LONDON — Frieze has been a quiet affair this year, with the event moving online, and only a trickle of visitors into the Mayfair galleries and across town. With travel quarantines firmly in place, there have been few international buyers, while the usual evening revelries that come with the art fair have been curtailed due to the 10 p.m. curfew. As of this weekend, COVID-19 restrictions will be tightened in the British capital.
That hasn’t deterred Phoebe Saatchi Yates, 25, and her husband Arthur Yates, 29, from opening their first gallery, on Cork Street in Mayfair, with the dual ambition of showcasing young, unknown artists and selling the work of established ones — many of whom Phoebe, the only child of Charles Saatchi and Kay Hartenstein Saatchi, the power couple of the Nineties art world, got to know as she was growing up.
Their gallery, Saatchi Yates, spans more than 10,000 square feet across two floors and opened this week with a show of interactive paintings by Pascal Sender, a Swiss artist who studied at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Peter Doig (whose work Charles Saatchi had purchased early in the artist’s career).
The space is the first gallery of this scale in Mayfair that specializes in young, lesser-known artists although downstairs, there’s more well-known art for sale drawn from leading private collections. On display is a small pumpkin painting by Yayoi Kusama and works by Robert Motherwell and Paula Rego.
Sender’s paintings — meditations on everyday life, social media, motherhood, dystopia — can be viewed in 2-D and in 3-D, thanks to an augmented reality app that Sender coded himself. He paints first, then works on the 3-D models that jump toward the viewer, shift and flow, via the app. The effect is dazzling, although visitors risk tripping over each other as they gaze at the paintings through their digital devices.
“We’re doing something completely different. Everywhere else in Mayfair is showing already established artists, so it was really important for us to show never-seen-before, breakthrough talent,” Phoebe said during a walk-through of the new space.
“Mayfair is where the art world is right now, especially for international clients who are staying in the golden triangle of the three large hotels, and only going to galleries here. Younger artists don’t really get a look in, because a lot of them are in East London, South London or further out,” she added.
Arthur said he and Phoebe want to “reimagine the art world for our generation. We’re going to make a bold statement and try to do things differently. We want to make the London art scene exciting and give it some vitality, to do things just for the love of art, to discover new names and talents.”
The two swear that Saatchi Yates won’t be a scary place. “Right now, people don’t really go into commercial galleries, they feel like they’re not welcome, and it is intimidating. We want to have a space that functions as a commercial gallery, but one that inspires and is also on the cultural map. We want it to be a place to go after Sunday lunch, or after work on a weekday evening,” Phoebe said.
The couple had been planning the gallery for the past three years, while they worked with Charles Saatchi, whose own London gallery is now located just off the King’s Road, on Duke of York Square. Arthur was also the founder of the arty label Bruta, which briefly showed at London Fashion Week and which offered high-end shirts with designs inspired by Maiolica patterns, the Medici family and paintings by Michelangelo and Botticelli.
Charles Saatchi, who made his fortune in advertising, was for decades a controversial giant in the contemporary art world, finding, promoting and creating the market for the Young British Artists, or YBAs, including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and the Chapman Brothers, to name a few.
In the late Eighties, his then-wife Kay, who’s originally from Little Rock, Ark., opened the London gallery Mayor Rowan, and later went to work for Waddington Galleries. She has long been a promoter of art students, and emerging talent, and during their 11-year marriage (the couple divorced in 2001), Charles and Kay trudged through London schools, warehouses and artists’ studios in search of the next hot young things, snapping them up for their collection. Charles Saatchi particularly was oft-criticized for paying exorbitant sums for the work of young artists, with some contending he was doing so to push up the value of his collection.
Arthur said he and Phoebe, who have been together for eight years and who married last summer on Lake Como, learned a lot working for her father, including “how to look at paintings the way he does, how to discover new talents. But I think the main takeaway was how to make up your own rules, and have confidence in your own way of doing things, in a new way that you really believe in. We’re really confident in what we’re doing, and I think that’s where the energy comes from. And I think Phoebe and I are very loyal people and we won’t bring in artists half-heartedly.”
Phoebe added that the two have deliberately been looking for their new artists “in the wrong places,” finding them on Instagram, or through friends. Once they find them, she said, they plan to stick with them as their careers evolve.
Asked about the decision to open a physical space when so much of the art world (including this year’s Frieze Art Fair, which runs until Friday) has shifted online, Arthur said it was a necessity.
“Nothing can replace the physical space. This [Sender] show couldn’t have been displayed online; we couldn’t have done justice to the work, because you need to be in the physical space with the iPad to watch and interact with it. You can take lots of pictures of a work of art, but actually standing in front of Michelangelo’s David? I don’t think you can replicate that.”
Phoebe said that after being in lockdown earlier this year, people have missed “walking into a space and looking at something and spending half an hour just getting into another person’s mind.”
The gallery’s opening on 6 Cork Street is a milestone for the Pollen Estate, which owns and oversees much of that part of Mayfair (including Savile Row). Cork Street was once quirky, quiet and lined with small, British galleries. It wasn’t very buzzy, though, and Pollen set out to change that, re-developing the strip and creating bigger, slicker spaces for new generation and international galleries.
Phoebe and Arthur are undaunted by the current lack of an international audience, the lifeblood of the London art world, while COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.
“We’re expanding our London network, and meeting new people all the time. It’s actually been a really nice way for us to grow,” Phoebe said.
Arthur added that, as gallerists, they’ve been looking for alternatives to art fairs, too. They’re certainly not the first gallerists to bemoan the current art fair model. Art fairs are not only expensive to take part in (even the online ones), but they’re crowded, and often require lots of jetting around the world, which is just not an option right now.
“It’s a nice time for us to work out together with our team how can we be more efficient, and finding ways of doing things differently. It’s exciting for us to find solutions,” he said.