ArtMan: The world’s artistic hub

Our arts commentator Kevin Wilson kicks off his series of columns with an overview of the commercial role that the arts world plays in the capital

London rules the world when it comes to the complexity of its arts business and cultural offerings. We have always “done” art well, from our exciting emerging artists and designers to our hugely influential galleries and sales structures.

“Thriving despite vicious cuts, a tightly woven structure of part-public funded organisations underpin the glamour of the high-art brigade”

London has seen the birth of 55 new galleries in the past three years, many fighting to represent the new messiahs of the art world.

More than 800,000 people visited the Abstract America – New Painting and Sculpture exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery last year and almost 5,000 visitors a day surged through the doors of the Royal Academy to see the Van Gough exhibition. Art is big business in the capital.

Thriving and still surviving despite recent vicious and often unfair Arts Council cuts, a tightly woven structure of part-public funded organisations underpin the gloss and glamour of the high-art brigade. Amazing not-for-profit galleries and other organisations bolster the creative economy in often hidden ways that keeps London culturally rich and vibrant.

Auction boom

The London auction houses have had some mind-blowing sales in recent months. Old masters are going headm to head with the contemporary sales market, breaking records and changing the patterns of global art investment.

A few weeks ago a 1760 painting by Francesco Guardi sold in London for £26m. A work by English horse painter George Stubbs galloped to reach £22m at Christies.

Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath

Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a trainer, a jockey and a stable lad sold for £22,441,250 Christies Old Master&British Paintings - Evening Sale 5 July 2011

On 29 June, the London art world squealed as the Sotheby’s London Contemporary Art Evening Sale bagged the extraordinary total of £108.8m and established the highest total to date achieved for any sale of contemporary art in London. Champagne corks popped as 29 works sold for over £1m, and 45 lots sold for over $1m. The sale established five new artist records. A week earlier their impressionist and modern art evening sale almost cleared the same amount. The £100m art sale is almost becoming de rigueur.

Christie’s Catherine Burton is quoted as saying that its “post-war and modern sales in London went from £9m to over £30m in the past three years”.  

Total sales from London auction houses have risen disproportionally over other cities. This growth could be attributed in part to the 2006 change in pension law, allowing art owners to transfer works of art into their personal pension plans. This reform has encouraged pension funds and banks to nudge up the percentage they allocate to art as a hedging measure.

“Three years ago Frieze burst onto the scene, established by two sharp entrepreneurial graduates of psychology, politics and economics”

Merrill Lynch Wealth Management produced a recent report highlighting that almost 25 per cent of investments made by high net-worth individuals in 2010 went into art. The term “passion investment” is being thrown around as people snap up the latest must-have in their portfolios.

Frieze: the game-changer

In addition to the swell in auction sales, the relatively new explosion of art fairs in London has rendered the capital’s art world a new social cosmopolitan hub. Three years ago, Frieze burst on to the scene, established by two sharp entrepreneurial graduates of psychology, politics and economics, (just the right skills set to unravel the age-old patterns of art buying and turning it on its head)

The bold, innovative, skilfully marketed fair is now the highlight of the London art year. It has, single-handedly, changed the patterns of art trading in the capital. Frieze won’t be drawn on the actual sales and transactions involved and point out that many deals are completed after the fair, but estimates in the region of £25m-£30m show the importance of this new animal.

Frieze encourages a concentrated foreign spending invasion, the like only really seen before at Wimbledon. London has 30 or so significant art fairs that spice up the sales patterns and also provide an easy access point for collectors at all levels.

The career-makers

London is known for its powerful dealers and collectors. King maverick Charles Saatchi waves his chequebook and transforms the careers of London artists, propelling them into mega-stardom and the right to appear in Hello! magazine. In the case of Damien Hirst, Saatchi’s wave in the Nineties helped him to buy up acres of the Cotswolds.

London’s two art major zones, the classic West End and the thriving contemporary East End, satisfy the most diverse of collectors and give the capital its reputation for exciting art and a great place to shop.

Damien Hirst's Butterfly, 2008

Damien Hirst: Butterfly with household gloss on canvas (2008) 152.4 x 152.4 mm £42,000

Throw in the massive impact that the UK’s urban art has had on the London art scene and it’s easy to understand why London is now the most exciting and influential art shopping mall in the world. Urban artists and their emerging commercial peers that can be picked up today for £100 can be worth tens or hundreds of thousands a few years later. Sure, you have to know the tricks of the trade and move in the right circles, but big money is being made.

“Shining graduates are snapped up, nurtured and supported by benefactors; some are happy to fit into the investment machine, those more reluctant often sell for more as their resistance to be marketed gives them a financial kudos”

Talent crucibles

Central St Martins, The Royal College and many other London art colleges are where the world’s parents send their creative children to excel. London’s art colleges are vital to the chain of production in the art world. Shining graduates are snapped up, nurtured and supported by benefactors: some are happy to fit into the investment machine, and many of those reluctant to do so often sell for more as their resistance to be marketed often gives them a financial kudos.

Watch this space

Over the coming weeks I will be looking deeper at the role London plays on the world art stage – the finances, structure, dealers, collectors and, of course, the artists themselves. I will be zooming into fine detail – introducing the rising art-world stars, predicting new trends, interviewing key players and looking at all other aspects of the London art scene.

I will also be examining and guiding you through the world of personal and corporate collecting at all levels: How to start out; and how to make safe, strategic and speculative investments.

A painting by Os Gemeos

Os Gemeos

One to watch:

Os Gemeos (Portuguese for The Twins) are identical twin brothers from Brazil, born in 1974. They started painting graffiti in 1987 and now represent Brazil’s own style of grafitti. They take their influences from traditional hip hop and the Brazilian pixacao, which is a regionalised grafitti and tagging style.


*Average  Price Index£

*Based on an investment unit of £100 – how your investment would have performed per year, figures are estimates and should be used as a guide.

Kevin Wilson is an international arts consultant, curator and collector. He advises on collections, investments and projects worldwide. His clients range from the Historical Royal Palaces, International corporations, to private individuals and collections worldwide.

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