BritArt: The next generation

Charles Saatchi created a sensation in the art world by putting the work of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman Brothers on display. Now he's looking to find the next generation of talent with 'Stuart', a non-profit online gallery for students with something to show. In its first week, 600 have signed up - and the website has attracted 20 million hits. Watch this space
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Not all of them will end up in his collection, but the latest initiative from Charles Saatchi offers young art students a greater chance of success. The man who introduced the world to artists Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread and Sarah Lucas, and who is credited with changing the face of British art with his explosive Sensation exhibition in 1997, has now launched his latest venture, Stuart.

The Stuart (as in "student art") gallery, gives artists the opportunity to show their work in a virtual exhibition space from where they can be picked up by collectors. Such a facility has clearly been needed: since introducing a dedicated platform for art students, the Saatchi website has seen its hit-rate double to three million a day and, in its first week alone, Stuart attracted 600 submissions from around the world.

A non-profit-making site, where artists can sell their work without being charged commission, Stuart could be considered a logical extension of Charles Saatchi's long-term interest in student work. A subsection of Saatchi's website Your Gallery, which already hosts a free global exhibition space for 18,000 artists, Stuart has been described as a unique opportunity for graduates hoping to get their work recognised on a wider stage. In addition, the discussion board on the site enables artists to share ideas, inspirations and advice with each other.

"When I was a student we would never have dreamt of having something like this," says the artist Paula Rego. "It's brilliant for students to show their work and see what is going on with other students worldwide."

Grayson Perry, the winner of the 2003 Turner Prize, agrees. "It's innovative ideas like this which will bring on new waves and changes in art. This type of innovation will always produce new, exciting things."

And although the man famous for showcasing the YBAs (Young British Artists) has not yet bought anything from the site, he does insist that he views the work of every new student who signs up. "There are a number of really very interesting artists on Stuart that I have already passed on to dealers that I work closely with, both in the UK and in the States," says Saatchi.

So far, around a third of the students are from the UK, one third from America and one third from the rest of the world, from Turkey to Slovakia. Yet the Saatchi Gallery contacted only art galleries in London to kickstart the process. The surge of interest appears to stem from word of mouth.

Nevertheless, not everyone is convinced by the project. "Sometimes you come back from an art school visit, saying to anyone who will listen: you just wouldn't believe how terrible some of them are," says The Independent's art critic Tom Lubbock. "Now the world can see. The serious question is whether these sites will provide artists - good or bad - with a significant alternative, direct-sale marketplace, which bypasses the gallery system with its enormous percentages. That seems doubtful.

"Most rich art-collectors aren't as bold as Saatchi is himself - they'd be reluctant to buy on a whim out of the blue. But another possibility is the development of a very broad 'general public' art market. That would presumably mean artists devoting themselves to relatively cheap, home-sized and maybe reproducible artworks, rather than big, expensive, unique museum pieces. For ambitious artists that would be a big and perhaps intolerable reversal of priorities."

In the meantime, the site continues to grow apace. While he may not be directly responsible for creating the next generation of Young British Artists, Saatchi is certainly the driving force behind them. Is the next big thing already online? Time will tell.

Sophie Rees, 21, Fine Art Painting, University of Brighton

"Stuart is benefiting students on a global scale. It enables us to communicate our work, ideas and philosophies internationally. As students, we do not usually have the facilities and capital to exhibit our work regularly; the Saatchi website has given us the opportunity to do so."

Federico Gallo, 31, MA Communication Art & Design, Royal College of Art

"Stuart is a fun, fast way to exchange contact details, thoughts, info and samples - almost like having many talented minds from all over the world in one room. It is an easy way (the website is nicely designed and simple to use) to see and be seen, to learn about new, creative people, techniques and opportunities."

Tori Murphy, 26, Fine Art, Kingston University

"It's the first time as art students that we can communicate with and see the work of our contemporaries from all over the world. I have already been in contact with people from Canada, Dublin and all over the States."

Ally Mobbs, 22, Fine Art: Print-Making and Digital Media, University of the Arts, London (UAL)

"Stuart is a good alternative to other networking sites, as it offers online space to art students. After graduation I could quickly find possible collaborators on it or people with experience and knowledge that I do not have to ask for help."

Vicky Newman, 22, Fine Art, Falmouth College of Arts

"It is quite easy to feel 'safe' in a bubble of tutors and fellow students, and quite out of touch with the real world. I have found Stuart excellent in putting me in contact with new voices of other students around the world, giving fresh interpretations of my work and hopefully preparing me for life after a BA."

Jayne Archard, 22, Fine Art, Kingston University

"It appeals to me as an online exhibition space - I can share my work, ideas and interests with other artists beyond the studio environment. There's something really exciting about being involved with this new and fast-growing online art community. It gives me an invaluable chance to network with new people in creative fields."

Eleanor Lindsay Fynn, 25, MA Photography and Urban Culture, Goldsmiths College

"I use Stuart as a means to find other artists working around similar themes to me. At the moment I am curating a show on 'Alienation' using both known and unknown artists, and have been building connections and getting ideas through Stuart."

Mark Davey, 21, BA school, The Slade School of Fine Art

"I put my work on Stuart because it's a great new way to get your work seen by all types of people, and I like how it is people's own content that is beginning to be at the forefront of what the internet is."

Julie Bennett, 35, Fine Art, Kensington and Chelsea College

"It's a unique opportunity to have your work viewed by thousands of people worldwide who are serious about art. Being able to view works of your contemporaries around the world is a valuable source as a student so you can start to see the trends that are happening today. You can also contact everyone on the site and ask how they did something or, indeed, commission them to do something similar for you, giving you a feeling of supporting art at the very beginning."

Ian Larson, 25, BA school, The Slade School of Fine Art

"I believe that having a place to exhibit your art to as many people as possible for free is great and in that way the Stuart site has started something for a lot of artists, galleries and collectors to think about and view."

Stefanie Kirlew, 23, BA Fine Art/History of Art, Goldsmiths College

"Stuart is a fantastic networking tool for all art students. It provides an excellent opportunity to meet, share ideas, and chat with others who foster similar interests, as well as providing a space to display your work that is viewed by millions of people all over the globe each day."

Stuart Hartley, 36, MA Fine Art, The Slade School of Fine Art

"What the site gives is the opportunity to have a web presence for free (important student factor), and in turn this gives the opportunity for my work to be seen by both prospective galleries and collectors alike. It also allows me to see work by other up-and-coming artists from institutions worldwide and to contact them about their work to discuss shared concerns."