Back in 1970, the Lisson Gallery in west London held an opening party for an exhibition by the American artist Sol Lewitt. Given his status as one of the great pioneers of both conceptualism and minimalism, the attendance was a little disappointing. "There was Sol and his girlfriend, me and my wife, a curator from the Tate, Richard Cork and a few friends and admiring artists in total, there were about 15 of us," recalls Nicholas Logsdail, director and founder of the gallery.
Collecting contemporary art was a decidedly fringe activity, pursued by an insular band of enthusiasts. The work, seen by many as weird and way out, was to be found largely in the public sector: museums or not-for-profit spaces. The commercial art world centred around the fag-end of the aristocracy buying paintings by British artists. The galleries were stuffy and inaccessible, and the only contemporary art making it into the mainstream was that of Swinging London, pop art.
There were a handful of contemporary galleries on London's Cork Street, but when one of last century's leading dealers, Anthony d'Offay, opened in 1980 on Dering Street in west London, his only competition for the serious, conceptual art that he favoured was the Lisson. '
Fast-forward to the present day and the scene has changed beyond recognition: the capital is now home to more than 200 contemporary galleries, and their business is global, with an unprecedented razzmatazz of artists, celebrities, collectors and the media adding to the gloss.
Where galleries once served a few glasses of lukewarm white wine on an opening night, they are now as likely to follow the example of Stuart Shave's Modern Art in east London, which in October treated 150 collectors, curators, artists, critics and gallerists to a lavish dinner at a trendy local restaurant, Bistroteque.
In the brave new gallery world, with rising numbers of "investment" buyers flush with City bonuses or corporate expense accounts, it is not uncommon for all the artwork to be sold before an exhibition has even opened. The new money washing around is perhaps most visible at London's annual Frieze art fair in October, where all of Britain's leading galleries display their wares. When figures were last published, in 2005, it was revealed that 33m changed hands at Frieze. Dealers report that trading this year was significantly brisker.
As the number of galleries in London grows, a new pecking order is emerging, headed by the wealthy international galleries that started to move in at the turn of the century. The powerful American gallerist Larry Gagosian opened a small London space in 2000, followed by a giant second space near King's Cross in 2004. The Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth mirrored Gagosian with a gallery on Piccadilly in 2003, followed by Coppermill an East End warehouse space in 2006. The arrival of these big players has confirmed London's status as the centre of the art market in Europe.
Beneath such colossuses are successful British-born galleries such as the Lisson, Victoria Miro and Jay Jopling's White Cube, which all turn over tens of millions of pounds every year. Then there are the smaller established galleries: Alison Jacques, Modern Art, Timothy Taylor and Corvi Mora. Beneath them are the newcomers such as Paradise Row and Hotel in Bethnal Green, Store in Hoxton and the Wallis Gallery in Hackney. These new galleries can serve as a useful springboard for lesser-known artists, and tend to pop up in areas where property is less expensive. At Man&Eve in Kennington, business is conducted in the front room of the home of gallery owner, Lucy Newman Cleeve, 31.
"Gallerists are generational. The smaller, young gallerists have to find their generation of artists with whom they want to work," says Tim Marlow, director of exhibitions at White Cube. "It's a symbiotic relationship as they are facilitating artists. Commercial galleries can do what the public sector can't; they are not constrained by accountability." '
For gallerists starting out, the art world is glamorous and potentially gilded. There are many bright young people getting involved, with Oxbridge degrees and successful careers behind them. "A good young gallery will not chase the tastes and interest that you would expect if you followed market fashion," says JJ Charlesworth, critic for Art Review magazine. "They should work for their artists and network them in the right places. But some young galleries focus on the commercial market and don't understand that an artist needs developing above and beyond the market."
Indeed, of the 200 or so contemporary galleries in London, at any one time only a small percentage will be showing work considered to be of serious critical interest.
"Art in London has now exploded to the point that it is almost illegible. It's like a playground. To be any good as an artist you need to know how to enter it," says Richard Wentworth, an established British artist who has been working in London since the days of Indica gallery, the experimental 1960s space set up in St James's by Marianne Faithfull's husband, John Dunbar, where Yoko Ono met John Lennon. "No one could get around all the galleries now unless they had a train-spotter's attitude. And it's all dependent on the strangeness of London's economy. There are lots of young people setting up galleries and buying art ' who have a considerable amount of disposable income. It doesn't necessarily make for great art."
If recession bites, the scene will no doubt be shaken up again. "When the going gets tough, people who came into the business with money, get out," says Logsdail. "They've got their money and they don't want to lose it. Those whose livelihoods are dependent upon it tend to stick with it. That's how I feel about it. Going through the hard times becomes a real fight, it's an ideological fight. It's a belief in backing your artists and having the strength of your convictions."
In his 40 years as a gallerist, Logsdail has seen people come and go most have gone, such as the flamboyant 1960s art dealer Robert Fraser, who was photographed handcuffed to Mick Jagger in 1968 after being arrested on suspicion of possessing drugs. Fraser launched artists such as Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton and Gilbert & George. Their careers survived; unfortunately, his didn't. He was imprisoned for six months for possessing heroin and his gallery closed in 1969. Art's success stories can be short-lived.
The young gallerists profiled here show the diversity of those now involved in London's contemporary art scene. All have a chance to be leaders among the next generation of successful gallerists, but who will stand the test of time remains to be seen. Perhaps, as Logsdail says, it will all come down to conviction. *
Name: Alex Dellal, 24
Gallery: 20 Hoxton Square
Alex Dellal is a young man with connections. His father, Guy, is a London-based billionare property mogul, his girlfriend is Charlotte Casiraghi the daughter of Princess Caroline of Monaco and the photographer Mario Testino is his godfather. Aged just 24, Dellal has the composure of a man 10 years his senior, and owns a vast space, bought by his father, at 20 Hoxton Square in Shoreditch, opposite the White Cube gallery.
"The gallery was inspired by Andy Warhol's Factory in New York," says Dellal. "I liked the idea of artists being around and visitors being able to talk to them. We have artists' studios upstairs, a bar and our own newspaper in which artists and writers can find out about each other."
Sandbags are piled high at the entrance to the gallery, as though the building is under siege; apparently, they are a barrier against the commercialisation of art. Says Dellal: "We show emerging artists although they are not always young. Anyone can approach the gallery and we'll always consider their work. We don't plan exhibitions in advance. If an artist has produced some good work, we put it on show."
The criticp> Name: Nick Hackworth, 30
Gallery: Paradise Row
After studying history at Oxford University, Hackworth (above) became an art critic at London's Evening Standard for seven years before opening his gallery last year.
Paradise Row is a typical East End space in that it is impossible to find: down a side-street and up a discreet metal staircase to an imposing door with no visible handle. Within the cavernous interior, Hackworth with his dark brooding looks and Romantic poet appearance stages shows with drama and ambition. "Having a gallery suits my nature more than writing," he says. "I enjoy promoting people and I like the theatrical element of putting on shows. l like work that is epic, that engages with grand themes of culture and tradition. All the artists that show here are very different but their work does engage with the world at large. It's not necessarily a popular idea of what art should be."
He's not kidding: recently, he covered the gallery floor with 17 tonnes of salt to form a crystal-white sea a few feet deep. A Victorian boat was assembled on top of the salt and in this boat sat the artist Eloise Fornieles, for 48 continuous hours, with no sleep, taking messages from the audience.
Name: Virginia Damtsa, 30
Damtsa is the half-Greek, half-French owner of west London's innovative Riflemaker gallery. Once a dancer, she has the physique and poise of her former profession. She and her business partner Tot Taylor were both art collectors when they met, at the first Frieze art fair five years ago.
"I started out buying art for my family although then it was Old Masters and 19th-century paintings. As a teenager, my uncle would fly me to New York to bid at auctions for him. I began my own collection in my twenties, buying contemporary artists such as Marta Marc. I like work that is conceptually and aesthetically strong. It has to work on both levels.
Damtsa opened the first Riflemaker in 2004 followed by a second space in Soho Square last month. Unlike industrial East End spaces, the galleries are quirky 18th-century London townhouses. They're a favourite with the Soho-based film world: actors and directors are regular clients.
Riflemaker caught the imagination with a recreation of the original 1960s Indica gallery, not to mention a series of piss paintings by Gavin Turk in which gallery visitors urinated from the first-floor window on to copper-covered canvas, the urine becoming crystals of jade green as it oxidized.
The rock royal
Name: Tyrone Wood, 24
The softly spoken youngest son of Rolling Stones bassist Ronnie Wood runs the West End's Scream gallery, just off Bond Street. "My dad was a painter before he became a musician. He got me into art," he explains. "I've lots of friends and family who all paint so I grew up around art. Although I didn't go to art school, I learnt everything from looking at work. I'm always looking for new artists."
Tyrone works alongside a more experienced curator in Serena Morton (pictured below with Wood), who used to work at Christie's. She's in charge of the business; Tyrone scouts for young artists and organises a few exhibitions a year.
The work on show has a rock'*'roll edge and there's an atmosphere of celebrity in the gallery. A gold portrait of Kate Moss by Russell Young hangs alongside one of Pete Doherty; there are illustrations of Karl Largerfeld; every year, Ronnie Wood has an exhibition of his work; and Tyrone's friend, Vito Schnabel, son of the famous artist Julian, had an exhibition there recently. "I often meet new artists for the gallery through friends," says Wood. "And I go to New York about six times a year, where I look for artists and space to show. I love the whole New York thing."
Name: Tom Hanbury, 28, and Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal, 27
Hanbury is a descendent of Sir Thomas Hanbury, who created the famous Hanbury gardens in Genoa, Italy. A trained artist, he was educated at the Ruskin art school in Oxford and then Chelsea College of Art. Von Hofmannsthal is an aristocratic Scandinavian, the great-grandson of the literary giant Hugo, librettist to Strauss.
The pair met while bidding for the same artwork at Christie's in New York. They became friends and started their gallery four years ago, when Von Hofmannsthal's parents bought a flat for their son in a Hoxton townhouse. "The two main rooms were used as a gallery, which left Rodolphe sleeping on a roll-up mattress on the floor," reveals Hanbury.
Their gallery, Dicksmith, recently moved into a new space in a former industrial building just off Whitechapel in London's East End, and it is being taken seriously enough to have procured a stand at this year's Frieze art fair .
The pair have built their reputation showing artists such as Duncan Marquiss, a Scottish film-maker, whose piece set in Aberdeenshire explores the shady locations that were historically associated with the practice of witchcraft.
Name: Edward Fornieles, 24
Gallery: The Wallis Gallery
Fornieles cuts an eccentric figure, elegant in his battered suit jacket, scruffy trousers and shoes. The remnants of a bruise circle one eye from a piece of performance art in which he allowed an Oxford University boxing captain to hit him.
At the Wallis Gallery, a vast crumbling warehouse in front of the burnt-out Olympic site in Hackney Wick, commerce is a low priority cash from sales goes towards improving the space. "After leaving art school in Oxford, I set up the gallery with Ross McNicol and Vanessa Carlos," says Fornieles. "I was frustrated that no one would show my work. I work as an assistant for Anish Kapoor and I persuaded him to donate a small sum towards it 'Whatever you can afford,' I said.
"It's an experimental space. We had a performance evening where critics came expecting to drink champagne but I locked visitors in a dark chamber for four minutes and 23 seconds. It was like solitary confinement."
Fornieles has had some success McNicol was recently taken up by Hugh Allen, who works with Damien Hirst.
The gallery doubles as Fornieles' home, though it's not at all homely. He lives amid strange-looking objects, including a luminous pink silk tent that dominates the sitting-room.