The American art invasion

On the eve of the Frieze Art Fair, some of New York's biggest players are opening galleries in London's West End. Karen Wright examines how the capital is fast becoming the new star of the international circuit

There is a stealthy invasion in progress in London's West End.

By the end of October, the map of powerful art galleries will have shifted west to Mayfair to some of the smartest and most expensive addresses in London, reflecting the city's burgeoning importance in the art market. Spearheading the colonisation is the New York gallerist and powerful figure in the international art scene, David Zwirner, who already has three galleries in Chelsea, New York, with another large one under construction nearby. Last May in Forbes' list of "America's Most Powerful Art Dealers" he was ranked second only to Larry Gagosian. His new gallery will joined by the first London outpost of New York's other big beast, Pace.

"London is a gateway, in the right geographical time zone, in the middle," says Zwirner's London director Angela Choon. "It is a financial centre and with the continuing influence of the former YBAs, Frieze Art Fair, and Tate Modern, it is attracting an increasingly international audience." Setting his sights on London, Zwirner has chosen an elegant five-storey townhouse on Grafton Street for his international stable, near to the already established German gallery Sprüth Magers. Choon stresses that it is important to be in central London, convenient for the majority of collectors. The building has been sparklingly renovated by the art-world darling Annabelle Selldorf, who is an old friend of Zwirner's and also designed his home.

There has been speculation about what the New York influx will mean to established London galleries, but Choon diplomatically points out that "25 of [Zwirner's] 40 artists had no London representation previously, including big names on the international circuit like Adel Abdessemed, Neo Rauch and Luc Tuymans". The hope is to keep developing the programme and eventually to add more artists to the roster. The intention, she says, is to "add to the quality of art being brought to the city". Zwirner himself was less circumspect in a recent interview. "There's also an emerging group of newer collectors who use London as a point of entry and source of information: eastern Europeans, collectors from the Middle East, China, the Far East," he said. "London is a hub for rich people and rich people buy art."

Marc Glimcher, president of the New York-based Pace Gallery, also speaks candidly about the fact that, as galleries no longer depend on the personality of an individual, they have "evolved" to the point where they can expand across multiple locations. This is certainly the case with the Pace "family-run business", which has expanded to a 150-strong staff. Under the direction of Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, a former Gagosian Gallery director, who recently headed up Dasha Zhukova's Moscow gallery Garazh, Pace opened a small space in Soho last year. This week, it throws open the doors of a large new gallery, designed by David Chipperfield, in the former Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens. For Glimcher, the move to London was a natural instinct, as Pace was already connected to cultural communities in London. This is not the first expansion for Pace, which has galleries in Los Angeles and Beijing. Glimcher says that the move to London has different motivations. "We are chasing after artists, not collectors. London is a centre for artists from all over the world." When I ask him about his choice of the West End he says simply, "A gallery should be put in the vicinity of the collector; the museum should be put in the vicinity of art lovers. It is hard to survive for a gallery if it is difficult for collectors."

Pace will open with a show of Mark Rothko and Hiroshi Sugimoto. "It has been 50 years since Rothko had a show in London in a commercial gallery," Glimcher explains. "Sugimoto loves his black paintings and we thought it would be great to put them together. David Chipperfield has done a great job." Glimcher says that this show will set the agenda, demonstrating the gallery's footholds in both modern and contemporary fields. Shows of Alexander Calder, whose estate Pace represents, and Keith Tyson are already in the planning stages.

Pace and Zwirner are not the first international names to have opened in the West End. Philomene Magers, co-owner of the influential Berlin-based Sprüth Magers gallery, recalls opening her first London space in 2002. "Mayfair was the right place for the gallery. I was following Anthony d'Offay, my guru." Not long afterwards, Sprüth Magers had to find a new location and Magers enlisted the help of Los Angeles artist John Baldessari, whom the gallery represents, in her search. For two weeks, the eminent artist and she visited every gallery and cultural institution and museum in London. "In the end, John and I agreed that Mayfair was still the right thing. It is looking more and more like New York's Chelsea district."

It is not just the Americans who are arriving. The Italian gallerist Massimo de Carlo opened recently on South Audley Street. A new space by the well-established German gallery Michael Werner, which also has a New York space and has mounted temporary exhibitions in London, opened last week with a show of new paintings by Peter Doig. Werner claims that the impetus for the gallery's expansion into London came from his co-director Gordon VeneKlasen, who handles his "younger" stable, including Doig and the American artist Aaron Curry. Werner points to London as a city always looking for the zeitgeist and for young artists, a similar landscape to the one Glimcher describes.

What is now clear is that London has cemented its place on the international circuit. Frieze and Tate Modern have made the city a must-visit, and the West End, near to the hotels frequented by international collectors, is the place to be. With the expansion of the gallery scene has come the opportunity to see a much wider range of contemporary artists, and as long as private galleries remain free to enter, this can only be a good thing. Collectors are busy people who simply do not have the spare two weeks it would likely take to see all the gallery spaces across London. The recent consolidation around the West End has prompted even younger galleries to trade East London for Fitzrovia, creating a new cultural quarter. With the arrival of these new players, and the expansion of some of the older boys on the block, including Hauser & Wirth on Savile Row and Sadie Coles nearby, it seems that the West End has reached critical mass at last.

My hope is that the numerous east London spaces nurturing younger talent will continue to flourish with the advent of new collectors who have the energy and courage to go the extra mile. After all, artists do not begin in these high-end spaces: like collectors, they grow into them.

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