Snap judgment

“London, for us, is an expansion,” says Camilla Grimaldi, a young Italian art dealer, as she sits opposite me at Browns in Mayfair, a couple of minutes’ walk from the gallery space she and her business partner Isabella Brancolini will open on Friday. Brancolini studies me intently as Grimaldi talks; stylish in a beige shift dress and white fishnet tights, everything about Brancolini is deliberate yet nothing is forced.

Things are moving fast for the pair, though neither is showing signs of weariness (Grimaldi’s blouse, slightly creased, is the only clue that she has just flown in from Rome). But they must be used to change. Within four years of finishing university, Grimaldi had worked for the contemporary art department of Christie’s in New York, won a scholarship to the Venice Guggenheim, risen through the ranks at London’s White Cube gallery and assisted the Milanese dealer Claudia Gian Ferrari.

Brancolini’s CV is similarly impressive. She opened her first gallery, Arte e Personae, in Florence in 1997, and her second in 2002, showing photography and contemporary art. In 2004 she met Grimaldi through an art dealer friend in Milan, and the duo set up the Brancolini Grimaldi Arte Contemporanea in Florence, opening a second branch in Rome the following year. London is their latest move.

But why London? “This space is a great window for our collection. And photography is growing in London,” says Grimaldi.

Many would say the photography scene in London lags behind that in, say, Paris. The British capital has no equivalent of Paris Photo, the world’s most important photography fair, and no national museum for photographs. And some would argue that even those commercial galleries dedicated to the medium tend to show safe rather than cutting-edge work – classics such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, for instance.

“In New York, there are hundreds of photography galleries and in Paris there are around 50, but here in London there are not that many,” admits Brancolini. “It is a very, very young market.”

“But there are strong public institutions here that deal a lot with photography,” adds Grimaldi (they have a nifty way of between them covering all angles). “Just think of Tate Modern, with the curator of photography.”

That position is fairly recent, I point out. (Simon Baker, Tate Modern’s first curator of photography, was appointed in late 2009.) “It’s very recent, yes, but it has happened. We hope we are here at the right moment. It’s now that we want to expand; it’s the right moment for us too.”

They tell me their London gallery will become their main space, and they’ll spend most of their time here. “In Rome,” says Grimaldi, “there is the new MAXXI museum, new galleries are opening, and there is change, but,” she pauses, and a pained look falls across her face, “the government doesn’t support it. There are very important private collectors – in Torino, in Milano – the private scene is active, but in the museums there is still a lot to do.” She lets out a sigh.

Do they have a vision for their new gallery? “We’re not dealing with vintage photography, we’re not dealing with fashion photography – so we have a very specific direction,” Brancolini gently corrects my initial choice of word. “We are using the medium of photography in different ways. We feel there is space for that in London. For many years photography has been fine art or photojournalism but photography is more than that. Photography can be video and it can be installation; it’s integrated in contemporary art.”

Their inaugural exhibition – still to be installed when I visited the gallery, a light-filled, first floor space on Albemarle Street – will present the work of contemporary French photographer Marie Amar alongside sculptures by the Italian arte povera artist Pino Pascali, who died in 1968 aged just 32.

Amar’s “La Poussière” is a series of pictures taken of dust sculptures made out of thin layers of lint from the insides of washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Brancolini and Grimaldi have decided to display the sculptures themselves “like the real maquettes” alongside Amar’s photographs – not just to show the process but “because they are the work itself”.

“If you are far away you can’t understand what’s going on,” says Grimaldi of “La Poussière”. “What is it? It looks like an abstract painting, an Abstract Expressionist, almost like a Rothko. Then when you get near to it you can see a hair, a piece of dust, a piece of cotton.”

Beside Amar’s work are three of Pascali’s 1966-68 “Bachi da Setola” sculptures, made of colourful, tightly coiled lengths of acrylic brush. The name means literally “bristle worms”, a play on seta, the Italian for silk. Pascali often worked with the materials newly available in Italy’s industrial boom of the 1960s; Amar, 50 years later, deals in their by-products, their waste. “That’s the dialogue,” explains Brancolini, “it’s all about materia.”

With such emphasis on the sculptural potential of photographs, I ask whether they think of their gallery as a photography gallery at all. “Not in the way photography has traditionally been seen,” Brancolini answers, choosing her words carefully, “not just a frame on the wall.” She cites the gallery’s second exhibition, scheduled to open late in May, which will show the work of British artist Clare Strand, including “Ten Least Most Wanted”, a series of snapshots taken from her scrapbooks, each set in between two pieces of glass and displayed together in a cabinet. “We will sell the whole thing. Photography can become sculpture,” Brancolini insists.

They are keen to be seen as daring in their choices as art dealers. “It’s about being courageous, about showing something which is difficult to sell. Some of the work we show is not easy,” says Brancolini before conceding: “Our London space will be for new and established artists – but the ‘new’, well, in some ways they are not that new.” The Italian photographer Massimo Vitali, whose work the gallery will show later in the year, has a print of “Nice, Negresco” (2005) for auction at Phillips de Pury in New York on April 9, estimated at an impressive $35,000-$45,000.

Do you ever disagree? I ask, searching their expressions for a telling flicker of animosity. “No!” they laugh. “I know it seems very strange,” admits Grimaldi, “I’m trying to think but ... no!” She cannot recall an argument. “We try to plan, we discuss and we look at a lot of pieces together. There is a lot of sharing, and an understanding of why we are going in a certain direction. It’s very open.”

If they haven’t had it yet, I think it unlikely they will have their first fight in my presence.

‘Marie Amar & Pino Pascali’, Brancolini Grimaldi, London, from April 8 to May 21

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