Embattled London Art Market Has Become a Testing Ground for New Gallery Models
“How’s London?” an American gallerist asked me over the summer. He was preparing for his umpteenth Frieze and I could hear he wanted good news. I hesitated to answer that London was more depressed that I’d ever known it in my 12 years in the U.K. From across the pond, the issue of Brexit can seem parochial—particularly in light of persistent political turmoil in the U.S.—but its impact could be felt worldwide.
Yet if you look at the London art world hard enough there are signs that the primary market has yet to lose its oomph. Frieze Week will usher in a fresh crop of new spaces to the capital, set up by galleries either moving in or consolidating their London presence. There’s a genuine feeling among the contemporary art crowd that people are rallying together to protest what can feel like madness all around. Brexiteers might accuse them of being a “liberal elite” preaching to the converted, but Londoners won’t let go.
At a national level, outside the art world’s bubble, the picture is grim. The delusion and arrogance of the British officials in charge of negotiating with the EU would be comical if they weren’t seriously risking the prospects of an entire nation. Hate crimes have increased by over 200 percent since the referendum. When we thought the tabloids couldn’t possibly get worse, they are now overtly “policing” the democratic process, labeling, for instance, High Court judges “Enemies of the People” when they ruled that only Parliament was able to trigger Article 50. European nationals like myself are getting used to being asked routinely if they’re going to get kicked out.
Banks decamping to the EU could seriously weaken London’s position as a financial center, a position key to its art-world stature. And as investors wait for developments in the Brexit negotiations to back the pound, the currency has fallen to an eight-year low against the euro. A weak British pound might be good for buyers of art, real estate, and other commodities from overseas, but for Londoners the city is still eye-wateringly expensive. Artists, curators, and their ilk are starting to wonder if it’s all really worth it—and are increasingly considering Brussels, Lisbon, and Prague as viable alternatives.
Brexit cannot be blamed for the string of recent gallery closures, among them Laura Bartlett and Wilkinson. But it certainly doesn’t breed confidence, and its effects on the art economy, which remains fragile at the lower end of the market, are still largely unknown. Yet London, ever multicultural and pragmatic, is clearly determined to fight the nationalist tendencies gripping much of the country and to maintain its prime spot on the global business map.
Last April, Frieze entered the political fray. Hoping to assuage its exhibitors’ concerns over the U.K. exiting the EU, fair management sent a set of recommendations to Britain’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and to the Creative Industries Federation. Recommendations included the maintenance of the Temporary Admission policy (which allows artworks imported on a temporary basis to be tax-exempt) and of the freedom of movement for people, augmented, if needed, by “a specialist category providing artists and art workers fast-track entry for specific events.” Freedom of movement has been a particularly sore point in the Brexit talks, which have continued in Brussels this week. As the fair opens the doors of its 15th edition on October 4th, government reassurances on this or any other points are still a long way away.
Galleries aren’t waiting around to see what happens. The Berlin mainstay König Galerie opens a 3,750-square foot London space in a former Marylebone car park on Thursday; it’s perhaps the most highly anticipated event this season. The gallery-cum-shop, König Archiv & Souvenir, will feature artworks including Julian Rosefeldt’s filmic investigation of Germany’s past Deep Gold (2013–14), as well as books, “wearables,” and merch. According to London director Zhoe Granger, formerly of Arcadia Missa, the gallery saw Brexit as a potential opportunity.
“Despite being adverse to the decision politically, I feel that Brexit is propelling the art world forward with a new sense of anticipation, maybe giving it the kick that it needed in the U.K.,” she says. “Any time of political unrest always breeds powerful emotion and therefore interesting artwork.”
Sprüth Magers’s London director Andreas Gegner says he’s also certain that Brexit won’t throw the London art world off pace. “London has worked its way up to be on a par with New York over the past decade, becoming the primary hub for the art market this side of the Atlantic,” he says. “The reasons for London’s rise were varied and lay beyond the benefits of its EU membership. Brexit won’t put an end to it.”
The German gallery has just strengthened its position in the capital, refurbishing its Grafton Street home. The elegant 18th-century mansion has doubled its exhibition space, which now spreads over two floors, and boasts another new, six-meter-high gallery in the basement. The choice of YBA Gary Hume (who left his alma mater White Cube a couple of years ago) for the opening show is meant as further proof of the gallery’s commitment to British culture.
Several homegrown galleries, big and small, are also making strides, and London’s gallery map is shifting. While Mayfair and the East End remain the two main hubs, dealers appear increasingly keen to explore other areas. The idea that you had to be within one mile of Claridge’s to do serious business is beginning to lose sway.
Project Native Informant founder Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja has swapped his former garage behind London’s iconic luxury hotel for a recently converted high-rise in the City, an area which until now has had virtually no galleries. “Audiences in London are adventurous and willing to come to new destinations if they feel a strong incentive,” says the dealer, who is currently showing new work by rising star Juliana Huxtable. Dublin gallery Mother’s Tankstation will be joining PNI next week, opening a yearlong project space in the same building with a solo show by Yuri Pattison.
Artist Ed Fornieles, who has been strongly associated with the “post-internet” generation, has just resettled in the capital after a four-year stint abroad. Brexit and the subsequent marginal dip in Central London prices, Fornieles says, allowed him to secure a live/work space in Soho, which he intends to turn it into a “meeting place,” renewing with London’s tradition of artist-run-spaces.The Studio, as he’s dubbed the space, will officially open during Frieze Week with a two-day summit bringing together artists and Live Action Role Play practitioners.
“London has an intensity, an overflow of human beings, so it’s very useful and nurturing for the production of works,” he says.
Meanwhile, East End torchbearer Herald St has inaugurated a new space in Bloomsbury, a stone’s throw from the British Museum, with an exhibition by sculptor Michael Dean. The Sunday Painter has left the South London district of Peckham—something most of us would have thought unthinkable—and graduated to Vauxhall, joining Cabinet, Corvi-Mora, non-profit space Gasworks, and Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery.
This spurt of new openings shouldn’t overshadow the acute and well-identified problems many galleries are facing—issues that predate Brexit and afflict the art world internationally. Yet it suggests a spirit of experimentation particularly welcome in these dark times, a spirit to which established operations are also contributing. Both The Approach and Blain|Southern are launching project spaces: The Approach Annex will open with a display of works by Lisa Oppenheim and John Stezaker, while art critic Tom Morton leads Blain|Southern’s year-long curatorial experiment, Lodger.
This might be a case of adapt or die. Following the recent spate of gallery closures in London and New York, galleries are becoming increasingly aware that, in such a fiercely competitive environment, sticking to what they know is no longer enough. Head-scratching abounds about new gallery models, particularly those which could bypass crippling real estate costs.
The team behind the new venture Cromwell Place believes it has cracked that nut. Located in five period townhouses in the heart of London’s Museum quarter in South Kensington, the art hub will function as a WeWork-style members’ club when it opens in autumn 2019. Membership, which entails a £4,000 ($5,391) initiation fee will give galleries access to art spaces, including 25 offices and 16 exhibition halls of various sizes, charged on a pay-per-use basis. Services such as installation, shipping, and the marketing of members’ shows, will be pooled and managed on site.
The concept of a purpose-built gallery hub is not new. H Queen’s, which will soon host David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth in Hong Kong, is a key example. But Cromwell Place, which cost £20 million ($26.7 million) to build, claims to be the first art business to offer flexible work space to the art world. It targets both out-of-town galleries looking to pop up in the capital, small and mid-size operations looking for alternatives to bricks-and-mortar, as well as fledgling businesses.
“The world is changing,” says Cromwell Place’s creative director, John Martin. “People don’t want huge financial burdens on their shoulders; they want to be nimble.”
The model encourages galleries to function like dealerships, staging shows as and when they need it. It also puts pressure on art fairs like Art Basel, which still insist that exhibitors have a permanent exhibition space. Martin says that this requirement was reasonable to expect of galleries 15 or 20 years ago.
“Now I don’t think it’s defensible,” he says. “I think it will change.”
The list of Cromwell Place galleries is yet to be announced, and it remains to be seen whether collectors will buy into the idea of their galleries becoming ad hoc showrooms. But if successful, Cromwell Place’s model could easily be scaled to other major and emerging art capitals and could bring significant changes to the nature of the business and the way art is consumed.
So, how’s London? It’s embattled, yes, but it’s not giving up. Londoners’ profoundly global outlook, can-do attitude, and ingrained business knowhow continue to thrive. I’ll never call Brexit an opportunity. It’s a fiasco brought in by petty political calculations, lies, and fear, and an insult to the 3.6 million European nationals that have chosen to call Britain home. But it’s forced all of us to choose our camp, and Londoners’ position is clear. Mayor Sadiq Khan’s post-Brexit campaign couldn’t have been more on point: #londonisopen.