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BRAFA, An Art Fair Counting 63 Years of Excellence

  • Beatrix Bourdon, BRAFA
January 17, 2018
A philosophy graduate interested in theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

Taking place in January, the BRAFA Art Fair is the first major art event of the year and a reliable barometer of the art market.

Organized every year by the nonprofit Belgian Antiques Fair Association, it is one of the longest-running and most prestigious fairs in the world, bringing a record number of antiques, art and furniture galleries to Brussels.

Presenting an eclectic selection of rare pieces from all over the world, BRAFA attracts more than 60,000 visitors each year.

Coming back for its 63rd edition to Tour & Taxis from January 27th until February 4th, 2018, BRAFA 2018 will welcome 134 galleries from 16 countries, presenting 20 specialties and showing between 10,000 and 15,000 pieces, all accompanied by a comprehensive series of art talks.

A special treat to all art lovers, it will welcome Christo as a special guest of honor, one of the most renowned and influential contemporary artists working today. The fair will feature one of his historic work from the 1960s, titled Three Store Fronts (1965-66).

We had a chat with Beatrix Bourdon, the managing director of BRAFA Art Fair, to find out more about this year’s edition. In an exclusive Widewalls interview, Beatrix talks about the secret of the fair’s excellence, this year’s exhibitors, the collaboration with Christo, the complex vetting process, and much more.

Tom Wesselmann - Study for Bedroom Painting 40, 1977
Tom Wesselmann – Study for Bedroom Painting #40, 1977. Oil on canvas; 21.5 x 27 cm; Signed and dated; This work is registered in the archives of the Tom Wesselmann Estate; Provenance: Sidney Janis Gallery, New York; private collection, Paris; Samuel Vanhoegarden Gallery

BRAFA 2018

Widewalls: BRAFA is one of the longest-running and most prestigious fairs in the world, bringing a record number of art and antique galleries to Brussels. What is the secret of its excellence?

Beatrix Bourdon: More eclectic than ever, 2018 may be BRAFA’s best year yet. Fifteen new exhibitors are participating in this edition, enriching the range of specialties on view. All appreciate the demanding standards imposed by the highly professional vetting team. Brafa was, in fact, one of the first fairs to set up such a system, calling on experts from all over Europe and the United States.

Another important element of the fair’s success is the fidelity of participating galleries. Rotation doesn’t exceed 10%, a testament to the fair’s stability. A new selection is, of course, made each year.

Our aim is to offer the best in a wide variety of domains. We need to meet the expectations of experienced, highly knowledgeable collectors, while also inspiring art lovers to begin a collection or simply acquire their first work of art. The works on view need to appeal to these different clients: next to museum-quality pieces we must present more accessible works of art.

I believe that first and foremost Brafa should remain a fair that is attractive, welcoming and open to all!

Widewalls: The Fair is opening its doors on its 63rd edition, bringing together 134 galleries from 16 countries. Are there any highlights you would like to mention?

BB: Our goal is to maintain a certain balance among specialties, and the 2018 selection will bring its share of novelty.

One new exhibitor specializes in Arte Povera, a domain seldom represented in previous years at Brafa, another in modern British painting and sculpture, and a third offers a highly contemporary take on the curiosity cabinet…

The inclusion of fifteen new galleries, all foreign and of international caliber, will add a new dimension to the fair and guarantee an overall quality unparalleled by other art fairs in Belgium.

René Magritte - L'Oracle, circa 1931
René Magritte – L’Oracle, circa 1931. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm; Signed lower right; Provenance: private collection, Belgium; Isy Brachot Gallery, Brussels; Boon Gallery

Christo as a Guest of Honor

Widewalls: This year, the Fair will welcome Christo as a guest of honor. Could you tell us something about the reasons behind this choice, and about the works created by him that will be presented at the fair?

BB: The Christo project was both the fulfillment of a slightly crazy dream and the culmination of longstanding effort! You can well imagine that even getting an appointment with such an artist is quite an achievement. We knew that a major retrospective was being planned in Brussels, so we used all our resources to arrange to meet the artist and persuade him to get involved.

Evidently, Christo was interested in our proposal and a meeting was set up to coincide with his visit to Brussels. After that, everything fell into place very quickly!

Christo had a specific idea of what he wanted to present to us and was both enthusiastic and charming, a truly great man of the art world. By way of anecdote, we met at a famous restaurant in the Sablon and he drew his proposal on the back of a placemat. I preserved the magical moment in a photo. The drawing complete, he signed it and gave it to us.

Since then, it has been on display in the Brafa office. It is a wonderful souvenir and a magnificent gift.

Christo wished to exhibit a key work from his artistic journey at an event attended by collectors. His decision was not, of course, to ‘wrap the fair’, something one might perhaps have expected, but rather to invite us to enter into his universe and thought processes. The work to be shown will be the largest ever exhibited at Brafa!

But aside from its dimensions, its historic character is also of particular interest. It is an early work, dating from 1965-66. This was a period when Christo focused on Show Cases, Show Windows and Store Fronts; imaginary display windows and storefronts made primarily of elements recovered from demolished buildings.

The one we will exhibit was made for a museum, and has not been on display since 2001.

Generally, people only associate Christo with his wrapping of monuments such as the Pont-Neuf in Paris, the Reichstag in Berlin and with his enormous landscape installations such as The Gates in Central Park, New York and Floating Piers on Lake Iseo in Italy. The aspect of his work we are presenting at Brafa will give us, I hope, a new understanding of the trajectory of this engaging and unparalleled artist.

Widewalls: In addition to an excellent exhibition program, the Fair will also hold a series of Art Talks. Which themes will be addressed this year?

BB: The Brafa Art Talks are another of Brafa’s strengths, for they really add value to the artistic content of the fair. Speakers include museum directors, collectors and gallerists with diverse art-related specialties who address a wide range of topics.

This year we are hosting Angela Rosengart, a Swiss gallerist and collector who grew up – quite literally – with the masters of the 20th-century art. From early childhood, she accompanied her father, also a gallery owner, to the studios of Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Miró, and many other now-renowned artists. She built her collection within a foundation, and then a museum, in Lucerne. Today it is one of the largest collections of modern paintings in the world.

We will also welcome Dominique Szymusiak, Honorary Curator of the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, whose decisive approach has made the museum one of the most remarkable in France. We are delighted that the Tretyakov Gallery from Moscow is also on the programme.

Closer to home, Léon Spilliaert will be the subject of a lecture given by Anne Adriaens-Pannier, Honorary Curator of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

Michel Draguet, the Royal Museums’ current Director General, will speak on Magritte and contemporary art. Not to forget a voyage into the arts of Oceania in the company of Nicolas Cauwe, Curator of the Royal Museums of Art and History, or a discussion of the art of the Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities).

Christo in his studio
Christo in his studio in front of The Mastaba project; Photo: Wolfgang Volz

Maintaining Standards

Widewalls: BRAFA has always maintained high standards for selecting exhibitors and a hundred experts from all over the world participate in assessing the objects on display before the Fair opens. What’s behind this complex process?

BB: The selection of exhibitors is made by a Board of Directors made up of specialized art and antique dealers who know the art market and the world of art fairs. Their choice, therefore, reflects the art market and public demand.

Selection criteria are wide-ranging. The exhibitor’s professionalism and the quality of their pieces play a natural part, but their specialty has become increasingly important because we aim to retain a certain balance between the areas we represent. The gallery’s location and the extent to which they participate in other fairs also matter because it’s vital that new exhibitors bring or draw new visitors.

The vetting process is also crucial because it guarantees that all objects presented by the galleries – and thus by the fair – are of the highest quality. This also gives buyers added security. The independent experts examine the supporting documents and descriptions of all objects supplied by the galleries in detail. They also check that the object meets the exacting quality standard required by Brafa.

Widewalls: As the first major art event of the year, BRAFA is considered a reliable barometer of the art market. However, the scope and variety of works on display could be overwhelming for someone starting a collection. What would be your advice to a new collector?

BB: I think that all new collectors should first train their eye by visiting museums and refining their taste. Then, they should establish a relationship with a trustworthy gallery, ask questions and obtain as much information as possible about the pieces they like.

When it comes to buying, they should do so because they love a piece, not just buy to invest. Which means they shouldn’t buy something simply because they’ve heard the artist’s work is worth something.

The art market is still closely bound to emotion. This is why art fairs and associated events at which art dealers, collectors and art lovers meet are so important. They are key for new meetings and discoveries – real high points in the year.

Widewalls: Having existed for over six decades, the Fair continues to evolve and surprise. What is next for BRAFA?

BB: Brafa needs to keep on developing while retaining the attributes so appreciated by those who visit. I believe the fair’s success lies as much in the wonderful diversity of pieces on view as in the changing floor-plan. Not to forget the incredible expertise represented in certain domains of course.

Brafa also aims to surprise its guests each year with a re-design. This new look is always eagerly anticipated by exhibitors and visitors. For the last fifteen years, the duo Nicolas de Liedekerke and Daniel Culot from Volume Architecture have been in charge. Each year, they are invited to take on the joyful task of creating a dreamlike, ephemeral universe.

Brafa is one of the only fairs in the world that manages to completely re-think its entire interior design for every new edition. With this in mind, the fair also organizes a yearly competition for students at La Cambre (L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Visuels) who design the carpet that lies on the fair’s principal walkways.

The result is always greatly appreciated by visitors. Coming to Brafa really is a unique experience.

Sam Francis, 1975
Sam Francis, 1975; Acrylic on paper; 58 x 82 cm; Signed; Provenance: Shaindy Fenton, Inc., Fort Worth; private collection USA; Harold T’Knit De Roodenbeke
Karel Appel - Tigerbird, 1952
Karel Appel – Tigerbird, 1952; Oil on canvas; 116 x 147 cm; Signed and dated lower right: K. Appel ’52; Provenance: Martha Jackson Gallery, New York; Galerie Cazeau-Béraudière, Paris; private collection, The Netherlands; private collection, Belgium
Jean Dubuffet - Site aléatoire avec 6 personnages, 1982
Jean Dubuffet – Site aléatoire avec 6 personnages, 1982; Acrylic and paper collage on paper laid down on canvas; 67 x 100 cm; Bailly Gallery
Henry Moore - Reclining figure: Holes, 1975
Henry Moore – Reclining figure: Holes, 1975; Bronze; Edition of 9; H 12.5 x W 23.3 x D 8 cm; Catalogue n° LH5/656; Provenance: the artist; Fischer Fine Art, Ltd; private collection, UK, June 1976; private collection, UK; Osborne Samuel Gallery
Francis Picabia - Léglise de Montigny effet dautomne, 1908
Francis Picabia – L’église de Montigny, effet d’automne, 1908; Oil on canvas; 65 x 81 cm; Provenance: private collection, Switzerland; private collection, Italy; Sotheby’s sale, New York, 1993; Galerie Philippe David
El Anatsui - Intimation, 2014
El Anatsui – Intimation, 2014; Aluminium and copper wire; Variable dimensions, circa 261 x 332 cm; Axel Vervoordt

Featured image: Beatrix Bourdon. All images courtesy BRAFA.