Jay Jopling: Big space, big art, big ego

The gallerist Jay Jopling is a seemingly unstoppable force in British art. As he opens Europe's largest commercial gallery, Rob Sharp examines his influence

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The Independent Culture

A colossal south London warehouse packed with art worth millions: when White Cube Bermondsey opens today it will become Europe's biggest commercial art gallery – and cement yet another victory for the gallery's mercurial owner.

Jay Jopling, 48, is the founder of London's White Cube gallery empire, which has launched its third outpost in the capital to coincide with the Frieze art fair. It will see thousands of the world's wealthiest collectors flock to London over the next three days. Last night Jopling hosted hundreds of VIPs at the Bermondsey gallery's lavish official opening party – with many luminaries attending a small gathering at his Marylebone home afterwards. This week, London auction houses will sell 25 works by Jopling's most famous artist, Damien Hirst, emphasising the gallerist's standing as one of a small group of elite overlords in London's aggressive commercial art world.

Jopling's buoyancy exists despite widespread economic uncertainty. One London-based art collector said yesterday that some poorer galleries are currently "walking on eggshells" because of the financial downturn. Yet Jopling's mixture of charm, savvy and bullish behaviour will make him this week's most surefire victor.

"Jay told me a long time ago that if he couldn't be the best at what he does he wasn't interested," says White Cube's exhibitions director Tim Marlow. "The Bermondsey gallery is an affirmation of that. He wants a complex of galleries that will allow him to do the best shows with the best possible artists."

Jopling – "JJ" to his friends – is recognisable by his signature thick-framed specs and tailormade black suit and crisp white shirt. He exudes success, which creates the impression that his enterprises cannot fail – a useful trait in the tempestuous art world.

Throughout his career he has hit headlines – not least because of high-profile marriage to the artist Sam Taylor-Wood and short-lived fling with singer Lily Allen – along with a knack for representing attention-grabbing artists such as Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers, expanding while others contract through two financial downturns over the past 20 years.

Marlow says that part of his success is that White Cube owns all of its properties – alongside Bermondsey, White Cube has spaces in the West End enclave of St James's and once-edgy, now commercialised Hoxton – meaning Jopling is in little debt. The man himself rarely gives interviews, preferring – it seems – to let the stratospheric sums fetched by his artists around the world and the endless photographs of Jopling and his famous friends do the talking.

He has endured three eventful decades in the art world. The son of Tory baron Michael, he became interested in art as a teenager, reading Gilbert and George's 1974 book Dark Shadow in assembly while a pupil at Eton. "He genuinely loves art," says cultural commentator Michael Bracewell. "I think he's genuinely passionate about it". He studied art history at Edinburgh University and when there flew to New York to convince artists including Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat to participate in a charity auction. He reportedly began selling fire extinguishers as a sideline, demonstrating their effectiveness by setting fire to his sleeve.

When he moved to London in the 1980s, he became inextricably linked with the rising in-crowd of Young British Artists (YBAs). He dated Californian fashion designer Maia Norman, who introduced him to Damien Hirst, with whom she now has three children. Jopling and Norman hosted legendary dinner parties at Jopling's flat, attended by the likes of YBA Marc Quinn, whom like Hirst, Jopling now represents. Quinn and Hirst later provided Jopling with two of his most lucrative sales: Hirst's shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and Quinn's sculpture of his head created from his own frozen blood, Self.

"Every cultural epoch throws up a figure who becomes a cultural ambassador for those times," adds Bracewell. "Jay came along in the 1980s and related to a new generation of artists. I met him when I was still working for the British Council and the art world was still incredibly academic. And here was this charming and smooth operator."

Jopling founded his first London gallery, White Cube, in St James's in 1993. He named it after an influential collection of essays by Irish author and artist Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space, which emphasised that the blank walls of modern galleries had become "the archetypal image of 20th-century art". According to Melanie Gerlis, art market editor of The Art Newspaper, Jopling's "business-like" approach appealed to bankers with loose wallets "who wanted to put art on bare walls". "He's astute, he runs galleries like a business, not a cottage industry," she says. This sentiment continued through White Cube's expansion. Jopling founded his Hoxton gallery in 2000. A fourth is planned in Hong Kong early next year.

Art buyers put his success down to his polish. "He's very charming," notes collector Kenny Schacter. "He didn't get to where he is without being a very effective communicator."

He also has a reputation for looking after his artists. "He's great, he's got good energy, and he works with creatives across different generations throughout the process," says the Serpentine Gallery's co-director Hans-Ulrich Obrist. "He does get a kick out of doing unusual things and doing them with absolute conviction," adds sculptor Antony Gormley, whom Jopling represents. "You know he wants to push what's possible, and understands an artist's interest in that, as well as being a very good businessman. That's a very rare combination". Gormley says that Jopling supported him with proposals that had "zero commercial prospects" including Gormley's Trafalgar Square One & Other fourth plinth project,.

However others have criticised him for loving life in the limelight. A rare public-relations misstep was his short-lived "holiday romance" with Lily Allen. She was 22 years his junior and the daughter of his close friend, actor Keith Allen – the coupling followed the breakdown of his 11-year marriage to Taylor-Wood, the mother of his two daughters, in 2008. The break-up of Jopling and Taylor-Wood, it is said, was at her instigation. Both sides, diplomatically, refuse to discuss the divorce.

"He's all surface," said one gallery owner in a 2009 interview. "It's very much an operation that arose in the era of art meeting celebrity culture. Will that continue? I'm not sure." However, it is almost impossible to find a dissenting voice when it comes to Jopling – testament, perhaps, to his importance for the art world. His ability to pull off feats worth column inches is indisputable. "He moved artists from the arts pages to the news pages," critic David Lee has said. "After all, who cares what the critics think?" Some estimates put his fortune at £100m, though secrecy surrounds his exact wealth.

The proof, as ever, will be in his sales. As well as Bermondsey's first major exhibition, "Structure & Absence", the new gallery will exhibit work by photographic artist Andreas Gursky and Damien Hirst this week. Neither of which has a reputation of failing to fetch huge sums, and Hirst's performance at auction will be watched closely. "The art market is universal," concluded Marlow. "For that reason it is resilient. We have had momentum over the last 20 years and there's no reason to think at the moment that this will not continue."

Six galleries that shook the world

The Saatchi Gallery (UK)

Opened by Charles Saatchi in 1985 to show his private collection to the public, the gallery currently sits in Chelsea. The comprehensive collection incorporates some of the formative pieces of the Young British Artist movement. Frequently, Saatchi buys work from relative unknowns and his endorsement is still seen as a launch-pad for artists.

The Gagosian Galleries (Worldwide)

One of the most important figures in contemporary art, the American dealer Larry Gagosian has opened galleries in New York, London, Los Angeles, Rome, Athens, Paris, Geneva and Hong Kong. The original is the Los Angeles outpost, which opened in 1979 and has exhibited Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman.

The Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture (Russia)

Dasha Zhukova – one-time editor in chief of Pop magazine and partner of Roman Abramovich – opened The Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture in Moscow in 2008. Based in the famous Bakhmetevsky Bus Garage, it has become one of the country's most famous art spots.

The Goodman Gallery (South Africa)

One of the pioneering forces behind the seminal "Art Against Apartheid" exhibition in 1985, the Goodman Gallery has been a go-to destination for new African art since 1966, when it was set up by Linda Goodman (now Givon). It has three sites: two in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town.

50 Moganshan Road (China)

The hub of Shanghai's vibrant art scene is this collection of once-deserted warehouses near Suzhou Creek in the north of the city. As well as housing various galleries – including the famous ShangART, run by the Swiss-born Lorenz Helbling, and Eastlink, the space is also home to several top-flight artists such as Zhou Tiehai and Ding Yi.

The Guggenheim (Spain)

Designed by Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim in Bilbao is one of the most famous pieces of contemporary architecture in the world. Part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, it features a comprehensive collection of contemporary Spanish and international art, as well as high-profile visiting exhibitions.

Alice-Azania Jarvis

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