faces to watch in the arts world 1. Stephen Friedman

Stephen Friedman bought his first work of art at the age of 13. Now at 31, he has opened his first London gallery, bringing a new generation of artists to the West End. And that's just the beginning.

Art dealers, with a few exceptions, are often more megalomaniacal, awkward and difficult than the artists they represent. Stephen Friedman, an urbane young Canadian, who opened his immaculate Old Burlington Street premises last week, after months of art-world speculation and rumour, seems friendly enough. No hard sell, no hype and none of that familiar snottiness to which gallerists are prone. He displays no discernible sociopathic symptoms.

Friedman caught the art bug early - blaming his antique dealer mother in Montreal - and boasts that he bought his first work at auction at the age of 13, watching his investment rise in value as he grew. He's no sentimentalist - "this," he says, "is a business" - but he won't be selling his prized possession.

Friedman stalled out as a marketing man for TDK electronics, jumped ship and worked for Christie's in London for five years before deciding to turn dealer. He had a game-plan, patrolled the international art fairs, got himself on to the panel of the Tate's Patrons of New Art committee, built up contacts and has opened just when London, he believes, is beginning to consolidate itself as the main focus for the European art market. Since the 1980s crash, London has vied for the position of Europe's art capital: Paris hasn't enough good indigenous art, Cologne's liveliness has palled, and Madrid, though beautiful, is on the way to nowhere.The importance of London, Friedman believes, is due in part to the current international enthusiasm for young British art, and in part to the presence of the major auction houses.

Asked about whom he intends to show, Friedman is cagey. He mentions names, retracts them, keeps mum on which of the emerging younger British artists he's set his sights on - maybe he wants to surprise us, and his colleagues, with his acumen. Instead, he talks of unknown Americans, the septuagenarian Canadian Betty Goodwin, a glass-blowing conceptualist called Josia McElheny, and Tom Friedman (no relation), a photographer currently exhibiting in New York's Museum of Modern Art. All of whom are unknown in Britain.

The buoyant Friedman, who would like to see more co-operation within the art world and a more informed British audience for art, could have a tough job. He is interested in setting up a proper international art fair here, in collaboration with the other serious galleries. London's previous attempts, at Olympia and the Business Design Centre in Islington, have been amateurish fiascos.

"The Tate came, Nick Serota came, everyone came," Friedman said, to his opening lunch, where guests were surrounded by Anya Gallachio's work, a gigantic daisy-chain of wilting flowers. Some of the dealers, apparently, looked a bit paranoid. But then many of them do, most of the time. As Gallachio's flowers fade, will Friedman's optimism fade with it? Let's hope not.

n Stephen Friedman Gallery, 25-28 Old Burlington St, London W1 (0171- 494 1434)

ADRIAN SEARLE

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