Hidden Treasures from Flanders, in the New York Times
By JAKE CIGAINERO, DEC. 4, 2014
LILLE, France — Publicity and discretion have long gone hand in hand in the world of art collecting. Eye-popping prices paid at auction often come out of the pockets of reclusive collectors who bid by proxy over the telephone. Galleries looking to place works by big-name artists find sophisticated buyers in out-of-the-way places.
Just across the French-Belgian border in West Flanders, a wealthy industrial area built mainly on textiles, the town of Kortrijk is a colony of passionate but private art collectors known for a keen sense of which artists are on the verge of becoming market megastars.
A selection of works from some of these private collections is the focus of an exhibition in the cavernous 6,000-square meter Tripostal art space, a former mail-sorting warehouse, in Lille, France. “Secret Passions,” through Jan. 4, hosts more than 140 contemporary works, chosen from more than 4,000, from 18 private Belgian collections. The show features 80 artists, from boldfaced international names like Paul McCarthy and Elizabeth Peyton to emerging local talent, with works spanning from the 1970’s to today.
For many of the inconspicuous collectors whose works appear in “Secret Passions,” this is the first time they have publicly shown their private collections, giving visitors a rare glimpse at the Belgians’ taste and foresight.
None of the plaques beside the works in “Secret Passions” name the owners, and not even the lending collectors know the identities of all the other participants or which works belong to whom, except those they may recognize because of personal relationships.
Some of the pieces, such as Jacques Verduyn’s hyper-realistic sculpture of a crouching woman strapping on a sandal, are difficult to imagine in a private home.
Visitors to “Secret Passions” do not have to wonder: The photographer Gautier Deblonde was commissioned to capture the pieces in the context of owners’ houses. Those photographs appear in large format throughout the space, giving a somewhat voyeuristic peek into the art’s guarded life outside of the exhibition. In addition to revealing hidden treasures, “Secret Passions” also gives works from different collections an opportunity to play with each other. Louise Bourgeois’s large, spindly black spider in bronze, crawling up the wall opposite Jim Hodge’s cracked mirror, ultimately elevates the two pieces beyond their typical presentation as standalone works.
Nightmarish post-apocalyptic reality television on acid is the feeling of a video installation by a young American artist, Ryan Trecartin — a testament to the collectors’ willingness to take risks on emerging talent.
The Belgians may collect far and wide on the international scene, but they do not forget their compatriots, like the conceptual artist Wim Delvoye, whose “Trophy” is a taxidermy sculpture of two deer locked in an amorous kiss that would make Bambi’s mother blush.
The anonymity of ownership in the show, while necessary to gain collectors’ trust, also allowed the curator to choose freely from available works without appearing to play favorites. Some collections are represented by just one piece.
Filiep Libeert, one of the participants who was willing to speak about his 1,000-piece collection, contributed nearly a third of the pieces in “Secret Passions.” Mr. Libeert said he was not eager to join the exhibition when Tripostal approached him in 2011. After three meetings with the curator and some consideration, he agreed to participate, and he encouraged other collectors to do so, because he said he wanted to ensure that the quality of Belgium’s private collections was well represented. The anonymity, he said, has become a guessing game among friends to match works to owners.
Much of Mr. Libeert’s own collection remains in storage and out of sight; he hasn’t seen some of it in 20 years. “Some people call it a disease, I call it a religion,” he said of continuing to add to his cache.
He did not show the curator his entire inventory, and he said none of the pieces he made available for the exhibition were his best. “I wanted certain things to remain my own,” Mr. Libeert said. “I didn’t want people to know everything I have.”
That secrecy is part of a Belgian ideology that the Brussels gallerist Barthélémy Schöller describes as “live happy, live hidden” — a sentiment Mr. Libeert also cited, using the same words.
When asked about the collecting habits of the Belgians at the recent Foire International d’Art Contemporain, or FIAC, in Paris, the art dealer Catherine Bastide was hesitant and politely cut off her assistant midsentence. “I don’t know if we can really talk about that,” she said. But she would say why Belgians are avid collectors of contemporary art, and particularly American artists.
“The Flemish are more Anglo-Saxon. They are very connected to the new, and the new world,” Ms. Bastide said. “The French are more linked with history, so they have a different relationship with art.”
Belgian buyers also seem to have a well-developed sense of timing. Though they have established, widely known names in their collections, such as Richard Prince and Damien Hirst, those pieces were often collected early in the artists’ careers, before they demanded top prices on the market. Paolo Vedovi, another Brussels gallerist, said Belgian collectors were “a bit like small foundations” in that they collect “in-depth.” Instead of buying just one piece by a known artist for investment or prestige, they follow an artist and buy multiple pieces. This can be seen in the Tripostal exhibition, which features three recent pieces by Matthew Day Jackson and four by Rashid Johnson.
“They collect like it’s their first passion. It’s not just to hang a painting in their house,” Mr. Vedovi said. “They really appreciate the work. They live with the pieces.” The purchase of the Brussels-based Herman and Nicole Daled collection by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2011 signaled institutional appreciation for the adroit Belgian approach to collecting.
Though discreet art collectors may keep their collections hidden at home, they cannot keep enterprising art dealers from coming to them.
The New York gallerist Elizabeth Dee knows that the Belgian market has an appetite for the young rising artists she represents. The relationship her gallery has developed with the Belgian market has led to her adding a full-time Europe liaison based in Brussels, where she will open a permanent space next spring, coinciding with the contemporary art fair Art Brussels.
“The audience in Belgium is both international as well as visionary,” Ms. Dee said. “They do not follow trends but trust their eye, they look deeply at the artist’s work in terms of their sources, their background. They are not furthering their individual profiles through their collecting.”
Mr. Libeert put it slightly differently. “If you collect for financial reasons, you end up with a bad collection,” he said. “I was forced to study and really know what I bought. Those are the ones who have become great artists.”