London is a key destination for buyers of Post-War and Contemporary art, but rising rents and rates have made it difficult for all but the most prosperous dealers to bag the traditional street-level shopfront in a desirable location.
Enter Cromwell Place, a new art hub opening next month, which offers a more flexible approach to bricks and mortar premises.
Comprised of five, Grade II listed townhouses in South Kensington, the complex is the result of several years’ work and £20m spent. It offers 14 gallery spaces (ranging in size from 22-143 square metres) as well as a variety of permanent offices, meeting rooms, viewing rooms, open desks and storage facilities.
Around 40 businesses are currently signed up as members, and for the centre’s managing director Preston Benson, this is just the beginning. The vision is for a rolling programme of exhibitions and a one-stop-shop for art lovers.
“The days of going up and down Albemarle Street sipping champagne at multiple openings seem to be over. These days there’s much more interest in the fair model,” Benson tells ATG. “There is a demand for a new model which frees gallerists and art advisers from their permanent spaces and allows them to stage shows in London while doing the same around the world.”
Cromwell Place offers the chance to access several shows and dealers in a single visit. Dealers can make use of the hub’s in-house team of exhibition technicians and shippers to help stage their shows.
All eyes on London
After several late-in-the-day postponements, the centre is now set to open on October 10 – the first day of what would have been the Frieze and Frieze Masters fairs at Regent’s Park (they are now virtual events).
“We felt that after all the bad things that happened, launching in 2020 would be a really good thing” says Benson. “Frieze isn’t happening, but all eyes will be on London [in October] so that’s when we’ve focused.”
An inaugural roster of exhibitions includes contemporary design from Initio Fine Arts (until October 18, Wing Gallery) and a residency with British artist Billy Childish organised by Lehmann Maupin (until October 25, Gallery 3).
The centre opens at a moment when many dealers are thinking hard and creatively about their trading model.
“The art exhibition and institution framework has been in need of a revival for some time and Covid has accelerated this,” says member Maliha Tabari, founder of Dubai’s Tabari Artspace. “London is not only culturally rich, with a diverse population, it’s also fast-paced. The shorter exhibitions that Cromwell Place offers fit well with this lifestyle.” The gallery stages, Terra Un(firma), a showcase of Palestinian hyperrealist artist Samah Shihadi, for just two days from October 10-11.
Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery is capitalising on its new membership, using the opening weekend to stage a physical exhibition of its virtual fair booth at Frieze (October 10-11). The gallery won’t hold a permanent space at the hub but will use it as a viewing room and for the occasional show.
“Our clients are all around the world and they tend to come through London more than they come through Edinburgh,” says Richard Ingleby. “Previously that’s meant showing them works in our shipper’s viewing rooms, which are perfectly good, but they’re not in South Kensington.”
Other new members include London’s Black Box Projects, a specialist in contemporary photography which has taken a permanent office and will hold a solo show of Danish artist Adam Jeppesen in March. Director Kathlene Fox-Davies was drawn to the hub’s emphasis on community and predicts that similar ‘footloose’ models will gain traction elsewhere.
“We don’t really know how the lockdown, recession and Brexit is going to pan out,” she says. “A lot of small galleries won’t reopen because they can’t afford the ground rent – we don’t all have Gagosian-deep pockets. With this alternative model, you do get to choose when your outgoings go out. You can decide, for example, not to have a show for the rest of the year.”
Despite the rising star of digital and the emphasis on flexible trading, the opening is a small triumph for more traditional buyers. “We didn’t open to be an online platform,” Fox-Davies adds. “These works are unique objects. You have to stand in front of them.”
The hub is free to enter, promising ‘an art fair experience without the crowds’ with a raft of health and safety measures in place.
Opening is from Wednesday-Sunday. Future attractions for members include a club room due to open in 2021, along with a range of technical event and catering support.