Gallerist Harlan Levey on Brussels

An Ohio native, Harlan Levey made the move to Belgium more than 15 years ago, discovering the city through its underground music, contemporary art and literature scenes. He now heads his own gallery in the heart of Ixelles, Harlan Levey Projects, representing a small cast of international artists as well as hosting  an annual program of solo projects, thematic group exhibitions, performances and community building activities.

I lived downtown for a decade starting in 2003. My flat was on the 5th floor of a building on Rue du Lombard, sandwiched between the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis, with the police station just across the street. It was tourist and pickpocket central, but at the same time close to so much action. I went to a lot of concerts at the now defunct DNA bar and enjoyed being in walking distance of concert halls Magasin 4 (now at Avenue du Port 51B), AB (Boulevard Anspach 110), Botanique (Rue Royale 236), VK (Schoolstraat 76) and Le Bunker (Rue des Plantes 66A), where I once saw a furious show from the MDC’s in front of what must have been about 30 people. Also close were Recyclart (Rue des Ursulines 25), Cinema Nova (Rue d’Arenberg 3) and Beursschouwburg (Rue Auguste Orts 20-28), each of them offering a different, unique style of great music, art and people. In that period, two stores that mattered to me were the 6 Shop (one of Brussels’ original, now closed, skate shops) and Mr. Ego (Rue des Pierres 29) – whose owner has a heart of gold. He supported the No New Enemies Network, (NNE) an ASBL/VZW I co-founded to support artists engaging with public space. A trace from this period can still be seen on the back of the AB where sleeping pigs lie.

Today NNE runs the Six Tunnels public art project with Recylart and manages the Penthouse Art Residency, which is hosted by Hotel Bloom (250 Rue Royale). Another place to shop in town is Café Costume (Rue Léon Lepage 24), which was in front of my old gallery space. Top quality tailor made suits at a hard to beat price. But if I shop, it tends to be for books. Often I have to turn to Amazon, but there a several stores in Brussels I recommend such as Peinture Fraiche (Rue du Tabellion 10), Passa Porta (Rue Antoine Dansaert 46) and the wonderful selection that becomes one more reason to visit Wiels (Avenue Van Volxem 354).

Harlan Levey and artist Sanam Khatibi in front of Petr Davydtchenko's work at Rooftop Residency Project

Harlan Levey and artist Sanam Khatibi in front of Petr Davydtchenko’s work at Penthouse Art Residency

Moving back to Ixelles meant trading in the sirens and screams of the city centre for bird songs. It’s calm enough to almost be deceptive, as it still sits smack at the heart of so many things. Out the door to the left, you pass the former home of Karl Marx (now a yoga studio) before hitting Avenue Louise with all its upscale shops, but if you go right, within a ten-minute walk you cross through Matonge, pass several dozens of hair dressers and handfuls of kids selling dope, move behind St. Boniface and through Place des Londres (each with terraces full of eurocrats), until you eventually end up at the European Parliament. On that route there’s a great Greek restaurant called Ergon (Rue du Parnasse 1), and with a slight detour you hit a free spirited bar called L’Athenee (Rue Jules Bouillon 2) as well as the Pool Gate (Chaussée de Wavre 100), which is the only pool hall in the area. It’s a short route I love. Brussels is one of the few places where it’s possible to feel like you’re traveling long distances in the span of a few blocks. Brussels shows you all the best of Europe, and also reveals all of its failings and cracks. Its rough eloquence and constant contradictions are its charm. In the art world people compare it to Berlin, but its much more like NYC a couple of decades ago.