S.M.A.K. owns one of the most important collections of contemporary art in Western Europe. The collection is unique and has an international reputation, with local art being set in the context of international developments since 1945. In addition to a number of prominent movements such as Cobra, Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art and Arte Povera, many of the artists represented have in the meantime come to assume definitive international status. The collection includes works both by internationally renowned artists like Joseph Beuys, David Hammons, Thomas Schütte and Juan Muñoz, and by major Belgian artists like Panamarenko, Marcel Broodthaers, Thierry De Cordier and Luc Tuymans. The museum's radically contemporary acquisition policy additionally means that lesser known young artists are also represented in the collection.
S.M.A.K. constantly pursues a dynamic interaction between the permanent collection and the temporary exhibitions. Different works from the permanent collection are displayed to relate to the exhibitions currently running. This enables them to enter into a dialogue with the works that are only there for a short time. This dialogue generates new interpretations of the works.
The collection concentrates on international developments in art after 1945 and locates the art of the region within these. The core of this collection has by now become hallowed. Post-war art is displayed in a Cobra collection, with as its star attractions Karel Appel’s Barbaric Nude and Blue Nude, and Asger Jorn’s Verlust der Mitte. This core of paintings is reinforced by works such as Francis Bacon’s Cardinal, Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, and by works related to pop art such as David Hockney’s early Man Stood in Front of his House with Rain Descending (the Idiot) and Jim Dine’s Two Hearts (Opera). The 1960s are represented by Andy Warhol, via Christo to Arman, Cesar and the decollagists. In each case the developments are also in the company of important Belgian artists of the period: Pierre Alechinsky, Gaston Bertrand, Roel d’Haese, Roger Raveel, Henri Michaux, Antoine Mortier, Engelbert Van Anderlecht and others.
The museum also displays the important trends of the developments of the late 1960s and 1970s which are now becoming classical. Among representatives of Minimal Art are Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. For Conceptual Art Robert Barry, Bernhard and Hilla Becher, Stanley Brouwn, Hanne Darboven, Hans Haacke, Gilbert & George, Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth. Arte povera forms a central area within the collection. There is a full survey of it with ensembles of major works of all the important artists: Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Yannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio.
Among work by Joseph Beuys is one of his key productions, the installation Wirtschaftswerte. There is a large ensemble of Panamarenko together with some early work: two aeroplanes and the Aeromodeller. Marcel Broodthaers (Miroir d’epoque regency and 289 Coquilles d’Oeufs), Gerhard Richter (Pyramide, 1966), Richard Long (Driftwood Line, 1977), Barry Flanagan (Light on Light on Sacks, 1969, and Untitled, 1980), Ulrich Rückriem (Doppelstück, 1977), Bruce Nauman (Drawing for Cast Iron Structure), they are all there.
The museum collection does not end with these artists. The museum implements a regular acquisitions policy so that it can also show René Daniels, Thierry De Cordier. Wim Delvoye, Jimmie Durham, Jan Fabre, Mike Kelley, Juan Munoz, Cady Noland, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Schütte, Luc Tuymans, Jan Vercruysse and others, in each case with different works, sometimes full ensembles of these artists who meanwhile are becoming international reference points for recent developments.