Art From The Dark Heart of Europe: An Interview With Harlan Levey

I had the great fortune of meeting Brussels-based curator, Harlan Levey, while he was in Burlington, Vermont last October as part of Burlington City Arts' visiting critic program. The curator of that institution, DJ Hellerman, facilitated a meeting that quickly evolved into a lively discussion, not necessarily about local art, but about contemporary art in general, the nature of the art market, and the rewarding challenges that come with conceptually rigorous exhibitions. I was struck by Levey's genuine passion for the artists who comprise his program at Harlan Levey Projects and the integrity with which he works. And just like that, he was back on a plane to Brussels, having reinvigorated Burlington's quiet contemporary art scene.

Harlan Levey Projects Gallery is located in Brussels at the heart of the European capital's gallery district, representing a small, distinctive roster of international artists including TR Ericsson, Jeroen Jongeleen, Abner Preis, Zoe Strauss, Marcin Dudek, and more. We caught up with Levey last week to discuss the storied path that lead him to found Harlan Levey Projects, one that includes professional soccer and literary studies at the European Graduate School, as well as what guides him as curator and informs both the artists he works with and the exhibitions he organizes. 

Abbey Meaker: You’re an expat from Cleveland living in Brussels and you’ve been there for how long?

Harlan Levey: I’ve been in Brussels since the turn of the century. 15 years longer than I ever imagined.

Meaker: I read that it was soccer that prompted the move?

Levey: Soccer was so important to me growing up. It introduced me to people with all different backgrounds and offered me the opportunity to travel from a young age. I love the game and everything it brought me off the field. After college, I harbored dreams of earning a living playing in the Netherlands, but this didn’t work out at all.  

Meaker: How did you go from sports and literary studies to a career in the arts?

If I go back to the late 90s, I was over here in the Benelux, not getting paid to play and in need of a job. I found one at the Center for European Studies (CES) at the University of Maastricht teaching a comparative literature course to study abroad students.  It was a right place, right time situation, which was great, but not so straightforward, because I had no working papers and the semester was starting. CES found a solution by offering to enroll me in an MA program, pay my housing, expenses and a modest living stipend. I was registered as a student, and as an American was thrilled about the opportunity to study anything and get paid for it. The MA wasn’t in literature. It was in a program called ESST, which stands for European Science, Society and Technology studies. If we skip all that, writing, all kinds of writing, framing and illustrating are things a literature study prepares you for.  To return to your question, sports and literature were part of a life journey. My subsequent studies, jobs, and experiences all had a role in leading me towards working in the arts.

Meaker: Does literature inform your curatorial practice?

Levey: Yes. Absolutely. Literature has always informed my life. I am more of a narrator than a curator and am excited by the potential of curating as a form of expanded literary practice.  The gallery’s program has been dominated with narrative driven exhibitions until now.

When I was writing, I never thought about the audience. With the gallery, building audiences and educating clients is a core task. You need to develop audiences for artists, ideas, and the gallery itself. In considering who this audience is, I find myself nodding along with how Fitzgerald told it when he said: “An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.” Via the work of the gallery, I try to ‘write’ with this same approach. Literature definitely has its role.

Meaker: Did you work for other galleries before starting one?

Levey: No. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I knew little about running a gallery when I started one. I had very limited knowledge of the actual business and nearly no capital. I was a total outsider with a history of working with outsider art, and the learning curve has been huge. I had no idea what I was up against. What I did have was a lot of experience working with artists and communicating their ideas. I’d spent 5 years as the Editor in Chief of Modart magazine and director of a non-profit I co-founded with Ruggero Lala called the No New Enemies network, which assisted artists working in public space. 

Meaker: Does No New Enemies still exist?

Levey: Yes. NNE just won an open call from the city and region of Brussels to develop six installations in the tunnels near the local skatepark over the next four years.

Meaker: Do you recall a particular artist or artwork that inspired you to become a gallerist?

Levey: I opened the gallery when Modart magazine went to ground. Of the artists we were featuring there some clear patterns of professional success. For one, there always seemed to be somebody who innovated, who made rather brave work and was followed by somebody this work had inspired who knew how to cash in. The second artist, the one most people have actually heard of, considered commercial translation from the start. This commercial translation often contradicted the essence of what made a work interesting to begin with. I have a great deal of empathy and interest in artists I thought were doing ground-breaking relevant work and were not able (or not interested) to think about commercial strategies. This included artists like Hans Reuschl, Jeroen Jongeleen and Abner Preis. I come from Cleveland. I’ve always been attracted to hard working underdogs.

Meaker: What is the mission of Harlan Levey Projects?

Levey: David Foster Wallace once said something about his belief that good fiction should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Our mission is to make money for our artists and business by doing exactly that.

Meaker: What has been the most challenging exhibition and why?

Levey: “Saved by an Unseen Crack,” a solo exhibition by Marcin Dudek. It was the first exhibition in our new space and came with unprecedented investment, challenges, and risk. The opportunity to move into a larger venue was unexpected. Everything happened very quickly. We had about two months to plan and build the interior of the new space. At the same time, we were preparing for two art fairs in April. Marcin’s opening was scheduled right between them. Marcin was involved in both of those events and was also preparing for a solo exhibition in London with our partner Edel Assanti Gallery shortly thereafter. We were all overwhelmed with a lot on the line. Everything needed to go perfectly. It was a very tense moment.

Meaker: But it all worked out. You had great success in Dallas.

Levey: Yes. In Dallas we were very fortunate to place all of the works that we brought in excellent collections and develop several new relationships. Then came the opening of Marcin’s show, which was also met with a tremendous response.

"He said that if you want to be an artist or a writer, accept suicide as the only viable pension plan."

Meaker: What did you show in Dallas?

Levey: The unspoken booth concept was the ‘greatest country song never written,’ and it featured works from TR Ericsson and Marcin Dudek. This year, we’ll present new works in a similar format.

Meaker: How did you start working with these guys? In general, how do you find new artists?

Levey: This really varies. For example, I met Abner Preis through mutual friends at a punk concert and exhibition I organized in 2006. Haseeb Ahmed and I were both invited by the European Commission to work on a common project. A high school friend introduced me to a dealer in Cleveland who drove me out to meet Tom. I met Jeroen through Abner though I was already a big fan of his work for several years at that point. Marcin and Amelie got in touch with me when they moved to Brussels after reading an article in the free local culture mag. We had dinner together 5 or 6 times before I ever looked at their work. Emmanuel and I met when I was invited to give a lecture and do studio visits at a post-graduate residency program. That all said, I visit studios on a regular basis, have worked on several selection committees, and continue to write for art oriented publications occasionally. I also get introduced to artists through relationships with other galleries and presence at fairs and other events.

Meaker: I am a big fan of gallery artist TR Ericsson. Can you talk about the exhibition All My Love, Always No Matter What, shown in September and October of last year?

Levey: With pleasure! I’m also a big fan of TR Ericsson. His work stops the music of the market. It flattens the hype. Live. Dream. Die. Loop. That’s how it goes, reinterpreting intimate histories with skillful and considered conceptual, contextual and material interventions. The subject matter isn’t easy, and even when there’s direct aesthetic appeal in the images he makes, there’s usually some troubling element embedded within them. Tom’s the real deal and currently one of the most underrated artists of my generation.  He came over with his wife Rose, daughter Susie, brother Mikey and two assistants, Matthew Rowe and Connor Elder. It was a special moment. At the end of the vernissage, we held the European premiere of his film “Crackle & Drag.” About a quarter of the room was in tears by the time it was over.  We followed that up with a performance from Joy Wellboy who had been given texts and images from Tom’s archives and wrote several songs with this material. By the time they were done, more than a quarter of the Ericsson entourage was wet eyed too. I’ve never seen so many people crying in the gallery. At the same time, the whole event was incredibly joyful.

Meaker: Did this important exhibition influence the direction of HLP thereafter?

Levey: All of our core artists influence our direction. In many ways, they are our direction. We’re maturing our practices together.  Tom has become a big part of this. He didn’t change the programming or attitudes of the gallery, but he fit right in with our team and I’ve learned so much from working with him. I’d say the same for everybody else. Our artists reach out to each other with encouragement, criticism and questions. Everybody who feasibly can, shows up at every opening, and while sometimes there’s a bit of ego jousting and skepticism towards new artists in the program, eventually there’s a great respect and admiration from and for everybody. At HLP we’ve cultivated a great team spirit.

Meaker: What can we expect from you—shows, events, fairs, etc.?

Levey: Up next outside of the gallery are fairs in Rotterdam, Dallas and then Brussels. In the gallery we have upcoming group and solo shows. The first is titled “Do You Speak Synergy” and features two artists we represent, Haseeb Ahmed and Emmanuel Van der Auwera, as well as Ella Littwitz and Benjamin Verhoeven who I met along with Emmanuel when working as a guest lecturer at the HISK in Ghent. This is the first show I’ve worked closely on with our new associate curator Denis Maksimov. Denis is a brilliant and passionate guy. He’s made a very welcome addition to the team and we expect great things from him in the future.

The following show in the gallery is “Eat, Shit, Smile” by Abner Preis. Our last show with Abner was an incredible success on many levels, and for better or worse, there won’t be another show like it during the madness of Art Brussels week. I can’t wait.

Meaker: Is there anywhere outside of Brussels to see the work you’re facilitating?

Levey: Right now there’s Instagram, the Art Fairs I mentioned and all of our artists present work internationally. On our website you can sign up for our newsletter to keep posted on events outside of Brussels. 

Meaker: Do you ever partner with other institutions?

Levey: Absolutely. In soccer you’d say, “Let the ball work for you.” We play a passing game. Our attitude is that when you’re growing a small business, all forms of partnership are important. We can always do more with others than trying to make a one in a million run on our own. Knowledge, resource and competency exchanges have been a big part of how we’ve managed to grow the business.

Meaker: What about Brussels? Recently the NY Times called it the “New Berlin.” Do you think this is accurate?

Levey: Berlin has had the reputation of a creative hotbed and Brussels is happy to rightly be described the same way, but Brussels isn’t the new anything. Brussels is beautiful, dysfunctional and surrealistic Brussels. Not so long ago, Berlin represented cheap studio space and living costs along with a vibrant creative community and arts sector. Brussels has the same offer.

Brussels also has per-capita diversity comparable to New York City, and a history of outstanding artistic production from the Flemish Primitives through Marcel Broodthaers to Michael Borremans, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Walter Van Beirendonck, Stromae or Wim Delvoye.  If we talk about fashion, dance, film, music, architecture, comics, painting, contemporary art, whatever, there has always been high quality here. There’s also a strong appetite for it. Then there’s private and public sector support of it. The city’s location is another perk. 3 hours to Amsterdam. 2.2 to London or Cologne. 1.2 to Paris. Brussels has been a crossroads for centuries.

The reason for the sudden interest in Brussels has to do with other things as well. For example, Belgium has the EU’s highest taxes on income and labor, but inherited wealth isn’t taxed at all. When Francois Hollande became President of France in 2012, something like 30,000 Parisians bought property in Brussels. This led to an influx of Parisian galleries that have added to an already exciting local scene.

Meaker: Are you looking forward to Art Brussels?

Levey: Always. It’s an outstanding fair. Katrina Gregos has done a wonderful job developing it over the last few years and I’m proud to be one of two galleries (together with Super Dakota) from Belgium that’s been selected for the Discovery section this year. The fair’s outstanding reputation has been cemented by a flux of new satellite fairs including Independent, Y.I.A., Unpainted and Poppositions. Brussels can’t handle the dozens of satellite fairs that Miami does, but the emergence of all these new events testifies to the strength of the landscape here. If I wasn’t jamming in my Art Brussels booth, I’d visit every one of them.

Meaker: What advice might you give young artists?

Levey: I wouldn’t, but I do appreciate a piece of advice philosopher Wolfgang Schirmacher once gave me. He said that if you want to be an artist or a writer, accept suicide as the only viable pension plan.  You have to be ready to tighten your belt, committed to staying sharp and true to things you might have forgotten.

Meaker: Young curators?

Levey: Find topics that you are passionate about and go deep instead of broad. Ask yourself what help a curator can provide in every project and whom this service benefits. Art can be useless. A curator has to prove that it isn't.

You can visit Harlan Levey Projects' booth at Art Rotterdam 2016, which features artist Emmanuel Van der Auwera's Video Sculpture series. The VIP opening is tonight and the fair opens to the public on February 11 and runs until February 14. Interview and text by Abbey Meaker, co-director of Overnight Projects in Vermont. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE