Portrait of Walter Vanhaerent by Karel Duerinckx in front of James Lee Byars' The Death of James Lee Byars, 1994.
Walter Vanhaerents in front of ‘The Death of James Lee Byars’ (1994) © Karel Duerinckx

Many private art museums, collections and foundations follow the same model — a smart new architect-designed building or an interesting, revamped one; contemporary art curated in a “white cube” setting; founders keen to emphasise that they give back to the community by putting their art on show.

So it’s a surprise to visit the Vanhaerents Art Collection in central Brussels. The space created by the Flemish collector Walter Vanhaerents is, to put it mildly, unorthodox. The first shock is the “Viewing Depot”, designed by the Belgian architecture firm Robbrecht and Daem to resemble the open storage of museums such as the Schaulager in Basel. As you enter the refurbished 1926 industrial building, spread over three floors and occupying around 3,500 sq m, many sculptures are still in crates, swathed in transparent plastic. Paintings are kept on storage racks, but can be pulled out for viewing.

Some works stick halfway out of their crates, including a large piece by the Vietnamese-Danish Danh Vō. Others are placed around a mid-level balcony, among them a fur-covered rocket by the Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury and a cartoonish head by the Japanese artist Mr. Look up in one large, high-ceilinged room and you see a circle of Ai Weiwei bicycles and two works by Ugo Rondinone — a blue-and-white bull’s eye, and the arched, rainbow-coloured sculpture “Cry me a River”.

The collection is open to the public by appointment just four times annually, plus ten weeks for tours and schools. There are no labels; all visits are guided. Around 30,000 people came last year.

Viewing/Painting depot, Vanhaerent Art collection
Paintings in storage racks

Silver-haired and direct in manner, Vanhaerents earned his wealth from the family construction business. After his father and elder brother’s untimely deaths, he inherited the firm in his 20s, abandoning his medical studies to take it over. His relatives had no interest in collecting, and Vanhaerents started by buying local artists. Then, in the 1970s, he was “blown away” after seeing works by Richard Long and Gerhard Richter at the Abteiberg museum in Moënchengladbach, Germany.

He “got rid of everything” to acquire just one piece, by the Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, he tells me, laughing. “I had to pay an extra €25,000 above what I received from the sale of the 35-40 works I had bought up until then.” Vanhaerents sold the firm seven years ago and has concentrated on the collection ever since.

An installation at VAC
An installation at VAC

“I went from being an entrepreneur to art director,” he says with a smile. And not just a director: last year he personally curated an installation that took its inspiration from a work he owns by James Lee Byars. Created in 1994 before the artist’s death from cancer, “The Death of James Lee Byars” is a gilded chamber, empty apart from a bier and five crystals, which Vanhaerents installed in the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione on the Zattere during the Venice Biennale. It was accompanied by a new audio work by the Lebanese artist Zad Moultaka.

The Brussels space opened in 2007 and has so far hosted three well-received long-term exhibitions (Disorder in the House, 2007-10; Sympathy for the Devil, 2011-13 and Man in the Mirror, 2014-17). They have featured works from the collection including pieces by Doug Aitken and Christopher Wool. Among the other artists Vanhaerents owns are Takashi Murakami, Tom Sachs, Jack Pierson, Urs Fischer, Mariko Mori, Jason Rhoades, Yoshitomo Nara, Mark Handforth and Tom Friedman. (He won’t be drawn on how many works in total he possesses.)

Installation view, Man in the Mirror exhibition May 21, 2014 – October 28, 2017
‘Man in the Mirror’ exhibition (2014-17)

It’s notable that few of the people he collects are in other Belgian museums. “I am a contemporary man,” says Vanhaerents. “I look to the future, not to the past.” While he owns a great deal of painting, the first three shows were dominated by sculpture. “I am impressed by scale,” he explains.

When I ask about the Viewing Depot, he explains that it’s a way of demonstrating “how a collection operates”, while at the same time enabling him to rotate pieces frequently and lend works (“which I do a lot”) — all while keeping them in good condition. The formula, says assistant curator Vincent Verbist, “lets aesthetics and functionality intertwine”. Not everyone agrees: a Brussels-based art adviser tells me that they’d much rather Vanhaerents did more straightforward shows, like his first three. “They were very good,” she said.

Vanhaerents deliberately sets himself apart from other collectors; he proudly recounts that he is the only Belgian collector to make the Artnews Top 200 list, and admits he feels a sense of competition with other private museum owners internationally: “We are in a fight [to get works of art] — it’s a horror,” he says.

Vanhaerent Art collection, Brussels
The building’s remodelled exterior

Unusually, Vanhaerents does not claim great altruistic reasons for opening his space. Although the building is in the Dansaert district of Brussels, a historically deprived area that has become far more fashionable in the last decade, Vanhaerents says he simply chose the location because it was convenient. Also, the building seemed right: “I needed somewhere with character to store my art, and I didn’t want to build something new. At first, like a lot of people from Flanders I was afraid of setting up in Brussels — we are not used to its size and diversity.”

Of course, he says, he wants to help artists, although he does not like dealing with them directly — “You don’t dare to be honest if you make friends with them”. Vanhaerents adds bluntly that there’s another reason to have a private museum: artists want to have their work on public show, so they’re more likely to sell: “One reason for having this space is to get access to major pieces.”

He buys almost exclusively through art galleries, without remaining faithful to any single one: “It can sometimes be quite difficult, because the galleries want you to support their whole programme. But often, I want just one work by a specific artist.”

Vanhaerents has two children, Els and Joost. Both are interested in art, so he is confident that the collection will be carried on into the future. The works will eventually go into a foundation in their name; despite the entrance fee, the Collection doesn’t pay for itself.

As for himself, Vanhaerents claims that collecting has saved his life: “Honestly, if I didn’t collect art I wouldn’t be alive now!”


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