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Saatchi’s challenge to Tate with new Thameside gallery

The collector credited with transforming London’s contemporary art scene opens prestigious premises on the Thames this 17 April

The opening of his new gallery this month in the ponderous panelled chambers of County Hall marks a major departure for Charles Saatchi. Not only has the art world’s best known ad-man relocated to grander and more spacious surroundings, but by placing the new Saatchi Gallery in one of the capital’s most prominent sites, opposite the Houses of Parliament and right by the London Eye, Saatchi has also engineered yet another shift in his famously ambiguous status, this time from controversial “supercollector” to an institution in his own right.

At the same time his relationship with the art establishment remains as ambivalent as ever, with a number of characteristically mixed messages emanating from the first floor premises of the former Greater London Council.

By opening such a prominent Thameside showcase neatly placed between Bankside and Millbank is Saatchi complementing or cocking a snook at the two Tates? Probably a bit of both—it certainly means that there are to be no big donations in the museum direction in the near future, and he did not protest too much when his decision to move to the South Bank was immediately seized upon by a Saatchi-obsessed media as a challenge to the Tate. While Saatchi declared mildly, “Tate Modern is astonishing and I love the Hayward and the Serpentine” he nonetheless could not resist a sly dig at the paucity of the Tate’s yBa holdings, declaring, “I think that new British art is the most exciting in the world and needs a dedicated showcase...I don’t want the artists I believe in to have to wait until they are pensioners before the public has a chance to see their works in large-scale shows.”

To delicate art world sensibilities there is something distinctly Barnum & Bailey about Saatchi’s South Bank enterprise, which, inevitably, he’s inaugurating with a Damien Hirst retrospective, accompanied by satellite showings of some of the more notorious pieces from the collection such as Tracey Emin’s bed, and the Chapman’s mini-Goya-atrocities.

While modern art is a proven tourist attraction, it is rarely presented so baldly as such. But then, perhaps this is an appropriate development from a man who, more than any other, has been responsible for pitching modern and contemporary art into the UK’s cultural mainstream. For, curse him or praise him, without the presence of Charles Saatchi, the British art world over the last two decades would have been a very different place.

Amid all the hullaballoos over Young British Art (a term invented by Saatchi) which reached fever pitch in 1997 when Saatchi’s collection was exhibited in “Sensation” at the Royal Academy in London (travelling later to Berlin and with still more controversy to New York) it is important to remember that Saatchi’s contribution extends way beyond the recent Brit art boom.

When the first Saatchi Gallery opened in March 1985 it not only provided a showcase for Saatchi’s by then vast holdings in American Pop, Minimalism and international contemporary art, but it also gave British audiences unprecedented exposure to this work. For, apart from a limited exposure provided by a handful of commercial spaces such as Anthony D’Offay, the Lisson Gallery and Leslie Waddington, there was virtually nowhere in the UK where it was possible to see new and recent international art on such a scale or in such ideal circumstances.

The institutions lagged lamentably behind: in 1985, for example, the Saatchi Collection boasted 15 Warhols, while the Tate Gallery owned two. In the first four years of its existence the Saatchi Gallery’s landmark shows of Donald Judd, Brice Marden, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Bruce Naumann and Richard Serra, as well as a second collection of younger figures such as Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton and Robert Gober, established the former paint factory in Boundary Road as Britain’s alternative Museum of Modern Art.

Not only did Saatchi give Britain its first wholesale showing of such internationally important figures, he did so in an exemplary setting that showed the work off to its very best advantage. Seeing the work of, say Donald Judd or Jeff Koons, meticulously installed in the the Saatchi Gallery’s 30,000 square feet of dazzling white converted industrial space was to have a crucial impact on the generation of young British artists who, in the next decade, were to go on to make up his third collection.

As Michael Craig-Martin has stated: “The most important thing about Charles Saatchi was not to do with the collecting... It was to do with the fact that the young artists grew up with that place on Boundary Road, so their idea of what art could look like, how ambitious it could be and all of that, was established... Charles showed the best things and he would not just show a single work, he would show a whole room. And everything was shown to an absolute optimum. There were no compromises involved.” Damien Hirst puts it more bluntly: “When I was an art student I went down to look at his space and I just fucking wanted one. Immediately. I mean, art looks great in there...So you make art for it.” And over the next decade, he did so, with a vengeance.

Amid the mythologisation of Saatchi’s early years it is important not to overlook the role of his first wife, Doris Lockhart, a graduate of Smith College and the Sorbonne whom he met in the mid-60s and married in 1973. It is Doris who has been credited with rechannelling Saatchi’s collecting instincts from Superman comics and juke boxes to contemporary art, and the most rigorous of art at that: their first purchase, made in 1970 was a Sol LeWitt drawing. Doris also worked closely with architect Max Gordon on the design and establishment of the Boundary Road gallery. Indeed, it was at the end of the 80s, after his divorce from Doris in 1988 and the stock market crash in 1989, that Saatchi sold off most of his blue-chip works to become young British art’s most enthusiastic champion. Here, in the studio spaces and warehouses of South and East London he could again indulge his love of bulk-buying, and turning a good profit, with work that was relatively cheap.

For over the years, Saatchi’s selling has attracted as much, if not more, controversy as his buying. Leslie Waddington has gone as far as to describe him as “the most successful art dealer of our time”: 1996 company records indicated that his Conarco Partnership had made at least $42 million worth of profit by dealing in works of art. But while artists such as Sean Scully and, famously, Sandro Chia, whose finances and reputations had benefited from Saatchi patronage in the late 70s and early 80s felt an acute sense of betrayal when their work was offloaded in bulk onto the market: younger artists, including Damien Hirst, have tended to be more sanguine. Recently Hirst commented, “[Saatchi] buys cheap and he sells expensive... he bought cheap the Americans then he sold it expensive. Then he bought cheap the English and he’s going to sell it expensive. That’s what he does... I don’t give a shit. He’s got a fabulous space. He buys a lot and he gets a lot of people to see it [sic].”

Dealer Victoria Miro agrees: in 1997 she told The Art Newspaper’s Roger Bevan: “Charles is a commercial creature. It does not detract from his passion for looking at art, but he is not searching for a religious experience. He is aware of the marketability of art. Other collectors want to hide that side of their activity.” For his part, Saatchi has declared that “the collection has to be self-financing. Otherwise it would be a bottomless pit.”

But whatever he buys and sells, for however much, and for whatever reason, there is no doubt that Saatchi’s freedom as a private individual to acquire and offload at will has enabled him to seize the moment in a way that has left other art institutions lagging behind.

Since attracting considerable flack in the first half of the 80s for supposedly enhancing his own interests while a Tate Patron of the New Art and a Whitechapel Trustee (see below), Saatchi has severed all official links with publicly owned galleries, although he makes innumerable loans to their exhibitions. This ability to acquire on his own terms has enabled him to move fast and steal the march on institutions such as the Tate, which have a solemn duty to purchase for posterity or wait for donations.

This was especially evident during the 90s when, while our institutions pondered, Saatchi swooped, acquiring a slew of key pieces by Hume, Hirst, Lucas et al: particularly irksome to Nick Serota was Saatchi’s snapping-up of “Ghost”, Rachel Whiteread’s 1992 cast of an entire room, which Saatchi later lent to Tate Modern for the museum’s inaugural display.

In the case of Young British art there was also a genuine empathy on both sides. Not only did that generation cherish their moments in the dazzling white spaces of the Saatchi Gallery, but it was also perhaps inevitable that the man who is himself so adept at visual communication (let’s not forget that he was personally responsible for the now-classic “cut in the silk” Silk Cut cigarette campaign) should feel an affinity with artists whose work relies on a similar ability to distill complex ideas into a powerful and accessible message. Damien Hirst, for example, says, “I get a lot of inspiration from ads in order to communicate my ideas as an artist and of course Charles is very close to all that.”

With his superior spending power and genius at branding and promotion, the Saatchi taste has come to dominate the popular view of British contemporary art, to the detriment of those who have not caught his eye. It is highly debatable whether the bustling international biodiversity that exists today would have existed without Charles Saatchi’s investment. Not only did he launch the careers and popularise the work of some of our best known artists, he also helped a great many more by creating a climate in which a slew of young dealers could operate—the most notable being Jay Jopling, whose gallery continues to be indebted to the ad-man. Contemporary art is now cool; it is now part of mainstream culture; it is discussed in taxis and government think-tanks. This is the legacy of Charles Saatchi.

As Charles Saatchi rests on his laurels, arranging his prize exhibits in County Hall, the man who once dominated contemporary art can ponder the fact that he has become the victim of his own success. The British art world that he did so much to foster has now expanded beyond his reach, and he no longer reigns supreme.

Artists have found other champions and outlets, and new generations with new strategies have emerged. These days, the artists of all ages who are currently attracting attention—Anish Kapoor with his giant hovering “Marsyas” trumpet in Tate Modern; Cornelia Parker with her Rodin wrapped in string; Jim Lambie with his psychedelic taped floor or the ubiquitous Antony Gormley—are not necessarily Saatchi artists.

But then they would not be attracting anything like the same amount of attention without him.

(picture caption)

This painting of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “Taking stock (unfinished)”, by the German artist, Hans Haacke, is an iconographically rich deconstruction of Charles Saatchi's power in the British art world. It was first shown at the Tate Gallery in 1984. The statue of Pandora opening her box is in the Tate collections. The broken plates in the bookcase depict Charles and Maurice Saatchi whose advertising campaign for the Conservatives is widely recognised as having been instrumental in helping the party into power in 1979 and getting them re-elected in 1983 and 1987. An inscription on the base of the column reads: “ES SAATCHI TRUS/ITECHAPEL GAL/TRONS OF NEW/ART COMMITTEE/HE TATE GALLER”. Two years previously, Julian Schnabel, famous for applying broken plates to his paintings, had had an exhibition at the Tate. Nine of the 10 painting belonged to Charles and Doris Saatchi and it was the first exhibition organised with the Patrons of New Art, an association of benefactors who pledge a certain sum every year, out of which they buy works of contemporary art for the museum. Charles Saatchi was on the committee which selected the works to be bought. He was also a member of the board of Trustees of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, headed then by Nicholas Serota, now director of Tate. The implication of Haacke’s work is that the Saatchis went in for the artistic equivalent of insider trading. Shortly after Haacke’s painting went on display, Charles Saatchi resigned from the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Patrons of New Art

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Saatchi’s challenge to Tate'