September 30, 2011 5:32 pm

Booming London

The city has become a magnet for collectors. A spate of openings shows the UK gallery scene in rude health

As a double-dip recession looms, London’s contemporary and modern commercial gallery scene thrives, with a raft of new openings and expansions this autumn. London and New York remain the pre-eminent centres for art – but why is London now apparently in such rude health, and will a bust follow the mini-boom?

The city became a magnet in the last decade for collectors from emerging markets such as Russia, the Middle East and India. New York-based art adviser Lisa Schiff also emphasises that the best way of connecting with Turkish, Israeli and Lebanese collectors is via London. Nor is London’s standing lost on Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery, a veteran New York dealer; Pace’s decision to open an office in Soho this month is a hot art world topic. “London is a powerful international hub, both for artists and for the art and business worlds,” says Glimcher.

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Another reason for crossing the Atlantic, he says, is that several Pace artists including Alexander Calder, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning have “not had representation in London until now”. Pace, which will show a rotating selection of works in its new office space, plans to open a larger gallery in Mayfair next year. Unconfirmed speculation also continues to swirl that Manhattan dealer David Zwirner will open a branch in the British capital.

In another key move, White Cube will open its third London space, in Bermondsey, with three exhibition areas and private viewing rooms, during Frieze Art Fair week. The 58,000-sq ft venue signals serious empire-building, reflected also in the gallery’s plans to open a space in Hong Kong in 2012, its first overseas enterprise.

The art world is increasingly looking to China as the promised land but China’s trade surplus is sending jitters among London’s art market movers. On the Chinese issue, dealer Thomas Dane says: “We’ll stick with the market we know.” An understated powerhouse of the London art scene, Dane is also beefing up. Since opening in St James’s in 2004, he has built up a stable of premier league artists such as Steve McQueen, Kutlug Ataman and Paul Pfeiffer. Now the gallery is expanding into a new 2,500-sq ft space, in a prime spot across the road from Christie’s. The striking second gallery, which will house a viewing room and ground-floor exhibition space for large-scale moving-image works, launches during Frieze week with a show of works by German Albert Oehlen (October 11-November 19).

Dane comments that he enjoys working with mid-generation artists, such as New York-born Glenn Ligon, who are “not market-oriented” though adds that “my artists don’t produce much work so we can struggle to fulfil demand”.

Pilar Ordovas, who previously worked at Christie’s, is making her presence felt too, with a new 2,000-sq ft venue on Savile Row set to host a non-selling show devoted to the aesthetic dialogue between Francis Bacon and Rembrandt (October 7-December 16). Ordovas says she is committed to a historic museum-quality exhibition programme, offering also a private space for selling 20th-century and contemporary art in the secondary (resale) market. Savile Row is now a key art thoroughfare with established dealers Amalia Dayan and Daniella Luxembourg launching their new space on the Mayfair street early in October.

How major galleries approach the primary and secondary markets is a point of debate. “With galleries like Gagosian expanding globally, it behoves other galleries to compete with Larry [Gagosian] for market share, both primary and secondary,” says Schiff. “If some of the other heavyweights such as Pace and Zwirner don’t expand into a city such as London, they could lose artists and resale opportunities to Gagosian within this region.” Schiff adds that a robust secondary market sector helps galleries compete with auction houses.

New dealers, meanwhile, detail why they’ve set up shop in London. “Hong Kong is a money centre, though less an artistic one. This is a blue-chip art economy,” says Ian Rosenfeld, co-director of the newly opened 3,000-sq ft Rosenfeld Porcini gallery in Fitzrovia, which aims to bring unknown international artists to the UK.

Shizaru, a fledgling contemporary art gallery on Mount Street, Mayfair, stresses that it is attracting interest from Middle Eastern, south Asian and Latin American buyers. Founded by the three sons of the London-based Iranian property developer Nasser David Khalili, the 3,500-sq ft gallery will show work in all disciplines, including sculpture, furniture, jewellery and fashion.

The most refreshing take on the new art order, meanwhile, comes from Jack Bell, who recently opened a new 720-sq ft space in Mason’s Yard, opposite White Cube, devoted to contemporary African art. “I think the current climate is unique in that astute collectors are given the chance to get the next Chris Ofili without having to mortgage the house,” he observes.

Surprisingly, there have been very few gallery closures in London in recent years, unlike the 2009 New York rout when at least 30 spaces shut down. US art adviser Allan Schwartzman recently told The Art Newspaper: “What has been validated in the last few rounds of uncertainty is that art is a genuine form of capital.” Ordovas agrees, saying that “through times of uncertainty we have seen the demand for the very best works of art continue to grow”.

Paucity of high-quality material and a “flight to quality” are indeed symptomatic of a downturn, notes Harry Blain, co-founder of Blain Southern gallery, which is set to open a third space in the capital next autumn in Hanover Square. Speculators have, in the main, been flushed out. “What has stopped are certain individuals buying purely to sell within the next calendar year,” says Matt Carey-Williams, international director of Haunch of Venison.

How a key collector views the new landscape is crucial: Scottish property investor David Roberts, who plans to open a non-profit exhibition space in north London next year, says: “In the next 12 to 18 months, the UK economy will be governed by low interest rates. In that environment, many people will be happy to trade in art, it’ll be a solid investment like gold.” Roberts has recently bought works by Gavin Turk, Rodney Graham and Matthew Day Jackson. Only blue-chip material is a possible buffer against inflation, he adds. The biggest test? Come back and see how the London land lies in 18 months’ time.

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