“I don’t go to work, I go to something I love”
Xavier Hufkens, Belgium’s most successful contemporary art dealer admits he's always been a bit lucky
By Melanie Gerlis. Market, Issue 220, January 2011
Published online: 20 January 2011
Xavier Hufkens has been at the helm of Belgium’s most successful contemporary art gallery for over 20 years, representing artists including Antony Gormley, Roni Horn and Thomas Houseago. He sits on the committee for this year’s Art Basel (15-19 June) with other European stalwarts, and is known as the first port of call for the influential Belgian collecting community. We caught up with him at Art Basel Miami Beach where he had great success with a dramatic new sculpture by Sterling Ruby, selling two of its three editions, as well as with new work by Gormley (Standing Matter XXXI, 2010, right, with Hufkens). The gallery opens a show of a new body of work by Italian artist Alessandro Pessoli on 13 January (to 19 February).
The Art Newspaper: How did you become a dealer?
Xavier Hufkens: I started very young, I was only 21, was studying law in Brussels at the time and was extremely bored. I thought if I have to do this for the rest of my life, it just won’t work. But I also wanted to continue my studies, to please my parents. So I decided to open a small gallery, also in Brussels, at the same time as I was studying. But in the end the gallery was more interesting than my studies, which I stopped!
I rented a first floor warehouse space at the back of a building, with a carpenter’s shop below, and started to do shows with emerging international artists, like Antony Gormley, who I’ve now worked with for 23 years. Antony was 37, I was 22, and I just asked if he would show with me. When you’re that age you’re very confident, and you need next-to-nothing, so what’s the worst that can happen? And I was very lucky again a couple of years later as I met Felix Gonzalez-Torres in New York and did one of his first shows in Europe.
TAN: What had attracted you to art?
XH: Most people, when they are younger, want to try to understand the world and for me the most natural way to do this was through art. You can learn about the past by looking at work of the past. I was very interested in 15th-century Flemish painting—that’s my heritage—but I was also interested in the dynamics of the present, which you can learn through contemporary art.
TAN: You show over 30 artists from different generations. How do you characterise your offering?
XH: The definition of the gallery was established from the start. The common thread, then and now, is quality over and above everything else, which I find more intellectually challenging than a forced definition. From the early days I juxtaposed established artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto with someone like Felix Gonzalez-Torres when he was totally unknown. Today I still mix my work: I have no problem showing Malcolm Morley [who won the first Turner Prize in 1984] alongside Robert Ryman, or Willem de Kooning [whose trust he represents in Europe, alongside Thomas Ammann gallery]. In the 1960s, a gallery couldn’t mix artists in this way.
TAN: What was the market like in Brussels in 1987?
XH: There is a relatively long tradition of collecting in Belgium. In the late 1960s and early 1970s this was exemplified by some famous collecting couples, such as Anton and Annick Herbert. There were also great artists at this time, such as Marcel Broodthaers, plus a couple of reputable contemporary art galleries such as Wide White Space. But while there was a tradition, the collecting base itself was very small and the market as such didn’t really exist. By the late 1980s, if I hosted an opening, there would be 15 people—and even they needed some persuading to come at first.
TAN: How did the art market crash in the 1990s affect you?
XH: As I had no real market to begin with, the crash didn’t really affect me. And I started young and had very little expenditure, so I didn’t really think about it. Today, being an art dealer is a very expensive venture. It wasn’t like that then. If I had to sleep in the office, I would sleep in the office. Today there are many different art worlds. There’s the art world that considers art like a luxury product, but that’s not the art world I want to be part of.
TAN: What do you consider your first big break?
XH: You have mini-breaks along the way, and I think I was always a bit lucky. There was always somebody who finally walked in and bought that Pistoletto. It’s difficult to highlight one moment, but every person—whether an artist or a serious collector—who has confidence in you is a big break. Having Gormley’s support at the beginning was pretty major! And when I got to show Gonzalez-Torres in 1991, I didn’t realise it was a break, but looking back I realise that it was. And then in 1995, I wrote to Louise Bourgeois who said we should meet, and after a long conversation with her and Jerry Gorovoy (her right-hand man) I got a quick yes.
TAN: What is the market like today in Belgium?
XH: For such a small country, with a population of around 11 million, there is a lot of collecting going on. There’s something about the nature of the country—one that was decided upon by other countries to exist and only came into being in the 19th century—that gives us all a big desire for intellectual independence. And there is nothing that is more of a personal reflection of who you are than building your own collection.
TAN: What are the advantages of being in Brussels?
XH: It is on the crossroads of European wealth: a two hour Eurostar ride from London, one hour and 20 minutes from Paris, and a short hop from Amsterdam and Cologne.
TAN: What impact has Barbara Gladstone opening a space in Brussels had on your business?
XH: When you don’t share an artist, you don’t really have a competitor. Having said that, Barbara is a grande dame, and even if we had shared an artist I’m sure we’d have come to a very friendly agreement. When you’ve been working in the same business in your country for 23 years you are very rooted.
TAN: How do you feel when your artists’ works appear at auction?
XH: It is always difficult when your artist sells for, say, E100,000 at the gallery and then for E200,000 at auction; equally it is difficult when your artists sell for E100,000 at the gallery and then for E50,000 at auction! My job is about placing works in the right environment, giving them the right future, but try as you might, you can’t completely control the market.
TAN: There are reports that the Belgian economy will be one of the next to suffer. What is your view on this?
XH: It’s absolute nonsense. Belgian debt is 100% debt of our GDP, which might be more than other countries, but our debt is the property of the Belgian people. That is to say, we own our own debt (as opposed to the Americans whose debt is owned by China). Spain and Portugal are much more of a concern than Belgium, we are just easy prey for reporters as we are small and have been trying to form a government for six months.
TAN: This year was your first time at Frieze—what did you make of it?
XH: I showed at Fiac for over 20 years and thought I didn’t need to do the consecutive fairs in Europe. But I found Frieze a great way to meet collectors from outside Europe, whether Russians who live in London or people who had visited from Singapore or Saudi Arabia.
TAN: You are participating in the VIP Art Fair [an online fair, 22-30 January]. What made you sign up?
XH: James Cohan [the dealer spearheading the event] proposed the project to me and I thought his creativity deserved support. There are some clever and fun ideas (for example, you can follow in the footsteps of a museum director through the fair).
TAN: Do you think you’ll make sales this way?
XH: It should be a new way of creating interest in the gallery, but I would be more comfortable if the actual buying process happens later on. The fair is not the pre-cursor to virtual museums, but it should be a good way to meet new potential buyers. If people can meet and marry over the internet, then I don’t see why I shouldn’t find a new collector in the same way.
TAN: What keeps you in the business after 23 years?
XH: I would not be in the business if every morning I didn’t wake up as passionate as the day before. I wake up and I don’t go to work, I go to something I love to do. I am never tired.
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