely complicated politically. Belgium is a federal state with three linguistic communities—the Flemish-speaking, French-speaking, and German-speaking communities. There is a very idiosyncratic situation in Brussels because the city is the capital of Flanders while being 90% French-speaking. This creates a kind of political paradox, and it also means that the different language communities are actually reluctant to invest in Brussels because they both have claims on it but no one really "owns" it. This creates a lot of political dysfunction.
Do you see the fair as acting as a kind of bridge between these different factions, given its international outlook?
That’s not the fair, it’s the contemporary art world in general. We all congregate in different places on the planet for one reason or another, and that capacity of art to bridge borders and foster cross-cultural understanding is one of the great things about working in this field.
How have the events of March 22nd affected the fair?
We’ll have to wait and see. We've not had any cancellations from galleries and we are proceeding as planned. What happened was very disquieting, but one has to remember that the chances of being caught up in something like that are very small. Brussels is as safe as any other international, cosmopolitan city, whether it's London, Paris, or Berlin.
Do you think there’s a potential for art fairs to move beyond their commercial purviews to become more of an intellectual endeavor as well?
I think many of them, like Frieze or Basel, already have. When you see many art fairs placing great emphasis on things like talks, programs, performances, and commissioning, I would say that they are already playing a role that is beyond the commercial and trying to address a wider public. I certainly consider it my responsibility to address a wider public, not only the people who come to spend money at the fair. We have 30,000 visitors coming to Art Brussels, and I don’t expect that all these people are coming to buy art. Of course we have to address this public, and of course we have to offer a program that goes beyond the commercial.