Feud with landlord prompts Saatchi to quit the South Bank

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The Independent Online

The millionaire advertising executive and art collector announced yesterday that he would quit his current gallery space in the former County Hall building in two years' time for a new home in the Duke of York's Headquarters building near Sloane Square in Chelsea.

The decision follows a series of disputes with Makoto Okamoto, European head of the Shirayama Shokusan Corporation, the Japanese company which bought the former seat of London government for £60m 12 years ago.

It was alleged that Mr Okamoto swore at a supervisor who questioned his attempt to pass a "gallery closed" sign and that he changed the locks on the gallery's sole disabled lavatory, prompting complaints from the Disability Rights Commission.

Mr Saatchi said:"The behaviour of the landlord has made our long-term tenancy untenable.

"He has made the staff despondent with an endless campaign of petty unpleasantness and we didn't feel the gallery could develop in this malevolent atmosphere."

More than 360,000 visitors have attended Saatchi's latest show, The Triumph of Painting, which opened in January. And, although the current gallery is in a prime site on the South Bank next to the London Eye, staff are confident the new home will continue to attract the crowds. Nigel Hirst, the gallery's director, said of the former army barracks: "This is a magnificent building and the very high footfall on the King's Road makes it a perfect location.

"Although we have been delighted with the impact the gallery has achieved over the last two years, our problems with our current landlord at County Hall have been well documented. Taking this entire building in Chelsea will give the gallery the opportunity to grow and develop in a way that we would like, without the distraction that our current landlord has created."

The HQ building, which is owned by the wealthy Cadogan Estates and is currently used for a mix of retail activities and some living accommodation, will be transformed into a 50,000 sq ft gallery, bigger than County Hall.

Many critics are likely to welcome the move as they dislike the panelled claustrophobia of County Hall and have criticised its corridors of smaller rooms as less than ideal for showing art. The new base will have space for a café, a large bookshop and better educational facilities. The Saatchi Gallery has been working hard at encouraging school parties.

Stuart Corbyn, the chief executive of Cadogan Estates, said: "The recent decision of Chelsea College of Art to move from Manresa Road to a new site next to Tate Britain on Millbank was seen by many as the final blow to art in Chelsea. We are delighted to be able to bring art and artists of international standing to Chelsea in this way."

It was part of the cultural regeneration of the area, he said. Last year the company opened its own concert venue, the Cadogan Hall, also just off Sloane Square.

No one from the Shirayama Shokusan Corporation was available for comment yesterday.

County Hall's controversial owner

When the Shirayama Shokusan Corporation bought County Hall in 1993, nobody knew anything about the organisation. Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, told Parliament the buyer was a private Japanese company, which meant that no independently verifiable information, such as company accounts, was available.

Makoto Okamoto, the family-run corporation's European head, eventually emerged to grab headlines. In 1995, the Japanese ambassador was forced to intervene when Mr Okamoto refused to allow war veterans in to the County Hall building where a war memorial lists more than a thousand London county council staff who died in the two world wars.

A similar row broke out three years ago when the Royal British Legion was refused permission to lay wreaths.

There have also been alleged run-ins with the London School of Economics, Sir Richard Branson and the London Eye. Among the more serious clashes came in 1998 when Mr Okamoto was accused of pestering Lisa-Jane Statton, the manager of the London Aquarium in County Hall, with sexist and racist comments. She told an employment tribunal that he called British women " bloody fat pigs" with "legs like tree-trunks", but withdrew the case after she was paid an estimated £100,000 to settle.

The rows with the Saatchi Gallery included a dispute over the disabled lavatory and arguments over where art could be displayed.

Mr Okamoto is married to an Englishwoman and has two sons. He lives in Kew and is said to have a flat in Paris.