A Brief History of WIELS Art Centre in Brussels

WIELS is a contemporary art centre offering exhibitions and workshops by emerging and world-renowned artists
WIELS is a contemporary art centre offering exhibitions and workshops by emerging and world-renowned artists | © Jochen Tack / Alamy Stock Photo
Anastasia Starikova

WIELS Contemporary Art Centre is without a doubt the most vibrant place in Brussels to get in touch with all forms of the visual arts. Open since 2007, WIELS is not only a cradle for a number of fast changing cultural events, but also a major attraction of the Brussels’ South Station neighbourhood and the capital itself.

The history of WIELS begins in the 1930s when the successful Wielemans dynasty of beer makers decided to expand their business in Belgium by building one of the largest breweries at the time in Europe. The new building designed by Adrien Blomme soon earned the nickname Wielemans Tower due to its distinctive silhouette on the landscape of Brussels. Today, the building is a rare surviving example of the modernist industrial architecture that was popular at the time. Interesting fact: the popular name ‘Wiels’ was first coined on the label of a light fluitjesbier (baby-beer) during World War II.
After the brewery stopped production (it brewed its last batch of beer in 1988), the building was listed as cultural heritage site, but did not serve any purpose for many years. In 2001, the Brussels Capital region became the owner of the building under a material heritage protection programme and decided to renovate the building to become a centre for contemporary arts.
WIELS is called an art centre, which has a different connotation from a fine art museum or gallery, as it explores and offers a range of cultural activities without having a permanent collection. These activities collaborate and form the general interest of the institution and can be narrowed down to three branches: education, exhibition and production. The management and staff of WIELS are dedicated to helping art experts, artists and the wider public in the sharing and circulation of information, as well as advancing the understanding of contemporary art.
Every year, WIELS presents a vast exhibition programme with a number of large-scale projects that include installations, performances, sculptures, film, solo shows and collaborative exhibitions, lectures and concerts. Although a relatively young institution, WIELS has also hosted a number of celebrated names in its exhibition history such as Mike Kelley, Kelley Walker, Luc Tuymans, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Francis Alÿs.
Alongside proclaimed artists, WIELS grants up to nine residency placements a year for talented young artists. This offer is an opportunity to work in a private atelier and to propose a project within one of WIELS’ residency exhibition spaces. Throughout the year, visitors can witness the progress of the emerging creatives by attending openings, performances and talks.
The WIELS education programme is also a unique aspect of the centre, as it includes interactive family tours around the building, workshops, films and lessons for children and parents about different artistic techniques, concepts and artists, and a special workshop for infants where babies aged six months to two years old can begin to discover interactive works.
The bookshop on the premises is a treasure island of exhibition catalogues, artist publications and works on art theory and philosophy. The art centre annually organises one of the biggest artists’ book fairs in Belgium, which presents artists, antiquarians, publishers and collectors from all over the world.
Apart from the parade of activities, you can also take a break in the main hall café, take a guided heritage tour, participate in workshops for adults led by organisations such as Lire et Écrire or a special workshop for local women in collaboration with neighbouring organisation Espace Femmes.
With its extraordinary array of activities and exhibitions, WIELS is well worth a visit to get a dose of contemporary art and cultural heritage in one go.

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