From New York to Brussels: How Independent added a much-needed touch of substance to the local art fair landscape

From its Brussels debut in 2016, Independent art fair, which first took root in New York, was always going to be compared to that other art fair behemoth we won’t be mentioning. Two years down the road, and with a schedule switch that’s seen the fair-with-an-attitude move from April to November, Independent Brussels is now recognised as a three-day fest that has substantially contributed to the local contemporary art landscape, one which unequivocally rises above any obvious comparisons. Here, ideas and curation take centre stage, and new generation galleries truly get the opportunity to express their visions. That being said, this is not a young or small or anti or even alternative fair. Though one of their core goals is to be different, they do not claim to have reinvented the wheel either. Independent remains an art fair, albeit one that is rooted in the need for change. We sit down with New Yorker Elizabeth Dee and Parisian Laura Mitterrand, both co-founders of the fair, on a bright autumn afternoon at the Vanderborght venue ahead of Independent Brussels’ 2018 edition, to talk early beginnings in New York and why Brussels was next in line.

The why: Early days in New York

Funnily enough, Independent did not start from the idea of organising an art fair per se. In 2008, New Yorkers Matthew Higgs and Elizabeth Dee were involved in X Initiative, a collaborative exhibition and experimental institution with different stakeholders from throughout the art scene. Their exhibition was held at the former Dia Center for the Arts and remained on display for a whole year. As the proverbial dust settled, Dee became interested in using that building again for another project – one that would cater to galleries and artists more directly and be open for only a few days a year.

It is important to understand the structural problems that the contemporary art world in New York faced back then. New York was a city where artists from elsewhere were not being offered substantial opportunities to exhibit their work. If an artist wasn’t represented by a New York-based gallery, they wouldn’t be visible in the local art circuit at all. There was no established network for foreign creatives, with the aim of representing new artists and new ideas. On top of that, the 2008 economic crisis had just begun. Dee and Higgs noticed that there was a kind of “art fair fatigue” in the air, where galleries had to conform to a certain restrictive modus operandi in order to enter the world of art fairs. The urge to provide an answer to these issues, coupled with the possibility of exhibiting at the Dia Center for the Arts again in the aftermath of X Initiative, sparked the idea of organising what we today know to be Independent. The founders took the format of the art fair and tweaked it in such a way that it would overcome the problems of that time. This fair had to be about registering a picture of the art world as it is and the disciplines of each artist as they are, as well as offering a context that would allow galleries to grow and show their programme unrestrictedly. As Dee recalls, “We called it Independent because we wanted to set the tone of a certain way of thinking and working. We wanted to serve our programmes and the artists a bit more authentically.”

The how: A space for galleries

In the search for authenticity, an imperative for Independent is to stimulate a sense of collaboration between galleries and artists alike, creating a win-win environment where each could envision their future in terms of audience, profile and reputation. Throughout the years, many conversations between galleries have started precisely at Independent. The founders also reject the use of a standard application process to avoid pushing galleries into a mould that does not fit them. Instead, they opt to work on an invitation-only basis: this provides space for a less formal exchange between the galleries, curator and production, showing greater respect to the curatorial process and helping the fair adapt to new ideas. Galleries at the fair are not positioned based on how famous they are or how much their art costs; there is no corner where young galleries are grouped together, or a section for the established. Different voices and levels are intertwined on the notion that each gallery brings their own voice and value to the mix. Another facet they were looking to change within the art fair mould was scale. At a time when art fairs were becoming bigger and richer, the founders saw the need for a more intimate and curated experience. The highlighted aspect of curation meant that the space was key, which is what made the opportunity to use the Dia Center pivotal. Independent’s programme would simply not have been the same if it was held in a large convention centre. While Independent still has a lot in common with any other art fair, its choice in location and curation are what truly sets them apart from the eyes of the public. The atmosphere is influenced by the light, spaces and site-specific works at the fair. There are no aisles that divide every single booth neatly, allowing for a sense of belonging and community surrounding content in a space where you can look at every single artwork in a unique way. Questions such as, “Is this meaningful to the audience?”, “Is this meaningful to the potential future?”, “Is this actually distinctive in a way that is valuable?” help keep Independent fresh and relevant. As a result of the fair’s philosophy, every edition is a blank slate – there is no standard approach to how the yearly fairs are organised. To continuously evolve, to give a voice to all galleries, and to keep the fair small, close to half of the exhibitor list changes every year. Truth is, Independent evolves together with the galleries – especially because they work closely together with each participant, as much as nine to ten months in advance. As a result, the vast and continuous change of participating galleries has a notable impact on the fair’s organisation. Overtime, they’ve seen a generation evolve, leading to much recalibration of Independent’s eco-system.

A sister fair for Brussels

The desire to stimulate change, to accept challenges and to expand is rooted in the DNA of Independent, and so Dee and Laura Mitterrand, director of the Brussels edition, wanted to keep the fair growing. However, this did not mean expanding their scope in New York, a place where they were already well-established at this point. In fact, it would have conflicted with their core values of scaling in size. As they wrestled with this dilemma, they saw shifts happening throughout the overall global landscape of the arts and felt that expanding laterally and internationally would allow them to evolve while still maintaining their identity. “We decided to go into a community that values art and internationalism, and that also can give a certain kind of opportunity to galleries that cannot afford New York,” Dee explains. She feels that if they had stayed exclusively in New York, they would have become a reflection of the local market, which was never their intention to begin with. They also noticed the Brussels’ strong global voice. Indeed, there is a global, cosmopolitan crowd to be found on the other side of the Atlantic: since their debut in 2016, Independent Brussels boasts a whopping 75% of foreign exhibitors. “Independent Brussels first came about from a series of conversations with the local community as to whether there was even any interest and enthusiasm in having us,” Mitterrand recalls. “We felt that we would be welcomed here. Soon after, the Vanderborght building – a former department store in downtown Brussels – became available. Since the architecture of a space is an important element for Independent, this building was ideal: its character and potential reminded them of the early Independent days in New York; a refreshing and promising opportunity at the start of something new. Since the first Brussels edition, the European edition has taken its own course, moving along with the local community and galleries. Compared to its New York counterpart, there is a greater diversity in types of presentations in Brussels – partially because the building allows for it and partially because of what is going on locally. In turn, the presence of Independent in Brussels has had a local impact in terms of curatorial conversation, Dee affirms.

“We called it Independent because we wanted to set the tone of a certain way of thinking and working. We wanted to serve our programmes and the artists a bit more authentically.”

The who: Super Dakota and PLUS-ONE

Keen to understand how galleries that participated at Independent 2018 in Brussel experience the concept, I spoke to Damîen Bertelle-Rogier from Brussels’ Super Dakota and Jason Poirier dit Caulier of PLUS-ONE in Antwerp ahead of the November fair to gage their experiences as regular exhibitors. Bertelle-Rogier points out that Brussels needed a fair like Independent; one that was small-scale yet still high in quality. Brussels, in turn, is an interesting place for Independent: the recent hype around Brussels as “the new destination for art” stimulated artists and collectives to move to the city from elsewhere. So around the time when Independent came to the Belgian capital, there was a renewed interest in what this city could be for artists. The fact that the local community is interested in a contemporary vision is precisely one of the reasons why Bertelle-Rogier himself decided to open a gallery in Brussels, and not elsewhere. Overall, Bertelle-Rogier indicates his experience with Independent has been a good one. He appreciates being invited, as it works as some sort of validation for his gallery. Having said that, what interests him the most is not Independent’s core goal to be “different”, but rather their commitment to quality. At the end of the day, Independent remains an art fair at its core – a business. Every fair tries to offer a different experience in its own way, involving talks, restaurants and a variety of sections. Every fair wants to encourage visitors to buy the artworks. That Independent can offer the right environment is what is really important to Bertelle-Rogier: “Art galleries are always interested in context. You join the one you feel you belong to and aim to place your programme in the best context possible.” After all, it is a big risk for small galleries to promote young or unknown artists at an art fair – yet Independent leaves room for galleries to defend their programmes and motives. PLUS-ONE’s Poirier dit Caulier feels that Independent has really understood his needs as a gallerist. He expects the fair to help with networking and to point out who would be interesting for him to collaborate with. The opportunity to build a network between galleries is paramount, because he believes that collaborations between up-and-coming galleries is the future of the contemporary art world: creating opportunities to organise mutual projects and to grow together. He also argues that Independent offering an alternative is crucial, in that it can be a meaningful addition to the local art fair landscape. From a gallerist’s perspective, there is little point in repetitively participating in the same kind of art fair several times a year. Having visited Independent New York in the past, he recalls being intrigued by their concept and different dynamic, and how he would walk through the fair following a logical route, as opposed to the grid-like set-up of other art fairs where you easily miss a section. Due to these expectations and impressions, PLUS-ONE’s programme – consisting of the artists Sergio De Beukelaer, Kasper De Vos, Nel Aerts and Jenny Brosinski – was different from what they would bring to another art fair. Since Independent is not only a fair to sell at but also a space to present what the gallery stands for, it allows a presentation that invites conversation.

The power of live performance

This year’s edition in Brussels was dedicated to a live programme located on the whole ground floor of the Vanderborght building – basically in the centre of the fair. It was the first time Independent organised a live performance programme of this calibre. The idea started small when the founders decided to work with Brussels-based independent curator Vincent Honoré, who is heavily specialised in this field. As more possibilities arose, they were able to integrate the performances in an interesting way, as opposed to it simply being a “side project.” Museums and cultural organisations from around the globe were present as well, even if they did not all participate in the same way. Several museum directors gave guided tours in an attempt to spark a debate about what is presented, while others like WIELSDirk Snauwaert, Witte de With’s Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy and FIAC’s François Quintin engaged in critical talks. Dialogue about the art fair format itself has always been a key topic from Independent’s early days, as it continues to be. To not only have one voice, but to involve all the different actors from the art community: the collector, gallerist and artist, without forgoing the director and curator. This inclusive buzz alongside the dynamic of things happening live injected energy into the project. It opened up the possibility to see the fair in a different way with a newfound energy, carrying on the original intent of the fair.