Jeremy Epstein always knew he wanted to work in the art world. "It was in my mind from an early age," says the 28-year-old, who had a part-time job at Tate Modern as a schoolboy then studied for a Masters at the Courtauld Institute before starting his career as a gallerist. That's the term now widely used to describe entrepreneurs who represent artists as agents, stage exhibitions of their work in their "spaces", and nurture their talent as attentively as if they were coaching footballers for the Premier League.
As co-director of Edel Assanti, one of London's most hotly tipped dealers in contemporary art, Epstein is one of the younger generation of gallerists helping to make the city's art scene swing. And this is the biggest week in their calendar, as artists, dealers and collectors fly into the capital – which now vies with New York as the centre of the art market – to attend Frieze, the 11th edition of the annual art fair in Regent's Park at which works by Old Masters, established artists and cutting-edge names are on sale.
With this event in mind, the timing seemed right to quiz the stars of this new generation of gallerists to find out what makes them tick. In many ways, their working methods would be recognisable to Daniel Kahnweiler, the astute Paris dealer who spotted the Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque more than 100 years ago, created an aura of desirability around them and made both his own name and those of his artists in the process. "It never ceases to surprise me," says Melanie Gerlis, art-market editor for the Art Newspaper, "how little has changed in that time."
The basic requirements remain the same: you need art and you need a space from which to sell it. There are plenty of budding Damien Hirsts to supply the former, although it's clearly a skill to spot such a prodigy; as for the latter, "You can do it from your front-room," points out Rebecca May Marston of Limoncello gallery. Indeed, Hannah Barry, the most high-profile of the young generation of London dealers, started by staging shows in a Peckham squat.
The business arrangement between artist and dealer is also little changed. Most representation is sealed on a handshake and, although k the details of such agreements are rarely revealed, Gerlis says a 50/50 split on the selling price "is the usual rule of thumb".
But there the similarities end. Whereas in the past dealers were often salesmen with an eye on the main chance, today's young gallerists have been immersed in the world of art from an early age. All of the people interviewed for this piece have a training in art history; one – May Marston – took a postgraduate course in curating; and two – Epstein and Phillida Reid – worked in blue-chip galleries before they set up. This is the first generation for whom being a gallerist is a profession.
This is also the first generation of gallerists to have grown up in the age of the art fair. These commercial behemoths now take place annually in practically every major world city, with key events in Hong Kong, Miami, New York, Basel and London. And it is these fairs which threaten the future of the gallery as we know it: if dealers can simply travel from fair to fair and sell their wares, the argument goes, who needs the headache or overheads of running a permanent exhibition space? However, the majority of the gallerists we spoke to are adamant that the fair can never replace the role of the gallery because, as Epstein puts it, "The gallery is where the risk-taking still happens."
And here lies the crux. It is the intangible nature of the product that sets the art market apart from every other trade. What gallerists are cultivating is that magical process by which artists express the human condition through visual representation. It's hard to put a value on that: £1,000 or £10m a piece? There's no clear answer. But what is certain is that all the gallerists on these pages see the future of their role as creative as much as commercial. "One hundred per cent," says Barry. "Otherwise I may as well just be selling soap."
Southard Reid, Limoncello and Hilary Crisp are all at Frieze (friezelondon.com), London W1, from Thursday to 20 October. Open Heart Surgery (themovingmuseum.com) runs from today to 23 November. For more from Edel Assanti: edelassanti.com; for Hannah Barry Gallery: hannahbarry.com
Simon Sakhai & Aya Mousawi
The Moving Museum
The brainchild of Sakhai and Mousawi, both 26, the Moving Museum is a new kind of organisation that blurs the boundary between a commercial gallery and a public institution. It doesn't represent artists but produces exhibitions alongside major art fairs and funds its not-for-profit activity by selling works
"What we are trying to do is completely new," says Sakhai. "Both Aya and I come from families of artists and when we came together we talked about the limitations of the gallery model. People don't go to galleries in the same way any more; they go to fairs and they go to biennales. During these events you have a huge flock of people – collectors, curators, enthusiasts – whose attention is switched on.
"We launched with a show to coincide with Art Dubai earlier this year and Open Heart Surgery, which opens in London today to coincide with Frieze, is our second exhibition. All the artists in the show work in London: we asked curators, artists and galleries whose work we should be showing and the shortlist came from that.
"Our shows are always artist-driven; each one is given a solo presentation and they can do whatever they want. Here we have this amazing 35,000sq ft space on the Strand and there will be sculpture, performance, photography, everything imaginable. We do sell work, but we are not-for-profit, so the proceeds go to supporting the artists and funding new works.
"I don't think galleries are dead, but they are evolving and art is evolving, too. It's an expression of our culture, so of course it's going to change."
Phillida Reid & David Southard
Southard Reid Gallery
Reid, 40, was born in New Zealand and worked for the prestigious Anthony d'Offay gallery before setting up Southard Reid in 2010 with co-director Southard, 39.
Artists: 11, including Prem Sahib, a solo show of whose work Southard Reid will exhibit at Frieze
"I have a lot of respect for the galleries I worked for but I always wanted to do my own thing, and I definitely wanted it to be with young artists," says Reid.
"We work on a classical model; the job of a gallery is to represent artists and to develop their careers. Lots of things change in the art world, but that model is not particularly changing. When we started, we had just one room in a townhouse in Soho and now we are down the street in an old carriage house. It's a self-contained building and we've left it fairly raw. The most important thing for us is to allow artists to realise their ideas. You build up their name on the understanding there might be some commercial benefit in the long-term.
"We're definitely not safe in some of the decisions we've made because art doesn't have to respond to any parameters, and that's what's great about it."
Rebecca May Marston
May Marston, 33, graduated from the Royal College of Art's MA in curating in 2005. She opened Limoncello in east London in 2007.
Artists: 13, including Lucy Clout, whose work has been exhibited at Tate Britain
"Limoncello led from a not-for-profit project I worked on; we had all these fabulous unrepresented artists and I thought, 'I'm just going to do it.' It was December 2007, which was probably the worst economic timing to open a gallery.
"I was far too idealistic and knew nothing really about working in commercial galleries. I had all these curatorial principles and an elaborate programme of events, but as I've grown up, it's become more commercial, because you have to make money. The artists were very young when we started but a good handful of them have now had their first museum show. My job is to look after them; I think it's comparable to being an agent.
"We are now in our third space; we have moved up in size each time, starting with a shop front and now to a big white cube: I think that's still the ideal.
"Art fairs are important, because when I'm there I'm focused on selling. But our booth at Frieze this year is not going to have any art on it; instead, the artists are going to be there and it will be more like a show-and-tell. I'm trying to reconcile two things: that we can do risky, exciting things and still make money."
Hilary Crisp Gallery
Crisp, 31, grew up in Los Angeles and opened her first gallery there in 2008, and a project space in London soon after. She moved to her current space in Whitechapel, east London, in 2011.
Artists: Six, including George Young, 32, named by 'Modern Painters' magazine as one of its 'nine artists to watch'
"I always knew I wanted a gallery; my grandparents were artists and my parents are artists, so I grew up with art around me. I like the curatorial aspect of the business, putting shows together.
"My space is on the second floor; it's an old office with beautiful Art Deco windows. I think it's preferable to a street-front space because the rent is cheaper and you don't have to have such commercial shows; I'd rather be more of an experimenting ground for artists.
"A lot of people are saying the gallery is dead; I don't think that's true but it is changing in that you have to do art fairs to sell work. That's basically where my key business happens. I'm showing at Frieze this year with an artist called Elodie Seguin; it's an installation with a massive 5m oak beam running through the booth. I hope it sells, but it's more about making a statement and getting the right curators interested."
Jeremy Epstein & Charlie Fellowes
Edel Assanti Gallery
The 28-year-old Epstein worked at the blue-chip Gagosian gallery before setting up Edel Assanti with co-director Charlie Fellowes, 30, in 2010.
Artists: Seven, including Noemie Goudal, who recently won the HSBC Prize for Photography
"When Charlie and I started in 2009, we both had full-time jobs and we were doing pop-up shows in buildings that were empty because of the [financial] crash. They were mostly group shows, which gave us exposure to lots of the artists we work with today," says Epstein.
"Charlie and I both worked for top-end galleries and had it drummed into us how the business works, so after the pop-ups, we transformed into a gallery which follows the classical model: representing artists, showing their work and selling.
"When people say that the gallery is dead, I couldn't be further from that viewpoint: it is the place where artists can do whatever they want, no holds barred. Art fairs are one of the biggest game-changers in the past five years, but they are different animals: a fair is where dealers come to sell and collectors come to collect.
"Our gallery is in Victoria, which makes it this intriguing entity: it's neither an East End gallery nor a Mayfair gallery. It was previously a post-room; we bulldozed a few walls and now it's this amazing, open, industrial space.
"We're proud of our broad client base. Some of the most established collectors in the world come through our doors, but that doesn't happen without a lot of effort. At the same time, we have an amazing group of young collectors who have supported the gallery from day one and without them it would never have kicked off."
Hannah Barry Gallery
Barry, 31, began her career as a gallerist in 2006 by staging shows in a crumbling house in Peckham. After several years in the West End she now has plans to return to her roots with a new space in Peckham. Barry is also a founding director of Bold Tendencies, the successful art and party pop-up that takes place each summer in a multi-storey car park.
Artists: 12, including James Capper, 26, a sculptor whose work recently appeared in the Saatchi Gallery show British Art Today
"When I started, it was with the artists I met at the house in Lyndhurst Way [in south-east London's Peckham]. They were guys who were either living there or using it as studio space. I suppose I just happened to have an affinity with the kind of work I found there. It sounds odd now, but I didn't really have any intention of opening a gallery or being an art dealer; it was all very intuitive.
"I guess the first time I realised I was interested in contemporary art was when I saw Apocalypse at the Royal Academy; that's where I experienced the work of two people in particular: Gregor Schneider and Chris Cunningham. I was still at school. I also came across the work of Bruce Nauman and I was interested in what he stands for: the idea that anything and everything can be art.
"We sold things right from the start; it's the only way to do it: you make some money by selling art then you pay the bills. But after a few years of doing the same thing you want to reinvent yourself and that's what I feel is happening now.
"It's exciting to collaborate, to work with curators and artists and to do things which aren't in the realms of the art world. The Cartier Foundation recently did a show on mathematics and I thought that was really smart. You can be a commercial gallery and still be creative. For me that's super-important."
While you're here…
Five things to see and do in the busiest art week of the year…
1. Play fantasy art collector at the Frieze Art Fair (Thursday to 20 October). The event is now divided into two venues, with 152 galleries selling contemporary work in Frieze London, and more than 120 dealers offering historic art at Frieze Masters
2. Flex your credit card at Charles Saatchi's clear-out sale at Christie's, London SW1 (christies.com), on Thursday. The 50 lots, including works by the Chapman brothers and Tracey Emin, are on view until Friday
3. Give your brain a work-out in the annual Serpentine Gallery Marathon (serpentinegallery.org). The two-day public discussion takes place this Friday and Saturday on the future of art, politics and life for the generation born since 1989
4. Mingle with the millionaires at Gagosian (gagosian.com), the London outpost of New York's most successful art dealer. The Show is Over (with works by Warhol, Twombly and De Kooning), opens on Tuesday
5. Swoon at the paintings of Paul Klee. Tate Modern's autumn blockbuster opens on Wednesday (tate.org.uk)