Chicago | Los Angeles | Miami | New York | San Francisco | Santa Fe
Amsterdam | Berlin | Brussels | London | Paris | São Paulo | Toronto | China | India | Worldwide
New York

The East-West Divide in the London Artworld
by Daniel Barnes

As a professional devotee of the East London art scene, I found myself transported into another world when I went for a wander around the private views in Cork Street W1. Private views are a staple of the art world: galleries open their doors after hours and provide drinks so that artists, curators, gallerists, critics and audiences can meet. Beyond this standard, however, there is a divide between East and West London galleries which reveals an art world replete with difference and rich in opportunity.

The London art world as we know it today is relatively new, having evolved in seemingly organic and unstoppable fashion over the last two decades. Nowadays, especially in the East and increasingly in the South, it is nearly impossible to go anywhere without happening upon a commercial gallery, a complex of studios, a pop-up event or an artist-run collective. But, as Gregor Muir recounts with apocalyptic zeal in his Lucky Kunst, before the explosion of British contemporary art headed by the YBAs, London was a provincial backwater of the artworld.  

There is a palpable energy to East London, where people are eager and passionate about their practice and always flexing their entrepreneurial muscles to sell work, ideas and visions. The East London scene blends the seriousness of commercial galleries with the playful opportunism of artist-run initiatives like open studios in Hackney Wick, and it accommodates the full spectrum of artists from the emerging to the established.  Private views in the area are manifold and of varied quality in terms of work exhibited, crowds attracted and drinks served, but they all have a unifying vibe about them. Whether it is a private view at an established gallery like White Cube, Maureen Paley or Carl Freedman, or an altogether more gritty affair as those on Redchurch Street or in someone’s studio, private views out East are networking events as much as anything else.

It hardly matters who you are or whether anyone knows (or should know) you, people talk to people at these events because the mutually accepted purpose is not to see the art, or at least not to buy it, but to hunt down the next big thing. Artists look for shows, commissions and buyers; gallerists look for artists and buyers; curators look for artists and galleries; critics look for assignments and collaborations, and so on. The whole thing is a welter of rampant self-promotion, a thriving mass of ideas, ambitions, desires and talents.

One thing that delights me is the freedom and informality of these private views. There is no sense that anything is off limits: you can drink as much as the free bar has capacity for, and you can attempt to strike up a conversation with anyone, even Tracey Emin (although my experience of that has proved awkward). You are free to flash your business card around and drone on about your latest earth shattering project as if nothing else matters, and people will generally listen politely and then reciprocate. Since I am not one to dress for occasions, owning as I do only one good shirt and no suit, I find it comforting that these events have no dress code; you can turn up looking as scruffy or prim or as eccentric as you like.

From Hoxton and Shoreditch to Bethnal Green and Hackney, the East art scene creates a comfortable bubble with more art than you could ever possibly consume. So imagine my surprise when I ventured out of my safe zone and into the more sedate and formal world of Mayfair private views.

In West London, the first thing to note is that the galleries – without exception – are utterly pristine, sterile white boxes with designer furniture and the art all laid out like precious treasures. It is not uncommon, out East, to find a painting placed on the floor against the wall because there is no space to hang it, a bar to be created from an undressed trestle table or for the only seating to be a few mismatched chairs that look like they were reclaimed from a skip. No such slapdash informality is tolerated on Cork Street, however, where bars are dressed with linen table cloths, no one would dream of sitting, and artworks are meticulously hung with vast spaces in between works.

The people, too, are radically different, not least indicated by the fact that the West London private views only serve wine in glistening glasses. All the men are dressed in suits, some in business suits and others in trendy variations thereof, while the women wear cocktail dresses or something similar. Everyone who is British speaks impeccable BBC English, and they all kiss and hug the continental way. They are older, too, than the crowd I am accustomed to; hardly anyone – apart from the bafflingly affluent gallery staff – is below middle age.

These people also appear to already know each other. Nobody seems to talk to strangers, unless they are expressly introduced by a mutual party, and they don’t talk about art. They talk about their children and families, their holidays, their hobbies – simply banal things that you think they could have saved for the aisles in Waitrose. Rather than the opportunistic networking events of East London, the private views in West London come off as socially-driven events where one merely has to make an appearance.

So on my sojourn that evening, I turned up looking quite as I normally do – in skinny jeans, a Primark shirt and decrepit plimsolls – and instantly felt grossly underdressed and violently out of place. At one point, a high-ranking member of the gallery staff spoke to me. Initially we talked about the art, although she seemed impatient once she decided I was neither a buyer nor a somebody.

This is not what I had come to expect. I have been given to expect an inclusive environment where ideas are exchanged and art is discussed freely, where people are welcoming and open, and where they are at least willing to pretend that art matters more than anything in the world. It is worth mentioning that I saw some good art in West London that night, but that is not the point. The point I am making is that I found London’s art world polarised along geographical as well as social, ideological and intellectual lines. The discovery of this difference does not discourage me from going out West again but only warns me to be prepared by taking a well-to-do friend and dressing for the occasion.

~Daniel Barnes, a writer living in London.

(Images: A typical scene outside a private view on Vyner Street; Courtesy Sweet and Sound; An interior view of a West London gallery space; Courtesy OLX)

Posted by Daniel Barnes on 9/16/11

Related articles:

Copyright © 2006-2013 by ArtSlant, Inc. All images and content remain the © of their rightful owners.