Charles Saatchi: a blessing or a curse for young artists?

A trio of new 'Saatchi Sensations' has been chosen. But does this guarantee a dazzling future? By Arifa Akbar

Friday 13 June 2008 00:00 BST

Charles Saatchi is the robust figure every art college rector dreams will fill their doorway. The impresario, famed for plucking artists from anonymity and thrusting them into the public glare, is notorious for turning up early to college graduation shows and cutting-edge art fairs – sometimes before all the exhibits have arrived – to beat his competitors to the young talent.

Yesterday, three students were counting their luck when the dealer who propelled Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin to fortune sauntered into their end of year show at the Royal Academy to buy thousands of pounds of their work.

Saatchi paid £7,900 for five cut-out cartoon characters by Angus Sanders-Dunnachie, 28. He also bought seven landscapes by Jill Mason, 33, for up to £600 each, and all 13 paintings by 26-year-old Carla Busuttil. These latest "Saatchi sensations" could now expect soaring prices and fulsome careers.

Take Phoebe Unwin, 28. Noticed by Saatchi two weeks after her graduation show at Slade, he bought her painting, Girl, while it was on show at a makeshift gallery in east London's Hoxton Square. Since then, he has purchased four more of her works. He plans to include further pieces in an exhibition at his new gallery, when it opens later this year in Chelsea.

"It has been very nice to have been supported by him over a period of time," she said.

Stella Vine, the dancer turned painter, is another success associated with Saatchi since he discovered her painting of Princess Diana with the words "Hi Paul can you come over I'm really frightened" in an obscure London gallery in 2004.

But not every artist whose work is snapped up is guaranteed success and continued support.Some have spoken of their mixed fortunes after being bought by Saatchi early in their careers. The dealer has a reputation for brutally pruning his collection, selling off less favoured items or consigning them to his immense archives.

Saatchi's most outspoken protegé-turned-critic was the Italian neo-expressionist painter Sandro Chia, whose work was bought and then disposed of in the 1980s. There was speculation that Saatchi's sale of his entire holdings of Chia's work effectively destroyed the Italian's reputation. Chia, who never made a comeback, said: "Thanks to him I am probably less successful but much freer in what I do."

Kate MccGwire is hugely grateful to Saatchi but sympathises with the restrictions brought by such instant fame. Saatchi snapped up her sculpture "Brood", made of 23,000 chicken wishbones, at her 2004 Royal College of Art degree show. The artwork received an entire room at his County Hall gallery and its high profile helped her find a studio but brought unwanted expectations.

"When you make a work that becomes iconic you are labelled to an extent, not exactly as a one-trick pony, but it's as if people think you make work only with wishbones," she said. "There was a certain expectation afterwards that was quite hard."

James Howard, a 26-year-old postgraduate at the Royal Academy, is ambivalent about the "Saatchi effect" on his career, since he received a call last June informing him that the collector had spent £4,600 buying all 46 of his works, including large digital prints bearing logos and brands as well as lewd images from the internet.

Reflecting on his early success, Mr Howard yesterday said he had since had a couple of solo exhibitions and branched off into online media and animation. He used Saatchi's cash to pay off his overdraft and now works full time as an artist, with the odd shift at a Mayfair gallery.

"Work has sold intermittently here and there," he said. "Obviously there was a lot of press at the time which was good fun and I got some leads from it, but that all died down very quickly, and I've been going on under my own steam. It's difficult to measure but I think the shows I have had since would have happened anyway."

Cristina Ruiz, the editor of The Art Newspaper, said aspiring artists gained important publicity from selling degree show works to Saatchi – but some then harbour unrealistic ideas.

"The press is always interested in what Saatchi buys because he's seen as a trendsetter," said Ruiz. "It can be very useful to the artists but also quite distracting. It's not as simple to say that because Saatchi has bought your work, your career is made, but it can certainly help.

"It is one thing having publicity from such an event, and quite another that your work is actually shown by Saatchi in his gallery."

Saatchi was credited with creating the 1990s market that launched the careers of the Young British Artists. It began with Hirst's degree show at Goldsmith's College. He sent their prices – and their cultural credibility – soaring when he wangled a Royal Academy exhibition for the Brit pack. Titled "Sensation", it became the stuff of modern art legend.

James Howard

Stella Vine

The dancer turned painter was "discovered" when Saatchi visited a gallery showing her work above a butcher's shop in east London and saw herportrait of Diana, Princess of Wales. She is now a celebrated artist who commands rising prices for her work.

Sandro Chia

The Italian painter and sculptor was outspoken after Saatchi sold off his work in the 1980s, and the commercial worth of his art was never to recover.

Kate MccGwire

Her sculpture Brood, made from chicken bones, right, was bought by Saatchi. "He opened lots of doors for me," she said. "Lots of people now consider my work."

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