Credit crunch? What credit crunch? The summer season of London sales drew to a triumphant close this week with Christie's and Sotheby's chalking up sales of contemporary artworks totalling more than $1bn (about £500m). Among the record-breakers in the sales were Jeff Koons, whose Balloon Flower (Magenta) brought him a record high price of £12.9m, and Gilbert and George, whose To Her Majesty went for £1.9m. Elsewhere, a prototype for the Angel of the North by Antony Gormley outstripped its £800,000 guide price to reach £2.3m, and the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's Untitled (Pecho/Oreja) sold for £5.1m.
It's only natural that people should want to get in on the action. And they have, with gusto. There are now more than 400 contemporary galleries in London. While the giants of contemporary art, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth, have joined Saatchi and Jay Jopling's White Cube in taking advantage of the weak US dollar and the vibrant scene in London, a new generation is emerging.
Alongside college-trained curators, everyone from rock stars' sons and socialites to ex-critics and photographers is opening spaces, ripping up the rule books of the pristine white cube to stage exhibitions wherever they can – in front rooms, above cafés and in former fetish dungeons.
With the opening of White Cube in 1993 and the emergence of the YBAs, contemporary art had a vital shot of adrenalin. The opening of Tate Modern in 2000 and the first Frieze art fair in 2003 further energised it. Steve Lazarides and his best-known protégé Banksy have revolutionised the market, making graffiti a covetable objet d'art.
Soraya Rodriguez, as the director of Zoo Art Fair (a showcase for emerging spaces), witnessed the boom first-hand. "When I researched Zoo in 2004, we went to 35 organisations and chose 24. Now, in the UK alone, we research more like 120."
It's not just happening in the traditional art hotspots of Hoxton and Mayfair, either. In south London, Peckham is fast becoming a fertile arena with the Sassoon Gallery (underneath a railway arch) and Hannah Barry's gallery, soon to launch an exhibition of monumental sculpture on the roof of a brutalist multi-storey car park.
The nature of the spaces has changed, too. "The main change is economic," says Nick Hackworth, director of Paradise Row. "The strength of the art market, the popularity of contemporary art and the viability of selling work and making a living have all increased radically over the last five years."
Can the market sustain this explosion? "What's quality will remain quality," Rodriguez says. "But there's a general sense that it's quite easy to set up a gallery, get some artists on your books and sell their work. The reality is so far from that."
What advice would Rodriguez give budding galleristas? "It's important not to bite off more than you can chew, and not to try to make a gallery that already looks like a gallery. Keep overheads low and concentrate on the programme, not on nice lighting or expensive dinners. A gallery should add something to its artists. The programme and the relationship with the artists are key. If you get those bits right, everything else will come. Mess those up, and it's going to be limping all the way."
Gallery: Maison Bertaux, London W1
Director: Tania Wade
Key artist: Noel Fielding
Maison Bertaux has been selling patisserie to arty types in Soho since 1871. Now, the bijou bakery has opened a quirky new gallery space upstairs. In December, the café's proprietor, Tania Wade, staged the first exhibition by The Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding. They sold like hot cakes, from £50 signed posters to the most expensive works at £7,000. "The whole upstairs tearoom was an installation. He wrote all over the walls. I gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted and it was marvellous," Wade says. "He calls me his hooligan art dealer."
The experience has given Wade a taste for dealing, and she promises more high-profile shows. "I'm not really in the art world. A place like Maison Bertaux has got to keep going. People can sit and have their cake and enjoy the gallery and not feel it's poncey. It's a good idea, isn't it?"
Gallery: Riflemaker, London W1
Directors: Virginia Damsta and Tot Taylor
Key artists: Gavin Turk, Jamie Shovlin, Andrey Bartenev
Riflemaker was born when Virginia Damsta and Tot Taylor were introduced at the first Frieze fair in 2003. Within months, they had moved into a creaky, dusty former gunmaker's on Beak Street. They had to preserve the 18th-century building's character, which has since become an integral part of the brand.
"Our idea was to walk in, take the guns out and put the art in," Taylor says. It's a unique space, about as far from the white cube as it's possible to get with its candlelit corridors, warped floors and – gasp! – yellow walls.
"If you walk around the East End and go into many of the spaces, often you can't tell where you are. They are identical – white walls, polished floors," Taylor says.
The pair have strong buying pedigrees. Damsta started out accompanying her collector uncles to auctions as a child. Taylor built up his own collection as a teenager, when he would spend his session musician wages as he walked home from the recording studios past the Mayfair galleries. His first piece was a small 1962 Patrick Heron painting.
Riflemaker's first show, by Jamie Shovlin, sold out five minutes before it opened. The gallery now has one of the most exciting rosters of artists in the country.
Galleries: Lazarides, London W1; 77 Quayside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Director: Steve Lazarides
Key artists: Banksy, Jamie Hewlett, Paul Insect, 3D, Antony Micallef, Faile
The gallerist who represents Banksy spends much of his life fielding calls for the elusive graffiti-artist – so much so that many have wondered if they are one and the same. Steve Lazarides denies it – but what cannot be denied is that this former photographer has helped to bring urban art into the gallery, creating a lucrative market out of what was available for free.
Since Lazarides opened his spit-and-sawdust space in an "old spanking shop-turned builders' store" in 2004, the gallerist's empire has expanded to include a larger site on Charing Cross Road and another in a former restaurant on the quayside in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, across the river from Baltic. "I wanted it to be a very welcoming space, not like some of your highbrow galleries, where you feel intimidated. Everybody's got an opinion on art, and everyone's opinion is valid."
Lazarides realised that there was potential in exhibiting original sketches and works from the studios of street artists. Now, his gallery list features everyone from the Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett to the witty street-sculptor Mark Jenkins and the man behind Radiohead's cover art, Stanley Donwood.
"I started off with a fairly strong stable of artists that I really liked. Someone has to be really good to break in," Lazarides says. How does he find them? "Sometimes artists suggest people, sometimes you'll be out and stumble across something. It's a matter of keeping your eyes and mind open, really. I ain't giving away any trade secrets..."
Gallery: Mary Mary, Glasgow
Director: Hannah Robinson
Key artists: Karla Black, Torsten Lauschmann, Lorna Macintyre
This October, Mary Mary will make its Frieze art fair debut – not bad for a gallery that began life in Hannah Robinson's front room in 2006. The 27-year-old Glasgow School of Art graduate founded her gallery to showcase work by college peers. She now has 10 artists on her books, including Karla Black, who scooped the £10,000 prize for best artist at Zoo Art Fair last year.
Where does the name come from? "Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft," Robinson says. "I was reading Frankenstein when I came up with the name. I found out how young Mary Shelley was when she wrote it and how much she achieved in her life. And of course her mum wrote the first feminist essay. I thought they were nice people to name something after."
Gallery: 20 Hoxton Square, London N1
Directors: Alex Dellal, Richard Graham, Adam Waymouth
Key artists: Andrew James Jones, Jap de Vries
Alex Dellal, 24, must have one of the best contact books in the business. The son of a billionaire property developer, he's dating Charlotte Casiraghi (daughter of Princess Caroline of Monaco); his godfather is the fashion photographer Mario Testino; and sisters Alice and Charlotte (model and shoe designer respectively), are staples of the London party scene.
Last year, Dellal opened the cavernous 20 Hoxton Square with his co-directors Richard Graham and Adam Waymouth. Situated opposite White Cube, this upstart gallery has sandbags piled at its door; a barrier, apparently, to the commercialisation of art. For this is a "guerrilla gallery", putting on brief, hit-and-run shows by emerging artists. "Our concept is to use great spaces to showcase young and undiscovered artists. We don't schedule shows in advance, or necessarily know where the next one is. Our strategy gives us an opportunity to stay current and let projects and artists develop organically."
The gallery also has a bar, and its own newspaper in which artists can write and find out about each other.
Gallery: Scream, London W1
Curator: Tyrone Wood
Key artists: Ronnie Wood, Bruce French, David Montgomery
A rock'n'roll addition to London's art scene, Scream opened two years ago, a joint venture between Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and his sons Jamie and Tyrone, who is the curator.
As well as providing a showcase for Wood Snr's own paintings, the gallery has staged exhibitions by artists such as Bruce French and the photographer David Montgomery. Wood has twice called on his pal Vito Schnabel, the 21-year-old son of artist Julian, to co-curate. "There's not just me, there's the Scream team, as we like to call it," says Wood, who works alongside Serena Morton, who cut her teeth at Christie's. She looks after the business side, while Wood scouts for talent. "I've got friends in galleries and you pick it up from place to place. You try to make your own way in the art scene, really," he says.
And while the art on show may not be exactly cutting edge, Wood's coterie (including current girlfriend Rosie Huntington Whiteley, the model who's deposed Agyness Deyn as the face of Burberry) can always be counted on to make any private view a glamorous affair.
Gallery: Moot, Nottingham
Directors: Candice Jacobs, Tristan Hessing, Tom Godfrey and Matthew Jamieson
Key artists: Jack Strange, Sean Edward, Mark Harasimowicz
"At international art fairs, most people either haven't heard of Nottingham or they've only ever heard of it for its gun crime. To see that there's a young, buzzing contemporary art scene coming out of the city is quite shocking for some people," says Candice Jacobs, 26, one of four artist-directors of Moot.
The quartet graduated from Nottingham Trent's fine art degree course in 2004. By October 2005, they had set up Moot, scouting out promising young artists from graduation shows around the country and bringing them back to Nottingham to help raise the city's profile as an artistic centre. "We're an artist-led space. We're about helping young artists to develop their careers," Jacobs says. "The commercial side of it is something that just happened, really."
Anita Zabludowicz has bought pieces by the recent Slade graduate Jack Strange, whose work re-imagines everyday objects in extraordinary ways. Mark Harasimowicz's drawings were bought by Hauser & Wirth at last year's Zoo fair. "We don't represent these artists," Jacobs says. "We're the middle ground between an artist trying to make a career and being picked up by someone who can provide them with the things we can't."
Gallery: Workplace, Gateshead
Directors: Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow
Key artists: Matt Stokes, Marcus Coates, Laura Lancaster, Eric Bainbridge
Paul Moss and Miles Thurlow met while studying fine art at Newcastle University. Having exhibited at Baltic, they felt they had reached a "glass ceiling" in terms of exhibiting their own work in the region, and they founded Workplace in August 2005.
"As a local authority, Gateshead is quite visionary – they commissioned the Angel of the North, Baltic and the Sage are on their side of the river, and the Millennium Bridge is their project – so we placed ourselves here," Moss says. "But we felt there was a vital ingredient missing – a gallery that would take the practice of artists here and distribute it within the international art world. How do you, as an artist working somewhere that's perceived as outside an art centre, take part in the wider dialogue?"
To this end, Moss and Thurlow are now regulars at international art fairs in Miami, Tokyo, Cologne, London and New York. They have moved to a larger site, a former post-office building in which the 18th-century wood engraver Thomas Bewick once lived.
They have a vibrant stable of artists, "incubating" young graduates alongside more established talents such as Matt Stokes, who won the 2006 Beck's Futures prize for his film of a northern soul night in Dundee.
Gallery: Paradise Row, London E2
Director: Nick Hackworth
key artists: Jake & Dinos Chapman, Poppy de Villeneuve, Barry Reigate, Eloise Fornieles
When Paradise Row's current exhibition of young Russian artists opened a fortnight ago, Charles Saatchi and Anita Zabludowicz were among those at the private view. Before he opened the gallery two years ago, the 30-year-old Oxford graduate Nick Hackworth had spent seven years observing the art scene as a critic for the London Evening Standard and Dazed & Confused. Hackworth started the gallery from his home in Paradise Row in Bethnal Green, using the top-floor studio of his flat-mate, the artist Shezad Dawood, as a temporary space. The big collectors soon came calling, and by October 2006 the gallery had moved to its current home, an echoing church hall on Hereford Street. The priest of St Matthew's Church is their landlord.
Next up at the gallery are the photographic team Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, who have just spent two weeks on the front line in Helmand, Afghanistan, creating abstract images of sunlight in a war zone.
"At the moment, contemporary art is a very strangely introverted, inward-looking cultural form. I was interested in art that was epic, which engaged with themes of beauty, morality, violence, death, and also in artists who were interested in aesthetic beauty or aesthetic intelligence," Hackworth says. "That is not universally popular among contemporary artists; there's a suspicion of interest in the way things look."
Gallery: Limoncello, London N1
Director: Rebecca May Marston
Key artists: Gemma Holt, Matthew Harrison, Giorgio Sadotti
The deliciously named Limoncello opened in December. While its location lacks the monied sheen of Mayfair – "We're on the dodgy end of Hoxton Street, between Mags'n'Fags and Chicken Cottage," says Rebecca May Marston – it occupies the closest thing Hoxton has to an artistic heritage site; previous inhabitants have included Store and Associates.
Marston, with the artist Ryan Gander, was behind the non-profit Associates, which produced 12 shows by 12 unrepresented artists in 12 months last year. When the project ended, Marston, 28, took the space on as a commercial proposition.
She left dance school to study art history at Bristol University, taking a job as an invigilator at the Arnolfini. From there, she gained a place on the RCA's curating course and cut her teeth managing one West End (Blow de la Barra) and one East End gallery (Jonathan Viner).
For her first year at Limoncello, she has organised "a bit of a maniac programme": nine shows, each followed by a "punctuation programme" of lectures, events and performances. "I didn't want to be a lazy gallerist," she says. "I'm very new to it. I didn't do 10 years at Gagosian and I don't have unlimited personal funds. It's become a business and I am a businesswoman. There is a bottom line financially – I have to sell the work."