Can we return to a time when the artworld was creative rather than professional?
For those of us who work in the artworld, a pause in operations creates a narrative arc: there’s the starting point of your actual experience and the currently imposed endpoint. My own storyline begins in the sketchy mid-1990s, after I left art school, and leads, for now, to the hypertrophic, globalised behemoth that lately stopped in its tracks. Misty-eyed nostalgia is a risk to be navigated, looking back. I wouldn’t want to revisit everything about my earliest, uh, professional days – I was usually broke, for starters – but in particular my interactions with gallerists in recent times have made me think about their predecessors, or in some cases their younger selves, who were somewhat different.
A bit of backstory: I got my first driblets of work in the London artworld by writing letters. When I was twenty-two I pulled out my electric typewriter and wrote to the editor of Dazed & Confused, as it was then known, saying their art coverage stank and I could do better; I scribbled a note to Time Out saying they didn’t cover South London enough and, since I lived there, why didn’t they hire me. Bizarrely, or maybe because confidence is a virtue even when it’s founded on naivety, both of these strategies worked. The editor in charge of art coverage at Dazed wrote back saying it might have been smarter of me to write directly to him, rather than embarrassing him in front of his boss, but he still generously allowed me to write for the magazine (for no pay). The perks, such as going to magazine launch-parties where some band called Radiohead was playing an acoustic set, I stupidly turned down. Anyway, the third letter I wrote, circa 1997, was to a gallery owner, who will remain nameless. I used fancy locutions to express that I liked his gallery and wanted to work there. The gallerist interviewed me, thinking he’d found a salesperson, and then kept me on anyway as a press officer when it became evident that I couldn’t sell for shit. After I failed at that too, he asked me to manage the gallery. I suspect now that he wanted to make me a director and financially culpable.
The gallerist was a swan, appearing to glide smoothly while his legs pumped wildly beneath the waterline. He seemed to owe a lot of money to various people, which he affected not to care about – every few weeks we’d get a fax tabulating a horrific amount of back rent. He lived a posho-bohemian lifestyle, based on the evidence of the people who passed through the gallery after hours. He kept the place afloat by charming a succession of backers and always pulling off a secondary-market deal in the nick of time. Our mailing list was full of rock stars and royalty, none of whom we ever saw at the gallery. The gallerist was an oddity, but he was – this is the point – just one kind of oddity among the other misfit gallery owners I was meeting at the time. Back then, of course, there were more artist-run spaces, and the artists/gallerists were extremely friendly to upstart me, given that I didn’t know much at all; either that, or they suffered me because I was writing for a weekly magazine in which a review would increase footfall. (Yes, that’s right, I was working for a commercial gallery and reviewing shows at other ones. If you don’t say anything, neither will I.)
Dealers who now have large spaces in London, named after themselves while they used to be called something else, were just starting out. Some of these latterly august figures had trained as artists too, and it’s been a slow process whereby they’ve smoothed off their disorderly edges, become besuited salesmen like the generation before them, something gained and something lost. Some of them drifted chaotically in and out. I remember one South London gallerist, an architect by training, proudly showing me a video of himself filmed by one of his artists, in which he was slumped on a flight of stairs at his own private view, drunkenly yowling karaoke. No idea where he is now, but he isn’t running an empire of galleries. Many of the artists he was among the first to show, however, you’d recognise. At shows like this, nervously gripping a Beck’s, I’d repeatedly run into a scruffy little guy a bit older than me called Gregor Muir, who was also writing things for Dazed. A rival, I thought. He appears to be doing quite well now.
A little later, soon after the turn of the millennium, things changed. Artists were still opening galleries, but the people who’d previously been goofballs at parties were progressively affecting a deep, studied, careful cool, fearful of making the wrong impression. A great professionalisation was afoot, helped along by a wave of spaces opened by trust-fund kids who’d learned to be well-mannered at private school. The stakes were higher – rents were up, sales needed to be made, fairs were starting – and risk was increasingly off the menu. Sometime in the midst of this, so I heard, my former gallery boss shuttered his space and pretty much vanished to the Home Counties.
The messy energy and jagged personalities of the 1990s London artworld are a big part of where the existing one – or just-recently-existing one – came from. The conditions that made it possible, the empty spaces and cheap rents and lack of necessity to be a perpetual, affectless pro, were undone by the creeping gentrification that the art infrastructure famously contributed to, and by the fair-centric model of art commerce. In the last of these columns I speculated that, after our current plight, the artworld might just rematerialise smaller. If it does, I would wish that it found room for the wayward, risk-taking approaches that preceded everyone uncrossing their fingers, doubling their overheads, donning their suits and buttoning their lips.