Small and scrappy is the way for London’s galleries after Brexit

Small and scrappy is the way for London’s galleries after Brexit

“I have no furniture. No toilet. Nothing,” said Freddie Powell, 29, a contemporary art dealer, standing in the bare, white-tiled box that has been his by-appointment showroom for the past 16 months. His tiny gallery, Ginny on Frederick, occupies a former sandwich bar in the Farringdon area of London and measures just 7 feet wide.

After spending five years working for the powerhouse international gallery White Cube, Powell now makes a living as a full-time independent art dealer selling works generally priced at under $10,000. This year, he will exhibit at the New Art Dealers Alliance, or NADA, fair in New York, in May, and in at least one fair in Europe, he said. He also said he had up to eight shows planned at his gallery.

“I’m young: I met artists of my own age, and I wanted to show them,” Powell said. “It’s exciting that we’re moving out of the shadow of the YBAs,” he added, referring to Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the other internationally acclaimed “Young British Artists” who dominated London’s contemporary scene in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

“We have to allow new voices. We have to move on,” Powell said.

Powell is one of a group of young, serious-minded gallerists in London who have opened commercial spaces showcasing emerging artists over the past couple of years. This could be viewed as a counterintuitive move, given the recessionary torpor of Britain’s economy, the damage Brexit has done to the country’s art market and the double-digit inflation that has made London an intimidatingly expensive place to live and to do business.

Yet new contemporary dealerships like Ginny on Frederick, Guts Gallery, Sundy and Niru Ratnam have somehow managed to sprout up across the capital. They, and their artists, have had to come up with scrappy, cost-savvy business models to survive.

By renting a defunct sandwich bar in an area of London that isn’t a traditional art trade hub, Powell, for instance, has kept his monthly costs down to 1,500 pounds, or about $1,850, which, he said, is “sort of half-shocking, and half very good” for a small retail with no heating or running water. (So where does he take his comfort breaks? “I go to the pub,” he said.)

Ginny on Frederick is currently presenting sardonic video diary works by Emily Pope, 32, which, according to the artist, aim to “produce an unflattering self-portrait, something that engages with failure.” Pope says in one of the videos that she is living through the “worst socio-economic situation in the last 50 years.”

London’s gallerists and artists are working in a very different environment from that which prevailed 15 or even 25 years ago when the Young British Artists were in their prime. Britain’s economy was growing for much of that time, and its art market was booming, helped, in part, by the country’s membership of the European Union, which gave art dealerships tariff-free access to the world’s biggest trading bloc.

In 2008, the year that Hirst’s landmark two-day “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” auction grossed some $200 million, London rivaled New York as a creative and commercial hub for contemporary art. But Britain’s art trade has contracted since the Brexit vote in 2016. Marian Goodman and Tornabuoni are among the international galleries that have shuttered their London branches. Condo, an innovative gallery-sharing program that encouraged London dealers to collaborate with international partners, has also bowed out of the city.

In 2021, sales at British dealerships and auction houses declined to an estimated $11.3 billion, representing a 17% share of the global market, “its lowest in a decade,” behind the United States and China, according to the most recent Art Basel and UBS Art Market report. New paperwork and tariffs seem to have particularly deterred clients based in the European Union.

“We have noticed a decrease in Europe and an increase in Asia and America, which is definitely down to Brexit and shipping costs,” said the dealer Ellie Pennick, 26, after consulting the database of buyers at her 2,000-square-foot Guts Gallery. The second-floor space, overlooking a row of railway arches used as auto body shops, opened in Hackney, in East London, just over a year ago. “It’s tough, but we’re making a profit,” she said.

Pennick said she was “not from money” and came from “a political, angry family” in northern England. Unable to afford the fees for a postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art, Pennick founded her dealership with the stated mission of “empowering underrepresented voices and championing the next generation of artists and collectors,” according to the Guts Gallery website.

The gallery’s latest exhibition, “(It’s My Party) I Can Cry if I Want To,” is a group show of female artists who have made paintings of the body themed around “birthdays, hysteria and consumption.” One of the artists represented, the Dallas, Texas-based Caroline Zurmely, paints eerie close-ups of party clothes using nail polish on wooden panels. Works on show cost ​$2,200 to $15,000 and 70% of them have sold, according to Pennick.

“We ran the risk – will anyone come?” Pennick said, but added that 400 people attended the latest show opening. Having more than 32,000 followers on Instagram helps.

“Social media has changed things wildly,” said Niru Ratnam, 50, a self-described “older person with a young gallery” that he opened in 2020 in a modest upstairs space off Carnaby Street, in London’s Soho area. “With a decent Instagram feed, you can reach out to collectors in a way that wasn’t possible before,” he said. “Suddenly, you have a ready-made mailing list. This used to take years to develop.”

“People seem to be down on London. It’s all about Paris,” Ratnam said. “But,” he added, “collectors are interested in meeting artists. There are more artists here than in many other cities, by virtue of all the art schools.”

London commercial rents don’t typically get much cheaper than the $1,000 a month that Francesca von Zedtwitz-Arnim and Liam Tickner, her partner, have been paying for the past year for their Sundy gallery in a downscale parade of shops in Lambeth, a few hundred yards from the River Thames. Situated near some established dealerships including Greengrassi, Cabinet and The Sunday Painter, and overshadowed by high-rise blocks of luxury apartments, Sundy is currently showing a series of new painted hangings by the Berlin-based artist Marco Bruzzone, priced from $5,000 to $9,000 each.

Von Zedtwitz-Arnim, 38, and Tickner, 44, are both Germans who trained at London art schools. They said that, so far, sales at the gallery and art fairs had covered the dealership’s costs.

“We have the option to go to Berlin, but we feel that London is a place that holds a lot of potential,” Tickner said. “It’s such a demanding and challenging place, but it’s culturally rich and gives back a lot,” he added. “It makes people serious. In London, people want to achieve something.”

Tickner, however, said he was concerned about declining standards at London’s world-renowned art schools. “There’s been a shift in art education to sped-up mass processing,” he said, alluding to the fact that schools that charge tuition fees, like the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths (where many of the YBAs studied), are now under pressure to be businesses that provide value for money. Tickner said this could have a problematic effect on the creative ambition of their graduates.

In 2019, a report on further education commissioned by Britain’s government found that creative arts degrees were the worst value, in terms of financial returns, for students and the government. State funding for arts subjects at university was recently cut by 50%.

“There’s a real excitement around the group of galleries that’s emerging,” said Powell, the gallerist in the former sandwich bar. “But we need the art economy that can handle it.”

They also need a new generation of artists that can rise to the moment.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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