London Gallery Weekend Revitalizies a Lost Spirit in The Capital

Melissa Gronlund, Art | Basel, June 4, 2021

‘People are prepared to collaborate in a way they were not before,’ says Goodman Gallery’s Jo Stella-Sawicka.


A fresh collective spirit is blowing through London’s galleries – and this was nowhere more visible than in the inaugural London Gallery Weekend, which opened on June 4. Featuring 139 spaces in every corner of the British capital, the three-day event celebrated the joy of seeing art in person.


‘It’s amazing that it’s taken a pandemic for it to happen, because it’s a no-brainer,’ says Lisa Panting, co-director of Hollybush Gardens. ‘London’s really big, so it’s harder to pull together. But recently it has felt smaller because we’re working with the bare bones of what there is. There’s a genuine will to be collegiate, which there isn’t necessarily during boom times.’


While other major cities have de facto art districts – Chelsea in New York, Le Marais in Paris – London’s expansiveness, as Panting points out, has meant local art dealers had never collaborated on such a scale before. But the pandemic has transformed the way London galleries are working with each other.


In March last year, within weeks of the first lockdown – and with the first fairs going online – spaces started pulling together using that most workaday of modes, WhatsApp, via a group created by gallerist Sadie Coles. ‘We were all very topsy-turvy,’ says Stefan Ratibor, director of Gagosian London. ‘It was quite good to feel that other people were in similar states.’


Celebrated by many at the time as being a wellspring of shared support, this small initiative left a few in the city’s artworld wondering if too much was being made of something that is more often associated with the coordination of school sports days. Yet the group – and London’s newfound collegiality – have proved doubters wrong. It has persisted as a key information resource and several other collaborative ventures have come in its wake.


With fortuitous timing, Oliver Miro, the son of gallerist Victoria Miro, finished developing the extended reality platform Vortic – which gives 3D renderings of spaces and artworks using VR and AR technologies – when the pandemic hit. He then offered it to gallerists free of charge for three months, which led to the formation of another grouping, the London Collective. Members including Stephen Friedman Gallery and David Zwirner have been able to use the platform to hold online exhibitions.


‘We could have just kept it for ourselves,’ says Glenn Scott Wright, a director and partner at Victoria Miro. ‘But Oliver wanted to give access to everyone. He knew it would be a really useful tool.’


The Gallery Climate Coalition, which agitates for a more sustainable artworld, was able to grow in scale during lockdown. This has also been due to its members – including LissonKate MacGarry, and Thomas Dane – being able to meet weekly (albeit virtually).


The idea for London Gallery Weekend was first floated on the WhatsApp chat last October. Responding to the group’s initial enthusiasm, Jo Stella-Sawicka, director of Goodman Gallery, and Jeremy Epstein, cofounder of the Fitzrovia space Edel Assanti, put together an anonymous survey in which they asked 80 galleries if they would be willing to participate in a city-wide art weekend. Seventy-nine said yes.


The long-term idea for the weekend is to bring in international collectors, but because of ongoing travel restrictions, this first edition was effectively a soft launch, functioning primarily on a local scale.

The ancillary programs included a podcast with Jan Dalley of the Financial Times, rather than the talks and parties one might typically expect. Many frame the initiative as giving back to London itself.


‘People were prepared to collaborate in a way they were not before because they could all see the benefit to the city,’ says Stella-Sawicka. ‘London has the best hotels, restaurants, museums, galleries – it’s just had a beating over the past year. We’re investing some of that energy back into the city.’


Given the large number of galleries that participated in the weekend, the program was able to shift its focus to a different hub of the capital – central, south, and east – each day. Galleries also hosted some suitably socially distanced events.


The weekend celebrated the diversity of London’s art ecosystem, recognizing that galleries of all sizes have their own role to play. It was viewed as a return to form, too: Many participants, no matter what happens with COVID, expect in-person exhibitions to gain a greater priority in the future.


‘It’s important for people to look at the art that we show,’ says Ratibor. ‘It’s not all about a PDF you send to a collector, it’s that we can provide artists with spaces in which their work can be seen by a community of curators, other artists, students, and the public. It’s critically important.’


‘We have bricks and mortar,’ agrees Panting. ‘We have exhibitions. We want people to see them.’


The timing places London Gallery Weekend before Art Basel and Zurich Art Weekend’s traditional spots in June. It also comes just before the usual openings of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition and Serpentine Galleries’ architectural pavilion, both major annual events in the capital. Organizers hope it will soon become a key stop on visiting collectors’ summer itineraries.


Like most of the artworld, London galleries have survived the pandemic better than expected. Gallerists and their collectors have adapted quickly to the new online selling environment. And with no physical fairs, shipping, or entertaining to pay for, the drop in sales has been somewhat mitigated by lower overheads. Yet uncertainties remain, most notably around the full effects of Brexit on the art market in the UK – effects that have, up until now, been tempered by the worldwide pause on international travel. 


London Gallery Weekend can thus also be seen as an attempt to cultivate the local market. Gallerists believe that there are new collectors to be found among the city’s vast professional class. And for these new patrons, post-Brexit regulations on transportation and tax will not apply. Therefore, despite the incertitude that lies ahead, the mood is hopeful. There’s nothing that the British – perennial champions of the underdog – love more than a challenge. Many see the pandemic as revitalizing a lost spirit in the capital.


‘It feels like when I first came to the artworld,’ says Emma Robertson, a partner and director at The approach in east London. ‘A lot of people were artists starting up spaces. Then everything became more professionalized. But now there’s the idea that if people pull together, more can be achieved.’


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