Interview with Olivier Meessen and Jan De Clercq, founders of the gallery Meessen De Clercq in Brussels
An art historian and a former economist brought their quite different backgrounds together and opened Meessen de Clercq in 2008. United by a strong interest in literature and art Olivier Meessen and Jan De Clercq work on a program of international artists with a focus on literature and poetry, memory and reflection.
Please tell us about the program of your gallery and the artists you represent. What do your artists have in common?
The program was formed intuitively, based on our affinities with the artists’ practices and the conviction of the uniqueness and strength of their work. We gradually noticed that the role of literature and poetry is important in the work of several artists, as well as the importance of memory and reflection. We are convinced that the strength of the artists’ ideas makes it valuable that they express them in a unique way.
What is the idea behind the “Wunderkammer”?
The gallery building offered quite distinct spaces, and the space baptised ‘Wunderkammer’ is special because it is physically isolated from the other spaces and visible from the street for people walking by. The The Wunderkammer (German word for curiosity cabinet) was named like that because the idea of the curiosity cabinet was a space where one could find objects that expressed ones amazement towards the world.
This isolated space offered us the ideal environment to show one, and only one, work having a relation with the solo exhibitions we run. It allows us to show strong works of artists the gallery is not necessarily representing, in a meaningful context. The Wunderkammer had an important role in the first years of the gallery, but will gradually become a space dedicated to editions in the near future.
What motivated you to open a gallery together?
We both wanted to do something we considered meaningful in life, in line with our interests and convictions. Olivier had the desire to start our own program in a new space, and had intense discussions about it with Jan. We already shared interest in literature and art, and having different but complementary backgrounds, our ideas took shape rapidly leading to the creation of Meessen De Clercq.
What is your background?
Olivier began as an art historian and worked in both the primary and seconrdary art market, both in France and Belgium. And Jan began as an economist and worked in finance and marketing, throughout Europe.
Which was your first show and why?
The first show the gallery programmed in 2008 was titled ‘Absens’. It was a non-commercial group show with seven artists highlighting the transition from ‘house’ to gallery space, they either worked with the history of the building or its space.
The show ‘Absens’ was meant to introduce the gallery in the art world and to provide the public with an idea about the gallerys future program, themes and philosophy.
How would you describe the role of a gallery in the art world today?
The role of the gallery in the art world today is to offer a platform for new and strong ideas by artists, and is complementary to what institutions and museums do. The meaning of ‘platform’ in this context is that the role of the gallery is not limited to showing exhibitions, but also enabling the production of new work, publishing books and editions, supporting museum and institutional exhibitions and participating in global fairs in order to effectively promote new and strong ideas.
You are very active in publishing. How do you see the connection between your gallery and your publishing activities?
As stated before, the publishing is an extension of the platform idea. For each artist we analyse what is essential at the point he or she is in his or her career, and if a monograph for instance is considered important, we try to realize this with or without an external publishing house.
How does digitalization affect your work as a gallerist?
Digitalization mainly means that communication and image sharing have improved both the speed and the quality of exchanges with the broader environment.
Let’s talk about the location. Why did you choose this building and this neighbourhood? What was the purpose of the building before?
We chose the building because it was situated in the broad neighbourhood in which we were searching, it was available and offered nice spaces for the project we had in mind. The building was initially built as a private house for a doctor and then became a medical laboratory.
As we both lived in Brussels, we wanted to be in this neighbourhood because it was easily accessible in with both public and private transport. At the time we started only one other gallery (Xavier Hufkens) was located here but since then it has become a neighbourhood with plenty of galleries, ranging from project spaces to internationally active players, which makes it very attractive for visitors.
What does it mean to run a contemporary art gallery in Brussels? What are the limits and what are the possibilities?
It means working a lot. Choosing Brussels means that one has a more affordable space compared to London for instance, but personnel costs are so high that we are limited to working with a small staff to realize an ambitious international program.
The possibilities are infinite, we’re working on them each day.
What are your plans for the future?
Working hard so the artists get the international recognition they deserve.
Meessen De Clercq participates in the 10th edition of ART-O-RAMA in Marseille from August 26th to 28th 2016.
Abdijstraat 2a Rue de l’Abbaye
Tuesday to Saturday: 11 am–7 pm