London's Gallery Row Feels Economic Pinch

CORK Street in London is to art what Harley Street is to private medicine or Savile Row to tailormade suits. On this West End street, more than 100 yards long, there is a remarkable concentration of private art galleries. They sell such a wide range of art - old, modern, abstract, figurative, sporting, aboriginal - that "Cork Street" has become virtually synonymous with the capital's gallery scene, though there are galleries all over London.

Kate Hersham who, with her husband Leslie, runs the Cooling Gallery on Cork Street, says: "If you want to buy a suit - and can afford it - you go to Savile Row. If you want to buy a painting - and can afford it - you go to Cork Street, first; and then to other places." After two years in nearby Albermarle Street, the Cooling Gallery moved to Cork Street where they found larger premises and "volumes and scores" of people coming into the gallery.

Gillian Raffles of the Mercury Gallery, which has been on Cork Street for 28 years, says she has no need to incur "the astronomical expense" of advertising, because "anybody who is interested in pictures comes to Cork Street, and we pay a huge rent, and that's it."

Huge rent - increased by the arrival and sometimes fast disappearance of certain new galleries with owners who think all they have to do (says Mrs. Raffles) is "throw money at it, and it will work" - is an intensifying problem to long-standing galleries here.

The recession hit hard here as everywhere. No Cork Street dealer is likely to pretend these are easy times. But they have come to feel the media is placing them "under duress." Report after report has more or less written off commercial art dealing here. With such headlines as "The Sinking of Cork Street" (Guardian), little wonder that this street's occupants feel a touch of anxiety.

Apart from two recent closures (the Kasmin Gallery and Odette Gilbert), the fact is that Cork Street is still packed with galleries, some there since the 1930s, some opened as recently as 1991. Dealers clash with media

There is a fighting spirit on Cork Street. At the end of November, all 16 of the street's galleries staged an "Open Weekend." Hordes came; the dealers felt the world was inhabited by art lovers after all; there were good sales.

Some, like Godfrey Pilkington of the Piccadilly Gallery, and Mrs. Raffles herself, have felt indignant enough at press treatment (even the open weekend was described as a "last gasp") to cross swords with newspaper reporters and editors, defending themselves against what they see as exaggeratedly gloomy misrepresentation. Mrs. Raffles says there is basic misunderstanding of what commercial galleries actually do and of their value to artists and collectors alike.

Mrs. Raffles expresses no doubt that Cork Street will survive, and that the Mercury will too because of the kind of gallery she has made it. At the same time, she acknowledges that a few charlatan dealers have given all dealers a bad name.

"But," she points out, "there are so many different levels in this business. People don't realize. And the level that gets the attention is the level that's hyped, the big money, the record prices. Everybody thinks that is how the entire gallery world works, and it doesn't. There are a lot of artists who are not hyped or hype-able: serious, professional painters who work full time and go on doing it...."

Her own "stable" consists of such artists. One of her longest-term painters is Elizabeth Blackadder. "You never read about Elizabeth in the gossip columns or hear her work is selling for record prices. With a different gallery this might have happened. Her prices might be twice or three times what they are now. But I don't think she has any regrets."

She doesn't. The two, dealer and artist, have a long, fruitful relationship. Every two years when the Mercury gives Blackadder another one-person show, they argue amiably about her prices. Mrs. Raffles wants some increase; Blackadder protests. But neither wants to go over the top, so while Blackadder's prices have steadily increased, they have not been hyper-inflated even in the greedy 1980s.

Blackadder is an undoubted success and the Mercury Gallery's care of her has proved financially beneficial to both sides.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Raffles says, she learned early on that gallery artists, however successful, cannot cover the overheads. It took three Blackadder shows, back in the 1960s, "before the show covered its costs." Mrs. Raffles saw that her gallery couldn't survive just by selling young artists. She would have to "deal" as well.

Nevertheless, the Mercury has continued persistently to give artists who have never exhibited in London before, "a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder."

"We take them on with not a great hope of selling their work - no guarantees - but even if a whole show does sell, it is not going to make the gallery as much profit as selling one picture out of here." By "here" Mrs. Raffles means her stockroom at the back of the gallery. This is where the financial life-blood is - buying and selling the work of artists with established market value (now almost entirely British figurative, but in the past also German Expressionist art).

If supporting her gallery artists is normally challenging, the recession has hardly helped. "In three shows this year, we sold three pictures in one, three in another, two in another. It's frightful for the artist. Some of them live off it! And all of these artists have had two or three shows before and sold well.' Survival of the fittest

Mrs. Raffles is a strong advocate of the commercial gallery system. She claims that only artists who have not managed to become part of this system criticize it. Those in it "understand....They realize it's a two-way stretch - that we have to pay the rent."

From both the artists' and the collectors' point of view, Mrs. Raffles maintains, the private gallery that works best and longest is one with "a persona, not an `image' - that sounds imposed. But, the gallery mustn't be static. It must be something that evolves out of itself. However, there does need to be a certain degree of the expected."

"I'd never show minimal art. I'd never get a single person through the door. It doesn't appeal to me." That "me" is the point. Her "eye" - what she calls a kind of "vicarious creativity" - is the factor that determines the gallery's character. "There must be a common thread," she explains. This is what makes it possible to hang together, as she sometimes has, artists of quite different sorts, and yet they "were all comfortable together." It is also this that builds her clientele, notable for including a great many collectors who return year after year.

The value of her sort of gallery to artists is borne out by one more indisputable fact: "The same number of artists come into the gallery to show me their work as ever." She looks at them all, an average of four or five a week. "They come in waves. My record is 12 in one day! There's always an outside chance you are going to get excited and see what you hope to see."

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