It’s a majestic space stretching over nearly 3,000 m2, which once delighted roller skaters. Today it’s an exhibition space with a difference, in the middle of Brussels. We spend an hour with Valérie Bach and find out about her commitment to contemporary art… at the heart of a historic monument.
Valérie Bach moved to Brussels in 2005. At that time, she opened her first art gallery in the Sablon district. It was in 2007 that she and her husband discovered La Patinoire Royale, a neo-classical building constructed in 1877 right in the centre of the Belgian capital. Semi-circular arch windows, a magnificent Polonceau structure, period glasswork… They fell in love with it immediately, and very soon after, the couple bought the site. As of 2012, the Galerie Valérie Bach began presenting its programme on this site in the wing looking out onto Rue Faider, while restoration of the building’s nave continued, overseen by the Jean-Paul Hermant and Pierre Yovanovitch architecture firms. It was thus in April 2015 that Valérie Bach, along with her director Constantin Chariot and his team, inaugurated this new hybrid venue which has preserved its historic name. Already, three exhibitions have taken place here: “La Résistance des images”, showing nearly 170 works representing major figures in narrative figuration, curated by Jean-Jacques Aillagon; “Let’s Move!”, a vast retrospective of kinetic art organised by Arnauld Pierre; and “Prouvé / Takis” organised in collaboration with the gallery Downtown. And now, until 25 March, and for the first time since the opening of La Patinoire, all of the venue’s spaces are being handed over to one artist: Joana Vasconcelos from Portugal, whose show includes a few monumental works.
You are the manager of the Patinoire, as well as of the gallery bearing your name. What is the relationship between these two spaces?
Despite a difference in name, it is one and the same entity, but each has its own programme. The Galerie Valérie Bach has been at this address since 2012, the year when this space opened, under the glass roof on the Rue Faider side. The ample size of this space allows us to easily draw two different programmes together to cohabit under the one roof, without raising any problems. Of course we would have liked to use my name for both places but we preferred to conserve the historic aspect of this site, listed as part of the city’s heritage, by preserving its original name. In the past, its name was in English: The Royal Skating of Brussels. Another issue to bear in mind is that the monumental scale of projects set up at La Patinoire implies longer-term exhibitions. The presence of the Galerie Valérie Bach in the same space brings energy to the premises by offering new shows, every two months or so. We’re even starting to think about hosting three projects in this spot: La Patinoire Royale, the Galerie Valérie Bach and a more experimental space, the Lab, on the first floor.
You carried out a long series or renovations before opening …
We acquired this listed building in 2009. It would take us six years to fully renovate it. We called on the Belgian architecture firm Jean-Paul Hermant for the main works; we then entrusted the premises to Pierre Yovanovitch, a French interior decorator-designer who has turned La Patinoire into what it is today – a space that looks very sober while promoting the place’s historic architecture. A monumental staircase has been added to the nave to link it to the first floor for exhibitions and to the second floor for offices via a walkway.
What was the initial project?
Our intention was to open an art centre focusing on different sculpture practices. But as the restoration of such a space was so long, we had time to think over our plan. It seemed difficult to set up an art centre that offers direct access to a private gallery. But it became obvious that we wanted to preserve two different programmes in the one space. So La Patinoire Royale became a large private gallery.
So it all began with a passion for contemporary sculpture…
For several years we’ve been collecting contemporary sculpture and our collection is at Peyrassol, a winegrowing estate that my husband bought in 2005 in southeast France. This Knights Templar commandery is located between Aix-en-Provence and Saint-Tropez, not far from major contemporary-art collections such as the Fondation Venet, the Domaine du Muy created by Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, or Château La Coste. The collection gathers about sixty sculptures by international artists, placed outdoors or else in the estate’s “gallery” spaces in the case of more fragile ones, creating surprises along paths or near vines. When we visited La Patinoire Royale, our original idea was to display the sculptures indoors.
How was your first year at La Patinoire?
The opening took place as we’d hoped despite the heavy task of two or three simultaneous programmes. Today, we’re visited by many Belgian and international art lovers. Very often people thank us for transforming this historic spot which, for years, housed a garage of collectors’ cars… And for bringing it back to life! Today, La Patinoire Royale has become a key art venue in Brussels – one which is attracting more and more visitors, and getting talked about overseas.
How do you operate and how are you supported for the spaces’ programmes?
Once we’ve determined an exhibition’s theme, we simply look to take on board the most competent people in the domain. For “Let’s Move!” for example, we called on Arnauld Pierre who is a kinetic-art specialist in France. He had already proven his ability in some fantastic projects on this historic movement. We therefore have worked alongside some wonderful exhibition curators such as Jean-Jacques Aillagon for our show on narrative figuration. Next April’s exhibition will take us to the United Arab Emirates with the Hassan Sharif retrospective; we collaborated with the artist prior to his unfortunate death in September 2016. This will be the artist’s first European retrospective. We are lucky to be able to work with the gallerist who represents him in Dubai, Isabelle van den Eynde, and with Hervé Mikaeloff, a great connoisseur of his work, who is accompanying us in this posthumous project.
Why, incidentally, did you start with an exhibition on narrative figuration?
This idea came from Jean-Jacques Aillagon, to whom we’d decided to entrust curatorship of our first exhibition. At the time, we envisaged solo shows by contemporary artists, or group shows exploring major stages in artistic creation in Europe during the second half of the 20th century, in the field of the visual arts and design. Jean-Jacques Aillagon put his finger on our interest in narrative figuration, a movement that we are fond of and that we collect.
Tell us about your meeting with Joana Vasconcelos, whom you are currently showing…
We wanted, after three very historically slanted exhibitions, to bring a more contemporary touch to our programme. Our meeting with the artist, thanks to Jean-Jacques Aillagon who is still a friend and adviser to La Patinoire Royale, was decisive. We clicked with one another straight away and the project naturally fell into place. This is the first monographic exhibition that we are organising, and also the first exhibition to fill every space of La Patinoire, from the large nave to the first floor.
Where do the works that you’ve shown up to this point come from?
A majority of the pieces displayed in our first thematic shows came directly from artist’s workshops or partner galleries. They may be purchased or on loan. For the exhibition “Prouvé / Takis”, we collaborated with the gallery Downtown in Paris. For “Let’s Move!”, Arnauld Pierre found us a way into artist’s workshops and the Galerie Denise René was extremely helpful!
How would you define the reaction of collectors since La Patinoire’s opening?
Kinetic art is a movement which really lives on and the “Let’s Move!” exhibition was very popular. For the Prouvé-Takis duo and the Joana Vasconcelos show, we’ve stressed the theatrical aspect of La Patinoire Royale by displaying major pieces and large-scale works, which often find buyers among museums but also private collections. Thanks to our varied exhibition programme, we have the privilege of reaching out to a broad public. The common thread of our exhibitions is the desire for excellence, on which we focus!
Are you considering programming emerging artists?
If you look at our first four exhibitions, it’s true that the artists were already internationally renowned, but perhaps one of the next shows will focus on one or several emerging artists. We really wish to present the Brussels public with young artists who are known in their own countries but not yet over here. We plan to show them in the same way and with the same ambition.
Do you ever sell to museums?
Not enough for now. But our links with institutions are gradually getting stronger as we set up projects on the spot, and the team has also expanded with this aim in mind. You have to remember that our structure is still young, and that the first year was above all a matter of managing our growing renown and setting up our exhibitions. We have now found our cruising speed, and so we can look to the future more serenely.
What do you think about the Centre Pompidou’s upcoming arrival in Belgium?
It’s fantastic for Brussels. The site is magnificent even if it’s not central. There are so many works in the Centre Pompidou’s reserves which are rarely shown, or not at all… We often hear that Brussels is Europe’s hub for contemporary art. This opening will play a very positive role, I think, in the cultural landscape of our capital.
What do you hope for from this edition of the BRAFA?
The BRAFA allows us to be present at a fair in January, which is a calm month. What I like at the BRAFA, as at the TEFAF, is the mixture of antiquities, modern and contemporary works. The ten days of the fair are really an opportunity to meet collectors and to boost our visibility. This will be the second time in which La Patinoire will be taking part in it. Last year, we met some interesting collectors and institutional figures, many Belgians, but also Germans, French people, Dutch people, etc. We hope to find as friendly and passionate a public in 2017. For this edition, La Patinoire Royale is offering a varied selection of works by artists that have already been seen at our gallery during our previous exhibitions. We are showing, on our picture rails, the first abstract painting in the history of art: a work by Paul Sérusier. We are also showing a few contemporary works by Joana Vasconcelos, parallel to her exhibition at the gallery.
Do you intend to take part in other fairs?
We will be present at the contemporary-drawing fair, Drawing Now, in Paris, next March. We are also thinking about taking part in some of the biggest fairs… Perhaps we’re still too young, but we can always start filling in the application forms. We’ve just been contacted for the fair in Seoul, which will be placing a focus on Belgium next year… It’s true that Brussels benefits from an ideal geographical position, but it’s also good to go and see what’s happening on the other side of the planet because it’s crucial to gain international renown.
What are your hopes for La Patinoire in coming years?
We would like La Patinoire Royale to organise summer exhibitions in the Peyrassol sculpture park, from June to September, and to launch a prize for contemporary sculpture, to recognise talented young sculptors. From year to year, the estate draws more and more visitors in summer. Today, it’s possible to lunch, dine or sleep at Peyrassol! Over 4,000 people came to visit the sculpture park last summer…
Joana Vasconcelos, a spinner of wonder
“De fil(s) en aiguille(s)” is a monographic exhibition by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos, offering a range of colourful works from 2008 to 2015: embroideries, lace, crocheted works, patchworks and glitter. These works are directly derived from the traditional Portuguese practice of needlework, recalling the art of accessory designers and other suppliers of major couture houses. Under the great nave and in the Galerie Valérie Bach, two monumental Valkyries hanging from the ceiling refer to creations by fashion designer Marina Rinaldi and songs by Madonna. Visitors are welcomed by these enormous war goddesses inspired by Scandinavian mythology, true icons in the work of Joana Vasconcelos. A little further off, we discover Petit Gâteau, an enormous colourful cupcake in plastic. Borrowing from the Tetris video game, the architecture of Cottonnopolis and Pretty in Pink reveal how the artist draws on all possible means. Meanwhile, the first floor and ground floor present smaller series, such as the Crochet Painting sculptures in which crocheted protuberances stick out of paintings. The Bordalo series appropriates ceramics designed by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, deemed as one of the most influential Portuguese artists from the 19th century. Wasps, lizards, snakes and snails, crabs and lobsters, heads of bulls, donkeys or horses, delicately enveloped by crocheted cloth… This exhibition, the artist’s first retrospective in Belgium, illustrates how Joana Vasconcelos meets the challenge of combining wonder and contemporariness.
“De fil(s) en aiguille(s)”, works by Joana Vasconcelos, until 25 March. La Patinoire Royale, 15 Rue Veydt, Brussels, Belgium. www.lapatinoireroyale.com