The Arts: Wheeler dealers

The latest wave of British gallery owners are young, creative and not afraid to take a risk. Lauris Morgan-Griffiths meets the dealers who are revolutionising the way art is bought and sold
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
British art is buzzing. It's a decade since Damien Hirst curated the "Freeze" exhibition which sent tremors across the artistic landscape: the "Sensation" show at the Royal Academy in 1997 and last year's Christie's auction continued the world-wide impact of British artists.

It is a thorny, catch-22 of a question as to who makes an artist's reputation, the dealer or the artist - in reality it is a symbiotic relationship. Taken up by a reputable dealer, there is an immediate buzz around an artist that wasn't there the day before. In turn, dealers are flattered by links with celebrated artists. Both share the cash and kudos that comes from access to high- profile exhibitions, important collections and lucrative auctions.

And as the Young British Artists move from enfants terrible to mid-life crisis, even younger artists are bubbling up - with the dealers who support them. These new dealers are an ebullient bunch, articulate and hardworking. Some have serious backers, others are self-financing. Some learnt the business in major galleries, others are ducking and diving. There will be some fall out - Cork Street galleries in London's Mayfair were decimated during the recession.

At the moment though, the scene is flourishing. Charles Saatchi remains a potent international force, and Britain's world status is underlined by the mighty Gagosian Gallery from the US, which is opening a gallery near Cork Street. The Americans want a slice of the action, and these dealers are ready.

Greengrassi

Cornelia Grassi is half American, half Italian, and worked in a gallery in Milan for seven years. She came here because it was familiar: she did an MA at the Courtauld Institute, and only left Britain because, at first, she saw no way into its old boy's art scene.

Greengrassi opened in 1997, on the first floor of a house in Fitzrovia, central London. It's a flexible space, often radically changed for each artist. Grassi is aghast at the idea that a theme connects her artists: she will show anything of integrity from any nationality, sex or age group. And her artists explore any concerns through any medium including sculpture, audio, paper or video.

Grassi sees her mission as introducing art that wouldn't normally be seen in Britain and enabling her artists "to make the work that they want to make". She doesn't impose commercial boundaries, nor tie her artists to a contract: "If they feel it is beneficial to them and they want to work with me, that's fine. I don't want them to be restricted." However, the artists haven't strayed far; some remain from her time at the Italian gallery, nine years ago. Other galleries are watchful and complimentary.

She admits that with some first shows she may sell nothing, but is likely to "by the second or third". Since she believes in her artists, she is confident she can persuade collectors to buy - eventually.

Two of her artists, Margherita Manzelli and Lari Pittman, were just on show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Lisa Yuskavage was part of Saatchi's "Young Americans". Grassi's current show is Allen Ruppersberg, from the US, who hasn't exhibited here since 1971.

Greengrassi, 39C Fitzroy Street, London W1, 0171-387 8747

The Hales Gallery

When The Hales Gallery opened in 1992 nobody outside south London's Deptford would have noticed. They do now. Charles Saatchi is often seen in the area, vying with international collectors and curators.

Paul Hedge (pictured) and Paul Maslin opened the gallery with a cafe upstairs as a back-up. Hedge cooked and Maslin administered (except to make his once-a-week mushroom stroganoff special). The cafe is still open, but Hedge rarely cooks since they've evolved from gallery owners to art dealers.

Their first show featured Richard Woods, the second Jake and Dinos Chapman. Hedge believes he can encourage, support, and not give gratuitous criticism, thanks to his role as: "Someone who is not an artist and not jealous of their success."

He admits that Saatchi "has done an awful lot for us": one of their artists, Tomoki Takahasi, is in the "Neurotic Realism" show at the Saatchi Gallery. Claude Heath, Andrew Bick and Sarah Beddington were shortlisted for the NatWest Art Prize.

Hedge and Maslin have flourished in the art market despite confessing an alarming early ignorance. Hedge was a student at the nearby Goldsmiths College (the artist Julian Opie was a year ahead), while Maslin read economics at Cambridge. Hedge's plans for The Hales Gallery took shape during the nine years he pounded the beat as a postman. Maslin, meanwhile, disappeared to be a missionary in Senegal for a year, went into the City and finally left "to give Paul a hand". He knows a lot more about art now.

Hedge has an openness that could be construed as naivete - except that naifs don't live long in the art world. He and Maslin have learnt fast, backed with hard graft, integrity, passion and a good eye. Hedge is also honest about his mistakes. His first ever Art Fair in Berlin was catastrophic. "We didn't sell a thing, I took all the wrong stuff. I stood and watched as the large German galleries cleaned up. But I learned a lot."

The Hales Gallery, 70 Deptford High Street, London SE8. 0181-694 1194

Dominic Berning

Everyone Dominic Berning knew, including his mother, seemed to be artists. Since he'd always been involved, it seemed reasonable to open an art gallery in London's Soho. It was the heady days of the mid-Eighties, and the artists were all friends from The Slade and Central St Martins. One of them, the light sculptor Martin Richman (finalist for the 1998 Jane Drew prize), still works with him.

He has had other galleries, has re-trenched to an office organising shows in galleries or staging site-specific exhibitions in odd places (installing a show with Gavin Jones in a Hawksmoor church in Limehouse and an old air-raid shelter in Bow) but he recently opened a new gallery in the old Electric Showroom near Hoxton Square in east London.

The distinction between his flat and gallery is blurred. His sitting room has Martin Richman's work lighting the windows and bookshelf, and glass shoe sculptures by Jane Mullfinger dance ghost-like in the corridor.

He would do it all differently if he were to start again, he engagingly confesses. But he likes the fact he's done things on his own terms, navigating the shark-infested waters of the art world, learning the whole complicated business without a mentor, without the short cut that a Cork Street apprenticeship would have given him.

He says he has hung on "by being out there, chasing leads, keeping my nose to the ground. Just socialising in the art world."

He adds: "It's a constantly stimulating business. It can be exciting, frustrating at times, exhausting and exhilarating. Selling art is dealing in ideas, something created very personally by the artist. It's not just a commodity of finite value. You can make money but that is not a primary concern. If you want to earn money you do something else."

Berning's philosophy is to take it slowly, building a solid reputation for an artist. He is wary of hype that can launch an artist into the stratosphere. "At an early stage, a young artist should be judged for their art rather than the financial aspect of their work."

Dominic Berning, 1 Hoxton Street, London N1, 0171-739 4222

Asprey Jacques

Above all others, the Asprey Jacques gallery has attracted comment - not particularly derogatory or complimentary, just observations. After all, you don't perch your premises opposite Cork Street, vulture-like, if you want to be ignored.

The West End was the obvious location, says Alison Jacques, who opened the gallery with Charles Asprey last year: "We were establishing a new place, and we couldn't be complacent enough to expect people to trek way out to see us." Anyway, Asprey is his own landlord: he owns the building and lives above the two-floor showroom.

He did the ground work first - a Christie's Diploma in fine and contemporary art, then a job at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In 1995 he put himself through "a massive learning curve" by setting up Riding House Editions (his gallery prior to Asprey Jacques) and working with such artists as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Abigail Lane and Sam Taylor Wood.

Asprey met Jacques at the Waddington's Gallery when she made her first sale, an Ian Davenport, to him. She later went to The British School at Rome as curator and the pair kept in touch.

Asprey and Jacques hit the ground running, doing enormous amounts of travelling. And in the next few months they're off to Antwerp, Venice, Basel, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Milan and Ireland. They advertise and are devising a website.

Asprey Jacques represents seven artists, and if anything binds them together it is that they are all, like Asprey and Jacques, under 35. The work is graphic-based, with an emphasis (they say) on "the beautiful". Catherine Yass has been commissioned by the Tate Bankside and The Royal Mail (for a millennium stamp) and was shortlisted for the Glen Dimplex Award. Michael Majerus painted the facade of the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Asprey says: "It is a privilege to work with living artists, and to be part of affecting your generation's cultural life. In 20 to 30 years' time we will be proud to see their work in galleries and museums."

Asprey Jacques, 4 Clifford Street, London W1, 0171-287 7675

Modern Art Inc

Stuart Shave soon realised that his art could never quite realise what was in his head. He was at art school in Nottingham at the time, and decided that the curatorial route was more interesting and, he feels, just as creative.

In 1997 he worked with the mixed media artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster (whose work includes turning refuse into sculpture), transforming their studio into a gallery: he now represents them and has a waiting list for their work. He has worked at Cork Street's Entwistle gallery, been art consultant to the private German collector and fashion designer Wolfgang Joop, and was exhibition organiser and factotum to the Chapman Brothers. In November 1998 he set up Modern Art Inc with Detmar Blow, husband of fashion patron Isabella, or rather Blow had the foresight to set up with Shave, just 25.

Redchurch Street is a backwater near Brick Lane in east London, and the gallery occupies the ground floor and basement. Shave lives behind the shop. His lounge also houses his artists' work - to show that contemporary art doesn't look out of place in the home. Ian Dawson's melted Rubic cubes take pride of place.

"Representing someone is a full-time job," says Shave. "I work with my artists to the extent that it feels there's no separation between me and them. I'm proud of the work we represent and the fact we're getting it into the right places." The right places include the home of film director Tim Burton who recently bought some of Noble and Webster's work.

Shave is unsure if the gallery has any aesthetic. But, in criticising the prissy, sometimes condescending attitude of West End galleries he realises what it's not. "It's not arsey," he declares.

Modern Art Inc, 73 Redchurch Street, London E2, 0171-739 2081

Comments