Christian Vrouyr, an Antwerp gallery owner specialising in antique carpets, has been BRAFA's General Secretary for the past fifteen years and a member of its Board since 2015. This is his 64th participation in a fair now celebrating its 65th anniversary.
What major changes have there been since BRAFA first started?
I would say that the biggest change came about in 2004, when we left the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels – a very fine building by Victor Horta, but not very practical – and moved to Tour & Taxis. This much more spacious industrial building led to a rise in exhibitors, from 45, mainly from Belgium, to the present 133, with 83 coming from other countries. We have also seen visitor numbers increase from 10,000 to 70,000 in forty years. This can certainly be seen as a gauge of international recognition.
In your opinion, what is BRAFA's strength in achieving this international reputation?
The exhibitors are the most effective ambassadors for a fair. If they like the atmosphere, hospitality and décor; if there is a quality clientele and if word of mouth leads to their colleagues applying, we don't need to set out in search of applicants any more. We have waiting lists, which makes our job easier, although the selection process isn't always easy. BRAFA's goal is not to please one exhibitor more than another; it's chiefly about maintaining a balance and making sure no particular speciality dominates the others. I think if we were to let things take their natural course, there would be a very large majority of modern and contemporary art exhibitors. But we keep at least 50% in the Old Master and antiques category. They have always found the clientele that suits them in Belgium. Also, we have a board of directors that consists mainly of gallery owners, and does not depend on any shareholders. It ensures that all the profit made during the fair is ploughed back into the next edition.
Could you say that another great constant of this fair is its exhibitors' loyalty?
Yes. Our renewal rate is never more than 7% each year, which is not much. I would say that the BRAFA is a tree with a very solid trunk. It doesn't mean we're not open to other fields. We have also had stands exhibiting comic strips and designer pieces. We're not obsessed with introducing new aspects; all that needs to happen gradually.
Hasn't BRAFA become a sounding board for the development and mentality of an audience highly specific to Belgium?
What I have chiefly noticed is that we have grown very slowly. It's a strength not to seek instant revolutions. BRAFA is a fair you can easily visit in a day without feeling you've forgotten half the exhibitors. So there is a friendly, intimate side to it, a laid-back spirit we are keen to preserve. We should remember that Belgium is a small country in terms of size; Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges are not that far from Brussels... And maybe another particularity of the Belgian identity is taking your time.
In your view, which outstanding works will make their mark on this 65th edition?
I'm not going to pick out any particular works. Not everyone can buy a Rembrandt or a Picasso. BRAFA's appeal lies above all in attracting a public of collectors with smaller portfolios, so that visitors feel at ease at an event where they can find gems at affordable prices. I believe that a fair should not revolve around star pieces. For some years now, we have been awarding a prize to students from the La Cambre art school in Brussels for the carpets decorating the fair's corridors every year. We encourage them to design a project, and after we've selected the best of them, we take care of the production side. I must confess that I suggested this idea to the Board because I think carpets are sometimes too much ignored.
Christo and Gilbert & Georges were BRAFA's last guests of honour. But before that, you tended to invite museums...
Yes, institutions that were not as well-known as certain national museums and needed a little help. We also work regularly with the King Baudoin Foundation, which is very active in terms of purchasing art. But we don't have any preconceived ideas. This year, we acquired five pieces of the Berlin Wall, which will be auctioned for charity during BRAFA. They came from Teltow (a small town on the outskirts of Berlin) after the wall was dismantled. Entire sections are still stored on the site of Klosters Baustoffwerke. Elmar Prost, the firm's CEO, numbered them and then offered them to contemporary artists to paint as a tribute to Berlin. Not all of them have been painted. At that moment we asked Elmar Prost to sell us five of these remaining sections not yet "revisited" by a contemporary artist.
So that's the highlight of this edition?
In my view, it's a rather different approach to the fair. We make sure that we maintain a dynamic atmosphere while giving priority to the public. This changes over the years. What's interesting is to see new collectors who feel more tempted by modern or contemporary art gradually becoming interested in Old Masters and antiques, and then becoming loyal to this fair. Eclecticism and quality come first. There are not many stands today where a hyper-rigorous style dominates. There is more and more of a mix, and as long as the quality is consistently high there's no problem. But we don't try to align ourselves or compete with other shows. That's been a successful approach so far.
Aren't you afraid that axing one day will cause a drop in attendance?
Not everyone is free on Fridays and BRAFA always opens with an evening event and a dinner. We decided to postpone these to Saturday, and open to the public on Sunday. I honestly don't think this will affect attendance. Our primary goal is not numbers so much as a high level in terms of visitors. Five thousand people more or less is not very important; what matters is the interest felt by those who come to the fair.