Museum Wannabes; Commercial Galleries Used to Be Where You Bought Art. Now They Are Looking, and Acting, More like Museums

Article excerpt

Byline: ANDREW RENTON

IF you want a definition of culture (or that highly suspect term, civilisation), you'd expect to find it embodied in a museum. But perhaps that's asking too much these days. In the contemporary world, when culture reinvents itself continuously, the museum cannot keep up.

When it comes to new art, it's the commercial galleries that set the agenda and write next week's history lesson.

There has always been a relationship, even interdependence, between the commercial world and the museum. If galleries test the water, museums are supposed to develop the context for works of art. But what has changed is that the commercial galleries in London are starting to resemble the museums.

All the big commercial galleries in the contemporary market are expanding.

This is quite a turnaround from six months ago, when I sat drinking with one of the coolest gallerists in town, who was speaking of a serious scaling down, even to that critical low of "by appointment only". I offer no name, because no gallery owner willingly admits to such things. Then London's biggest player, Anthony d'Offay, closed down overnight.

He'd had enough, he said. Every other dealer in town, minimalist or not, understood this to mean that less was definitely going to mean less.

But no. Since these upheavals it has not just been business as usual, but more business than usual. Everywhere you turn, commercial galleries are looking to expand.

The ever-fashionable Interim Art was for more than a decade a model of how big things can be achieved in tiny spaces. In her Hackney living room, Maureen Paley showed the Young British Artists when they were even Younger, and brought European and American trends into the East End. She moved out of her house a couple of years ago, and her new gallery has just taken on an extra floor.

The long-serving Lisson Gallery in north Marylebone is developing a new gallery to supplement its current site.

There are plans at White Cube2 in Hoxton to open a couple of new floors of gallery space. The two-year-old Gagosian Gallery has quietly burrowed a maze through Heddon Street, round the corner from the West End's fading centre of the art world, Cork Street, and is eyeing up other locations. And Victoria Miro's vast space between Angel and Old Street has been progressively renovated.

Indeed, at the recent launch for the Peter Doig show at Miro, the signs of confidence weren't simply the thousand groovy people dancing the night away, or the fact that all the paintings were sold to major international institutions. There was more: the show itself.

Critics have been commenting on the maturity and depth of the paintings by this mid-career artist.

There's an indisputable confidence here - in the paintings and in the surroundings. …