There are now 37 galleries in Fitzrovia. The trickle of new commercial galleries that Fitzrovia News and Time Out wrote about in summer 2008 has become a tidal wave. At that time, we mentioned eight new galleries that are still around. Added to the eight or so galleries that were already here in 2008, this makes an impressive 21 new galleries that have opened in the last three years. During the research for this article, in early August, two large new galleries have opened: Different in Percy Street and Twist in Great Titchfield Street.
Around 10 per cent of all London galleries are now located in Fitzrovia, and Eastcastle Street and its environs are being heralded as the new Cork Street. This is like the art boom of Mayfair in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Portobello in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, and the East End since the ‘90’s. No doubt there will be more in the months to come and it is likely that property developers are monitoring the situation, as “money always follows art”, as seen recently in Hoxton and Shoreditch. Also, many new art establishments have popped up in the immediate hinterland of Soho, Marylebone, Kings Cross and Bloomsbury
Fitzrovia has many attractions for art galleries. Commercial property is relatively cheap, given its central location, and the exodus of the rag trade has left many desirable showroom spaces. The rich mix of companies specialising in advertising, architecture and design provide an existing arts hub and an appropriate and stimulating context for art. Many are also attracted by the impressive list of artists that lived or worked here: from Hogarth and Constable through Whistler and Sickert to John and The Bloomsbury Group, not forgetting the English Surrealists who met weekly at the Horseshoe Hotel on Tottenham Court Road, and more recently conceptual artist Cerith Wyn Evans.
Several galleries, including Different (Percy Street), Modern Art (Eastcastle Street), Mummery+Schnelle (Great Titchfield Street), Paradise Row (Newman Street) and Woolf (Charlotte Street) moved to Fitzrovia from the East End. These are often operations that started quite modestly in Shoreditch or Bethnal Green and quickly built an international clientele. They discovered that these influential collectors were not prepared to traipse around vast expanses of East London, from their bases in West End hotels. The solution was to take the art to the collectors.
Other art dealers, seeing the proliferation of art in the area, have opened a second gallery here. Lazarides, now in Rathbone Place, known for Street Art and famously the first gallery to sell Banksy also trades in Soho; and Whisper, now in Eastcastle Street, a contemporary print specialist owned by Ronnie Wood’s son Tyrone, has a sister gallery, Scream, in Mayfair. Rebecca Hossack, one of Fitzrovia’s first gallerists in the 1980’s now has two galleries here, in Charlotte Street and Conway Street, and has recently expanded to New York. Increasingly, overseas galleries are choosing Fitzrovia to mount their bid for a slice of London’s art action. The last six months has seen Regina, also in Moscow, open in Eastcastle Street and Rosenfeld Porcini, also in Naples, open in Rathbone Street. Hanmi Gallery who have a project space in Seoul, have been organising shows with local Fitzrovia Noir artists at their Maple Street space, prior to its renovation and official opening in 2012.
A major Fitzrovia factor with all the local galleries that I spoke to was proximity to Frieze Art Fair, and the opportunity to seduce collectors into visiting their spaces. The importance of Frieze Art Fair as a showcase for international excellence in contemporary art is enormous, and it is held on Fitzrovia’s doorstep, in Regents Park for four days every October. Since it began in 2003, it has become one of the most respected art fairs in the world, attracting over 60,000 visitors. Galleries from Mexico to Hong Kong clamour to get in, as acceptance is seen as an acknowledgement of the quality of art on offer. 500 galleries from around the world have the temerity to apply for a booth at Frieze each year and around 150 are accepted. Of these only 26 are from the UK, and four are based in Fitzrovia, Alison Jacques, Modern Art, Pilar Corrias and Regina.
Art fairs have become an essential platform for galleries, especially at a time when galleries are openly competing with auction houses, that now account for around 50 per cent of art sales. Collectors love the convenience of the ‘art mall’ and go there for ‘one stop shopping’. Fairs can account for a third of a gallery’s business, often more, and some art dealers no longer consider a ‘shop’ necessary, leaving them free to concentrate on art fairs around the world. They range from small local affairs, such as The Affordable Art Fair, to major international showcases in New York, Dubai and Hong Kong. The right fairs give galleries and their artists credibility at a time when powers of personal connoisseurship are often wanting. Fairs open up new markets for artists, raise a gallery’s profile and draw new collectors to the gallery. Every gallery that I spoke to in Fitzrovia considered art fairs an essential part of their marketing strategy.
An exciting development on the Fitzrovia art scene is the number of new, often young, gallery owners showing work by talented artists, sometimes only a few years out of college. As artists “jump ship” to the next gallery up the food chain (or are sometimes poached) at increasingly early stages in their careers, it’s become important to get in first. These galleries tend to be relatively modest spaces compared with large architect designed galleries such as Modern Art and Rosenfeld Porcini, but there are treasures to be found. Tom Cole, who set up shop in Little Portland Street in May 2010, visits degree shows, and most of his artists are aged 25 to 35. Having been an intern at Mummery+Schnelle and worked as a curator at Lisson Gallery for four years, he was attracted to the mix of existing galleries in Fitzrovia. He complements gallery exhibitions with art fairs as far afield as Rotterdam and Hong Kong.
Josh Lilley, who managed the now defunct Cass Sculpture Foundation Gallery on Percy Street in 2004 , explained that, “I realised that the East End’s time had been and gone, and that the centrality and charm of the location of Fitzrovia made it ideal. My grandfather was a successful wine merchant based in Fitzrovia since the ‘60’s, and was the lover of Paula Rego for 15 years, so the area was familiar to me.” His gallery in Riding House Street shows emerging to mid career artists with a conceptual basis and a rigorous approach to medium, and has taken part in art fairs in Brussels, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and New York.
Rollo in Charlotte Street is the brainchild of curator Philippa Found and picture restorer Simon Gillespie, who operates from adjacent premises. Their focus is on women artists and they have a driving concern to redress the under-representation of women artists. Many of their artists are under 30. In contrast, they also represent Frank Bowling, Silver medalist to David Hockney’s Gold at the Royal College of Art in 1962, and in 1987, the first living black artist to be purchased by the Tate Gallery. Rollo also find art fairs a useful platform, taking part in Pinta in New York and London.
Inevitably, in such a fluid business as art, several Fitzrovia galleries have gone, and I have counted eight that have either moved out or closed down since 2008. This has always been the case: Karsten Schubert who famously traded from Charlotte Street and later Riding House Street from 1986 to 1996, and was responsible for launching the careers of many YBA’s including Gary Hume, Michael Landy and Rachel Whiteread, traded privately until his reappearance in Golden Square, Soho in 2007. Curwen Gallery moved to Windmill Street in February 1987, and is still going strong, making it the longest surviving gallery in Fitzrovia. (They occupy premises that were previously the home of the Ozzy Osbourne and Led Zeppelin Fan Clubs.) They still shows vibrant young art in their annual Northern Graduates exhibition and, given her seniority, director Jill Hutchings should have the last word: “I didn’t follow Frieze, Frieze followed me!”
A full list of Fitzrovia galleries appears on the back page of the printed autumn edition of Fitzrovia News.