Today is the start of London Art Weekend. A new initiative to celebrate the start of London Art Week, which launched yesterday, the Weekend is focused on Brown’s Hotel, and offers a gateway to the extraordinary range and quality of art works and art expertise to be found in London’s premier art district. Next week the major auction houses hold their Old Master sales, but the idea of this weekend is to draw attention also to the many galleries and dealerships which make up London’s art community.
Once upon a time dealers would wait in their lairs for loyal collectors to come and glimpse the treasures they had hidden there. Over the last 20 years, however, the art world has changed beyond recognition. In the first place, attention has shifted from the areas of deep scholarship and relatively stable prices, from antiquities to 19th-century paintings, to the more volatile fashion-driven sector of contemporary art. Secondly, collecting as a whole has become a more extroverted, more social activity. Partly as a consequence, auction houses have increased their role in the market as new collectors have found the auction room an inspiring space to encounter and buy art and sellers have been impressed by the high prices achieved there. By contrast, traditional dealers have found it harder to draw new collectors to their sometimes esoteric enthusiasms, whilst struggling also with a diminishing supply of the best items and a threatening rise in rents.
Change has become the only option. Recognising the power of a party atmosphere to inspire buyers, some now spend much of the year travelling from one art fair to another, where concentrations of leading dealerships can attract a correspondingly focused audience. Just this week, many of London’s galleries took stands at Masterpiece, hoping to find in that luxurious and relaxed ambience collectors ready to buy. Fairs, however, are both exhausting and expensive. Moreover, they keep you away from the shop. And while the passing buyer off the street is a rare bird, it is only by visiting a gallery in person that a collector has an opportunity to discover a dealer’s stock in depth, to plumb the dealer’s expertise, to discuss at length and in privacy the various options available, to move serendipitously from a piece viewed in a window or at a fair or in a catalogue to another piece recently purchased or hidden in a back room.
It was to advertise this opportunity that last year over 40 galleries and three major London auction houses launched the initiative London Art Week. An amalgamation of Master Drawings & Sculpture Week and Master Paintings Week, all parties shared a collective determination to entice visitors down narrow side streets, and up 18th-century staircases to view the remarkable wealth of art on offer and to quiz the many experts who buy, sell, value and conserve it. The week was so successful that this year other dealerships have signed up, and indeed a number of major dealers from Madrid, New York, Paris and Rome have taken space in Mayfair and St James’s in order to join the party.