Brussels scarcely needs an introduction as an international city: this is, after all, where the European Union calls home, as do NATO and several other important decision-making bodies. Less well known is its art scene, which is booming. Indeed, cheap rents, established art fairs and easy transport links across Europe have attracted a new wave of artists and designers that has turned Brussels into one of the most dynamic art cities in Europe.
The new Berlin? So said the New York Times in 2015, anyway; and for once the comparison might just be fair. Except, perhaps, for one thing: while the city definitely has art galleries (the famous Mont des Arts and excellent if out-of-the-way contemporary spaces like Wiels, for example), it doesn’t have a landmark contemporary gallery; the kind of place with a world-class permanent collection and the capacity to host big international exhibitions and showcase local talent; the sort of venue that gives the city the destination-art status it so deserves. In other words, it doesn’t have a Tate Modern.
Or, at least, it didn’t. Enter, in May, the Kanal-Centre Pompidou, a huge, $150m new art space that sees a former Art Deco Citroen factory turned into a satellite of Paris’s Centre Pompidou. It might be one of the most ambitious projects of its kind in Europe. And project, I think, is the right word: a work in progress, the space won’t be finished until mid-2022, when it will include a 15,000m2 Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, an architecture institute as well as a sizeable amount of public space that Yves Goldstein, the head of the project, tells me will act as a kind of cultural city within a city. That’s not to say you can’t visit today; the site is open from now until construction begins next year with exhibitions that include works on loan from Centre Pompidou and, tellingly, 10 new works from Brussels-based artists. The aim is already evident: platform international artists alongside local talent to bring the city’s art scene to wider attention in a space that, they say, is “worthy of the capital of Europe”. Can it work? It’s too early to say. Still, if London’s Tate Modern, the world’s most-visited art museum, is an example then signs are promising. Either way, Brussels’ intent is now clear: not just business as usual.