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LONDON — County Hall, with its antiquated wood paneling, grand marble staircase and soaring cupola, is an unlikely venue in which to show a collection of floating barnyard animals and the art world’s most famously unmade bed — but not in the eyes of Charles Saatchi.
Saatchi, the press-shy advertising tycoon and voracious art collector, is about to open his private gallery at County Hall and — surprise! — he doesn’t want to talk about it. Indeed, newspapers here are betting that Saatchi won’t even turn up at the gallery’s opening bash on April 15, although his girlfriend, Nigella Lawson, is scheduled to attend.
Instead, Saatchi wants this gallery to speak for itself.
The 40,000-square-foot exhibition space currently showcases 75 works from Saatchi’s personal contemporary art collection, which is heavy on the Young British Artists — Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas —who rose to prominence in the Nineties, thanks in large part to his largess. Saatchi plans to curate three to four exhibitions a year at the gallery himself, drawing on his private collection, which boasts about 2,500 works, and bringing in smaller shows from around the world that pique his interest. The inaugural show, up for six months, is the first Hirst retrospective.
County Hall, built at the start of the 20th century in Edwardian Baroque style, served as a former headquarters of the left-wing Greater London Council. Now, in its central circular gallery — a former debating chamber — the YBA’s greatest hits are on display, including Emin’s “My Bed,” Chris Ofili’s controversial “The Holy Virgin Mary,” decorated with dung, and Hirst’s “Love Lost,” a tiger shark in formaldehyde that Saatchi commissioned.
Between the ground floor and second floor, Hirst’s jaunty polka-dotted “Spot Mini” is parked halfway down the marble staircase. The rooms that line the hallways each boast a fireplace, a Bakelite clock and one work of art. Sadly, though, Hirst’s pigs and sheep in formaldehyde look lonely in these formal, yawning spaces. To better ends, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s eerie gelatin-silver prints of Henry VIII and his wives sit well with the gallery’s dark paneled walls and parquet floors.
Reviews, so far, have been mixed. The Independent called the gallery “terrible curating in a terrible place.” The Evening Standard and The Sunday Times Magazine were more sympathetic, the latter even calling it “spectacular.”
It’s no secret that Saatchi views the new gallery as a rival to Tate Modern, a 10-minute walk downriver in the burgeoning center of the South Bank. But unlike Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries, Saatchi can buy the art and stage the shows he wants, and sources say Saatchi relishes the fact that he’s in no way accountable to a board of directors.
“I don’t want the artists I believe in to have to wait until they’re pensioners before the public has a chance to see their works in large-scale shows,” Saatchi said in a statement issued this year.
He’s certainly giving the public their chance to indulge: The gallery will be open seven days a week, and from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. on weekends.
Saatchi’s first gallery, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in north London, opened in 1985 and closed in fall 2001 in anticipation of County Hall’s debut. The former gallery was a sprawling minimal space that couldn’t be more different from County Hall. But if Saatchi needed a sign that County Hall was meant to be, he certainly got it. When Saatchi’s team finally got the keys and entered a dusty, messy space last December, they removed a chandelier to clean it, discovering about 50 very Hirst-like dead pigeons inside.