Today's bright young dealers, however, are different. Today's London art world has no single geographical focus and, consequently, galleries have either migrated from the West End or vanished altogether. If you want to succeed, it's no longer where you show, but what you know. Today's contemporary specialist is a combination of agent and confidant, businessman and psychotherapist. Similarly, those who sell the art of the past must combine a level of scholarship worthy of academe with sparkling business acumen. Some of Britain's hottest young artists and finest old masters are handled by art history graduates. Yet the high-flyers interviewed here operate from tiny hidden gallery spaces, from an East End warehouse, from behind an entry-phone. Dealers' commissions may be the stuff of legend, but while reluctant to provide figures, all four claim only a modest annual turnover. They are not, they say, out to make millions. Rather, they have a genuine mission to enhance our understanding of art, in all its endless varieties.
THERE CAN be few better examples of art suited to its surroundings than the vast East End gallery space from which Rebecca Hicks (seated, above) and Jayne Purdy run their business. The gallery is hard to find, hidden in a maze of similar riverside warehouses, but, as with the contemporary British paintings in which they specialise, persistence has its rewards.
The gallery opened in 1987, but Hicks only joined Purdy three years ago. Today their artists include such established names as Gillian Ayres, rising stars as Estelle Thompson and respected figurative painters as Arturo di Stefano and Michael Porter. 'We're very close friends with all our artists,' says Hicks. 'The relationship between artist and dealer is the most important thing in running a gallery.'
Hicks, now 36, studied History of Art at the University of East Anglia and Oxford before working for the Marlborough Gallery and masterminding Bonham's innovative contemporary art sales. In a world where the traditional image of the dealer is West End-centred and male, the two women have successfully broken the mould on both counts. 'We don't feel hampered by being female,' says Hicks. 'I think people find it refreshing. They feel more relaxed.' The location of the gallery also does not seem to affect their business. 'We're prepared to drive people here ourselves if necessary. We find that people come here partly from word of mouth and partly from press coverage.'
Both dealers have a mission to promote contemporary British painting. They keep prices low, targeting the younger collector. 'Britain has some of the strongest painters in the world today. People should realise that.'
WHEN ANTHONY Mould enters a saleroom, auctioneers begin to sweat. His presence often portends a major discovery of something the other experts had missed. Mould's small West End office has the comfortable atmosphere of a gentleman's study - tattered oriental rugs and sofas and green walls hung with fine 18th-century paintings. It's something of a revelation to realise that they are not there solely for his own enjoyment, but on sale. At 39, Mould is principally known as the country's pre-eminent private dealer in important 18th-century portraits. If you want a Reynolds or a Gainsborough, this is the man to see.
Mould's career is founded on solid scholarship. Having read Art History at Cambridge, he studied French 17th-century painting at the Courtauld. He started dealing while he was still studying. 'It wasn't easy,' he remembers. 'It was difficult building up capital. Everything seemed to cost much more than the thing I'd just sold. But I've never had a huge capital base.' Nor has he ever felt the need for a gallery. 'It doesn't suit my style. I'm not a retail outlet.'
At any one time, however, Mould has some 50 pictures in his care and of these 10 will be being researched and probably two in the process of being sold. His buyers are '25 per cent museums, 25 per cent interior decorators'; the remainder British and American collectors. His turnover? 'I'd rather not say. But my average unit price is pounds 30,000 to pounds 40,000.' Unlike a contemporary dealer, Mould has the additional expense of maintaining his own research library and paying for the services of eight art restorers. But he does not spend anything on advertising. 'The pictures sell themselves. I'm breaking new ground all the time. It's very satisfying. I'm selling my own taste.'
IN A SUIT so sharp it would shame Chris Eubank, Jay Jopling sits in his minimal workspace and delivers an impassioned homily on the state of international contemporary art. He speaks with utter conviction and with a fluency that belies his 31 years. This man, who graduated in Art History from Edinburgh in 1986, is the country's most successful young dealer. Operating from 'White Cube', a tiny office / gallery in Duke Street, he handles the work of two artists who constantly engage the attention of the tabloid press: Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn (who attracted attention with a self-portrait head made in his own blood). These were the first artists he signed up from his Brixton home in 1988; since then, he has also taken on similarly unconventional young artists Marcus Taylor and Gavin Turk, graduating from temporary spaces to, last summer, this room in Duke Street - ironically, the heart of Old Master territory.
'White Cube' is 'a place of complete seclusion', says Jopling. 'You walk up and there's this immediate intense relationship between you and the work of art.' Jopling believes this intensity characterises the work of all his artists, from Hirst, through Japanese photographers and young New York artists, to his latest signing, the distinguished sculptor Anthony Gormley: 'It's an eclectic mix, based upon a degree of quality rather than on one specific style.' Undeniably, though, it's very different to the sort of work that the British public would expect to see in St James's and this shows in his buyers. 'Eighty per cent of the art we sell goes to the States, Germany or Switzerland. It's a great sadness that there are so few collectors of the contemporary avant-garde in this country and so few critics who support it. The audience here is predominantly young.'
Jopling finds that buyers come to him. He only has to advertise in the cutting edge art house magazine Frieze and attend the occasional continental art fair. The work sells, he believes, because British artists are among the most exciting in the world. 'There's a vast amount of creative energy and talent and, as a dealer, I have a responsibility for that.' It sounds a little self-righteous and, taken with the unavailability of his annual turnover, would incur scepticism, were it not for Jopling's earnest belief in the worth of the art he promotes: 'I have a responsibility to the public. I've got to be sure, and I am, that the work I'm selling now will still be valid in 40 years time.'
KARSTEN SCHUBERT is getting ready for a show. Even in jeans and an open-necked shirt he looks impeccably neat, as he supervises a team of assistants. Quite what they can do, though, with his small, permanently white, first-floor room in Foley Street is open to question. Schubert, now 32, grew up in Berlin, 'close to the big museum'. Having studied History of Art, a career in the art world seemed natural and it 'had to be' as a dealer. The gallery, he feels, is 'where proposals are first made. To work as a curator or a critic is to be always responding to other peoples' choices.'
After three years working with Nicholas Logsdail, Schubert opened his own gallery in Charlotte Street in 1987 and moved around the corner to his present premises last year. He thinks he has found the perfect space: 'It's just right for the 1990s. The ideal size. I can show three or four works at their very best and that's all you need. The artists must adapt to this space. If they can't, it's just too bad.'
Schubert handles only eight artists: from the Turner prize-winner Rachel Whiteread and Op legend Bridget Riley, to the young conceptual mavericks Angus Fairhurst, Anya Gallacio, Alison Wilding and Keith Coventry. 'They all deal with contemporary issues in an eloquent way which implies that they'll be historically very important.'
Although he is currently most concerned with persuading museums to buy his artists' work for their collections, Schubert's usual clientele consists of foreign collectors. 'There aren't enough collectors of contemporary art in London.' he says. 'I rely on people from Germany, Switzerland and France, the occasional Japanese and American; people who are curious about what's happening in their own time. This country is very backward-looking. The 18th century is closed, but contemporary art is still open to debate and revision.'
Schubert does not see his fellow contemporary dealers as competitive. Rather they complement each other. It's about intellectual satisfaction.' Schubert does not make a fortune. Turnover is 'under half a million a year'. And, while he is no philanthropist, he does believe that he has a responsibility to his artists as 'a mixture of nanny, accountant and psychiatrist. It's exciting. I feel I'm close to really amazing things which I believe will become very important. It's all about being the first to realise that something is that important.'
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