Walking into a prestigious central London art gallery may be off-putting. But a new initiative is set to change perceptions of London’s historic art hub centred in Mayfair and St James’s. Brown’s London Art Weekend, spearheaded by local dealers John Martin and Johnny Messum, will include free talks and tours across 80 galleries and auction houses when it debuts next month. Volunteers will be on hand to guide art novices and connoisseurs around the area’s myriad art emporiums, which range from antiquities dealerships to contemporary spaces, in a friendly environment that is less frantic than an art fair.
The project is itself a part of London Art Week (LAW), launched last year as a platform to unite what were previously known as Master Drawings and Sculpture Week and Master Paintings Week, with some 50 specialist dealers across the fine art disciplines and three London auction houses taking part. Brown’s Art Weekend extends further, into modern and contemporary art, and springs from meetings held at Brown’s Hotel in Albemarle Street at which key local dealers aired their concerns about rising rents and redevelopment in the area.
“It was initially a loose organisation to plan a series of weekly Saturday art tours for Brown’s guests, but it proved a useful opportunity to discuss issues we were all facing – mainly the rent reviews which were taking their toll on galleries,” Martin says.
He hopes that the Art Weekend will demonstrate to local authorities, landlords and property developers “how fundamental the art market is to Mayfair’s heritage and to its future”. Westminster Council is considering making Mayfair a Special Policy Area, which would offer a degree of financial protection for existing galleries.
London is the latest in a long line of cities determined to boost its credentials as an art capital through dedicated events. Gallery weekends, and more ambitious Art Week initiatives, have sprung up worldwide in centres such as Brussels, Stockholm, Warsaw, Vienna and Singapore. (Istanbul has not joined the circuit, after attempts to establish a gallery event coinciding with the Contemporary Istanbul fair held in November foundered.) Most are driven by the commercial sector, although museum exhibitions can also be part of the package.
How these citywide art bonanzas complement or clash with art fairs is a hot topic. “While art fairs allow galleries the chance to counter the auctions, fairs are also pulling focus away from the galleries themselves. Dealers feel the need to create events to attract more people, and a carefully marketed Gallery Week is one way of doing this,” says Charlotte Burns of The Art Newspaper.
These events present prime public relations and branding opportunities. Singapore Art Week only launched early last year, but highlights already include private-sector initiatives and Art-In-Motion, a gallery walk presented by the Gallery Association of Singapore. “[There are] a plethora of art gallery showcases and the late-night festivities at Gillman Barracks, an arts enclave of international galleries,” says Carrie Kwik of Singapore Tourism Board.
One of the first such collaborative cultural and business models was the “Cologne Show” of 1990, for which nine local galleries clubbed together in the German city. “Organised independently of any institution, the [joint] exhibition showed new art by both European and American artists,” says a spokesman for Max Hetzler Gallery, a show participant.
Today, leading art world gatherings include Gallery Weekend Berlin, which celebrated its 10th edition last month, and Zurich Contemporary Art Weekend (June 14-15). The Swiss event, now in its ninth year, is split into clearly delineated neighbourhoods, with at least 35 galleries taking part. Beatrix Ruf, director of the Kunsthalle Zurich, says: “[The weekend] complements Art Basel. This is all about content and the fabric of Swiss contemporary art.” The London-based dealer Victoria Miro has cannily seen the potential of the project, and how Zurich becomes a magnet for important collectors and curators on the eve of Art Basel. Miro’s gallery has a one-off show of works by three artists – Idris Khan, Yayoi Kusama and Conrad Shawcross – in the 19th-century Schloss Sihlberg (until June 22). “The entire art world seems to be there; the appetite for art is enormous,” says gallery director Glenn Scott Wright.
The Berlin event began in 2005 with 20 galleries; today, it includes 50 dealers and has spawned some 500 parallel events across the city. The Mitte district is still where many of the city’s premier-league galleries are located. In May, Sprüth Magers Gallery, for instance, presented an impressive triumvirate of shows, featuring works by the under-the-radar German artist Reinhard Mucha, Fischli/Weiss and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.
“Galleries organise museum-quality shows. With the young and more experimental galleries, it’s a very impressive mix,” says Berlin-based arts journalist Birgit Sonna. At the last edition, critics singled out a show of works by the “post-internet” artist Katja Novitskova at the Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler gallery in Mitte. Galleries are housed at such spectacular sites as a deconsecrated church (Johann König) and a power station (Galerie Neu).
In drawing a greater public keen to sample art trends alongside a more specialist crowd, Berlin appears to have achieved something exceptional. According to Maike Cruse, director of Berlin Gallery Weekend, more than 20,000 people visited the city’s galleries during the last edition. The event has a strong corporate element, with VIP cars and gala dinners catering for heavyweight guests. But the dearth of Berlin-based collectors reportedly caused concern among dealers at last year’s event.
Jochen Meyer of Meyer Rigger gallery, a member of the association of six galleries that govern the event, argues that even though a new generation of young collectors is increasingly engaging with the city’s art galleries, “we have to work constantly on keeping and making Berlin an interesting and exciting place for the international art world”. Sales, after all, are the bottom line.
The London event organisers will no doubt also look to New York. The entrenched gallery district of Chelsea in midtown Manhattan, and the Lower East Side gallery phalanx draw sizeable crowds at weekends. New York Gallery Week launched in 2010 with the aim of attracting larger audiences to the city’s contemporary galleries by emphasising the high quality of work on show for free, and creating a programme of special events. But the initiative folded after just two years when Frieze launched its New York art fair in 2012: New York Gallery Week morphed into a late-night event in Chelsea which takes place during Frieze New York.
Meanwhile, a press statement for the inaugural “Choices, Collectors’ Weekend” in Paris, which launched last month, trumpets that the 35-dealer event drew more “than 1,500 guests, with numerous [art world] professionals among them”.
The French capital’s art scene lags behind London and New York; this government-backed scheme should prove a fillip. Its founder, Marion Papillon, who runs the contemporary art dealership Claudine Papillon Galerie, echoes John Martin’s sentiments about the need for galleries to stick together, especially as art fairs and auction houses continue to grow.
“If the gallery system is to continue, we need to work together and maintain not only its reputation for quality and diversity but also that concentration in numbers. If Mayfair fragments and galleries spread outside the cluster, it will erode this essential aspect of its success,” Martin warns.
London Art Week runs July 4-11
Brown’s London Art Weekend runs July 5-6