ANTWERP, Belgium — Gray walls, bare floor, moody spotlighting. An ancient Egyptian marble bowl here, an eighth-century Thai sculpture there. And dominating one end of the room, above a Le Corbusier armchair, a huge abstract that a Japanese artist painted with his feet.
This is the distinctive look associated with Axel Vervoordt, an international art dealer and interior designer with galleries in Belgium and Hong Kong. Mr. Vervoordt’s minimalist fusions of East and West, ancient and modern, have become the admired trademark of his booths at fairs such as Tefaf Maastricht and Masterpiece, as well as at his exhibitions in the Palazzo Fortuny during the Venice Biennale. Kanye West, Sting and Robert De Niro are among his customers.
But Mr. Vervoordt has taken his approach to a new level with Kanaal, a giant cultural and residential complex on the site of a disused distillery on the outskirts of Antwerp. The opening of the private arts center reinforces Antwerp’s resurgent reputation as a European cultural hub.
“It’s about creating the best place for art,” Mr. Vervoordt, 70, said in an interview at the Nov. 30 opening, as a crowd of well-to-do collectors filed in. “I fell in love with the distillery building. Industrial architecture is real, and it just wants to be useful. It’s very spiritual, intimate and religious, but I don’t know what religion.”
Dating from 1857, the distillery’s original brick warehouses and concrete grain silos have been supplemented over the last decade with a number of new buildings, some designed by Mr. Vervoordt in collaboration with the Japanese architect Tatsuro Miki. The site now features 98 apartments, 30 offices, a restaurant, a bakery, an auditorium, studios, workshops, and extensive exhibition spaces for both the Vervoordt art dealership and for the nonprofit Axel & May Vervoordt Foundation. Among the foundation’s current exhibits are three large-scale “Warrior” paintings from the 1960s, painted (with those feet) by the now-coveted Gutai School artist Kazuo Shiraga, who died in 2008 and whom Mr. Vervoordt has been championing since 2005. One of Shiraga’s paintings from the 1960s sold at auction three years ago for $5.3 million, according to the Artnet database of salesroom results.
Permanent installations at the complex include a chapel with a James Turrell light piece, “Red Shift,” from 1995, and a separate building devoted to the 1998 Anish Kapoor sculpture “At the Edge of the World,” which envelopes the visitor in a domed echo chamber.
The Vervoordt Company’s stable of international artists includes the Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, whose silver and gold “bottle-top” hanging, “Fresh and Fading Memories,” caused a sensation at the 2007 Venice Biennale when it was draped across the facade of the Palazzo Fortuny. Kanaal opened with a presentation of seven new hangings by Mr. Anatsui, each priced around $1 million.
Mr. Vervoordt is giving up his acclaimed exhibitions at the Palazzo Fortuny to concentrate on curating shows at Kanaal. He said he wanted the new installations “to bring peace to people, to give them a quieter state of mind.”
“I love the way art creates positive energy, and there’s so much negative energy in the world,” he said. “The art market has gone too much toward money, money. It’s become too materialistic.”
But isn’t a development of luxury apartments and galleries filled with works by internationally renowned artists simply a cultural playground for the rich?
Mr. Vervoordt does not see it that way. The dealer and his son Boris Vervoordt, who runs the art and interior design sides, both pointed out that Kanaal is open to the public with no admission fee. And the inaugural presentations do feature minimalist stone sculptures by the Belgian artist Lucia Bru, who has made pieces priced by the dealership at 4,000 euros, or about $4,700.
But living at Kanaal is quite exclusive. Finished apartments range from €730,000 to €900,000, with a few large penthouses priced from €2 million. So far, 85 of the 98 units have been sold, according to Anne-Sophie Dusselier, the company’s publicist.
For Mr. Vervoordt, historic real estate and art dealing have always gone hand in hand. In 1969, he bought and restored a street of 16th-century houses near Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady, then developed his art and antiques business. In 1984, he moved to Kasteel van ‘s-Gravenwezel, a medieval castle on the outskirts of Antwerp, from where he still trades, by appointment only.
“I’ve always loved architecture where there are traces of the old. Time becomes art,” said the dapper, ever-smiling Mr. Vervoordt. “I’ve never had a shop. I want to live with artworks, and show others how they can have that experience.”
Being both a highly successful dealer and interior designer, Mr. Vervoordt is perhaps unique in the upper levels of the contemporary art world, helping Antwerp loom larger on the radar of international collectors.
“Ten years ago Antwerp was stronger, then Brussels took over, but now Antwerp is coming back again,” said Marianne Hoet, a senior specialist in 20th-century and contemporary art at Phillips, the auction house. Phillips announced in October that it planned to open an office in Antwerp, led by Ms. Hoet.
Ms. Hoet pointed out that Antwerp has a growing network of contemporary art dealerships, with Axel Vervoordt, Zeno X (which represents Luc Tuymans, who lives in the city) and Tim Van Laere (who represents Adrian Ghenie) among the more prominent gallerists.
But above all, Ms. Hoet said, it was Belgium’s famously astute community of collectors that has prompted Phillips to set up an office in Antwerp. She estimated that more than 100 people in the country were prepared to spend at least $20,000 on a serious contemporary work. Beyond that, she added, Belgian collectors have a knack for spotting artists before they become expensive stars. These collectors, she said, “are very knowledgeable, they travel widely and they buy early.”
The Belgian capital depends on fairs such as Art Brussels and Independent Brussels to attract international collectors, but Antwerp uses to its May gallery weekend, Antwerp Art, to draw a new audience to the city.
“We don’t need a fair, we can build on the gallery weekend,” said Mr. Van Laere, one of more than 60 gallerists who participated in this year’s edition of Antwerp Art. He is currently exhibiting a range of works by the Austrian artist Franz West, priced at €95,000 to €900,000.
“I don’t believe in the rivalry between Antwerp and Brussels,” Mr. Van Laere said. “It’s a small country, and everyone sees everything. If you put on a good show, the collectors will come.”
Asked if the opening of Mr. Vervoordt’s Kanaal project would make a difference to the Antwerp art scene, Mr. Van Laere replied: “Everything adds.”
The reception room at Kanaal is line with books devoted to Mr. Vervoordt’s vision as a dealer and decorator. In “Stories and Reflections,” he describes how the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sums up his approach, embracing “the spirit of thinking globally and acting locally.”
Increasingly, Antwerp is becoming that kind of town.
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