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Why Antwerp is an artistic hotspot according to NY Times

Antwerp – Flanders’ largest city – is not just home to Europe’s 2nd-busiest seaport and  the world’s 2nd-largest chemical cluster . The Diamond City on the Scheldt river has also been a beacon of art and fashion since the early 1500s. Its Royal Academy of Fine Arts has even been praised as “the incubator for the contemporary avant-garde” by New York Times journalist Alice Newell-Hanson. Below is a short and sweet summary of her main proof points.  


Antwerp's art community is backed by a rich cultural history

In the early 1500s, Antwerp briefly became one of the Western World’s main trade centers. “Up to 40% of the globe’s trade passed through Antwerp’s port, and along with silk from Turkey, peppercorns and diamonds from Africa and silver from America came immigrants and new ideas,” Newell-Hanson points out in her T Magazine article. “Although this golden age was short lived, it forged the city’s rich and enduring cultural life. The economic boom created a market for art, allowing for printing shops, coffee houses and guilds to form.”  

It’s in this historic yet dynamic context that Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts came into being. Established in 1663 by David Teniers the Younger (painter to the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm and Don Juan of Austria), the academy is one of the oldest of its kind in Europe. “Its alumni, ranging from Vincent van Gogh (1885-86) to fashion designer Demna Gvasalia (2002-06), have continued to shape the world’s culture,” Newell-Hanson continues.  

Even as a city, Antwerp remains a highly connected "village"

To this day, Antwerp is a major economic hub thanks to the city’s sea-connected port, chemical cluster, diamond trade and various other internationally oriented business activities. However, it never became a metropolis like its nearby neighbors, London and Paris. Instead, the atmosphere in the city of Antwerp remains that of “a sort of village” where “a lot of people are working together”, as Newell-Hanson points out by quoting famous locals such as artist Luc Tuymans and fashion designer Dries Van Noten – both Royal Academy alumni.  

“This collaborative spirit,” Newell-Hanson adds, “as well as the competition inherent in a close-knit community, is what enabled the designers known as the Antwerp Six – i.e. Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk van Saene, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee – along with fellow alumnus Martin Margiela, to transform Antwerp into a capital of intellectual, unconventional fashion.”  

Antwerp's mercantile and artistic communities come together

Another reason why Antwerp’s cultural scene flourishes resides in the way the worlds of business and art seamlessly come together and find one another in the city. Indeed, “Antwerp’s mercantile and artistic communities have converged in its social life,” Newell-Hanson indicates. “In the 1980s, for example, the city’s abundant warehouses helped cultivate a thriving underground scene.”  

The New York Times journalist further illustrates Antwerp’s “historic marriage of art and commerce” through a series of entertaining yet insightful anecdotes shared by artists such as Ann Demeulemeester, Luc Tuymans, Kati Heck and various others. These stories lead Newell-Hanson to conclude: “For a city whose culture has depended on trade since its inception, on an openness to whatever innovation comes through its docks, the burden of tradition is less stifling in Antwerp than it might be for young artists in less changeable cities. While there is an artistic legacy, there is also a desire for knowledge that is outward-facing rather than self-contented.”  

More info

Royal Academy of Fine Arts AntwerpPort of Antwerp
Reported by
Website New York Times
15 May 2020

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