When it comes to wooing artists, state-of-the-art galleries with double-height ceilings, reinforced floors and ample natural light to show off the most technically ambitious sculptures have proved a sweetener, but dealers are increasingly looking beyond real estate in a bid to cater to—and monetise—a growing variety of creative needs.
Earlier this month, the mega-dealer Larry Gagosian launched Gagosian Open, a nomadic venture that invites artists to exhibit in offsite spaces, both in and outdoors. The idea came about after Gagosian decided to end the lease on his Britannia Street building in north London in the spring after developers took over. Instead of looking for another permanent bricks-and-mortar space (Gagosian had occupied Britannia Street for 20 years and currently has 19 spaces in seven countries), the gallery opted for something far more makeshift. “We decided to look at things completely inside out. It was a question of: what do artists actually want?”, says Stefan Ratibor, one of the gallery’s senior directors. “It turns out that our artists all want different things at different times.”
For the first show, Gagosian has procured a faded, privately owned building conserved in its original condition: a Georgian townhouse on Princelet Street in Spitalfields, East London, originally built to house Huguenot refugees and subsequently inhabited by migrants from Ireland and Poland. Inspired by this history, Gagosian contacted Christo’s estate, which quickly accepted the invitation to mount an exhibition of around 20 early wrapped works by the Bulgarian-born artist, who also identified as an outsider for most of his life. Christo escaped communist Bulgaria in 1956 and remained stateless for 17 years until he became a US citizen in the early 1970s.
If the exhibition appears more institutional than mega-gallery, the price tags are a reminder that this is a slick commercial operation; they range from €120,000 to €1.6m.
Another dealer inhabiting the spaces beyond the white cube is Stephen Friedman, who opened a “public garden” as part of his new gallery on Cork Street on 6 October. David Shrigley has designed the gate as well as a text-based work for the top of a kiosk in the centre of the courtyard garden. Both pieces are permanent fixtures, while sculptures by Leilah Babirye, Woody De Othello and Izumi Kato are on temporary display (the last two are for sale). Works in the garden will be rotated throughout the year.
Friedman notes how public sculpture has become “a bigger part of our programme”; two of his best-known artists—Shrigley and Yinka Shonibare—have won Fourth Plinth commissions. Describing the garden as “a bit of a hidden oasis”, the dealer says he felt it was “important to have somewhere for gallery visitors and passers-by to see outdoor sculpture, as well as a place to meet and dwell”.
Attracting up to one million visitors to Regent’s Park a year, Frieze Sculpture may be the art fair’s only “public-facing” show, but it is also designed to sell. In past years, deeper pocketed galleries who are better positioned to pitch for and participate in exhibitions of large-scale works have dominated the park. This year, under the eye of Fatos Üstek, who takes the reins as curator, smaller galleries—some just a year old—are getting a look in.
Funding is a perennial issue, particularly since the costs of materials and shipping have skyrocketed since the pandemic. Frieze has this year stepped up its support for funding applications, including advising artists and galleries on opportunities for grants. This has enabled Üstek to bring under-represented voices to the table, including a larger proportion of female sculptors, who this year outweigh men by 11 to ten. A decade ago, four out of 20 artists were female, and, in 2005 when Frieze Sculpture launched, just one of the 11 artists was a woman.
The curator has also introduced new commissions for the 2023 edition, six out of eight of them by women. She notes that many are “either realising their very first public sculpture or their largest piece to date”.
Among them are Amy Stephens’s Waking Matter (2023), a 2.5 tonne work made from recycled steel and an off-cut of Carrara marble from the same quarry that Michelangelo used. Stephens sold five newly created editions to cover costs, while Frieze awarded her a £4,000 bursary from Mtech Fine Art, which oversees the installation of Frieze Sculpture.
Art in search of a home
However good they look on Instagram, monumental works are still a hard sell. The cost of transporting and displaying a piece that weighs several tonnes can give collectors pause for thought. Sales at Frieze Sculpture are rarely reported (dealers can be cautious about publicising big deals), though fortunes are already looking up this year. Before the fair opened, Nature Morte had sold Suhasini Kejriwal’s Garden of Un-Earthly Delights (2023) for an undisclosed sum. Across Frieze Sculpture, prices range from between £25,000 and £1.2m; half of the works are available at below £100,000.
Other public art offerings in the capital operate more like museum exhibitions: some works are loaned by private collectors or galleries while others are commissioned. Though not strictly for sale, exhibiting works in a curated setting—for example, as part of Sculpture in the City or on The Line, a public art walk running between the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and the O2—adds value and could potentially lead to deals.
Despite their illustrious beginnings, finding homes for Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth commissions has proved problematic. Earlier this year, the Guardian newspaper revealed that three-quarters of former commissions were in storage, prompting artist Rachel Whiteread to call for an end to the programme. Her own resin cast of the plinth has not been seen in public since appearing in Trafalgar Square in 2001.
In response, Justine Simons, the deputy mayor for culture and the brains behind the Fourth Plinth, says the project “has elevated careers and supported a diverse range of voices that are often under-represented in the art world”. She thinks it is “absolutely right” that the contemporary art scene in London “is reflected and celebrated in the public realm, and not just inside the walls of the gallery”.
Shrigley’s 7m-tall black bronze Really Good (2016), described by Simons as a sign of “optimism and positivity” although perceived by some as a sarcastic thumbs up to Brexit Britain, has been in storage since its stint on the plinth in 2016-17, at a cost “probably approaching six figures”, the artist told the Guardian. Shrigley considered donating the work but did not want to burden a museum with the cost of transporting and displaying a sculpture that weighs several tonnes. The work is now en route to Australia, where it will go on show as part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial in Melbourne in December, after which it will permanently reside in Melbourne.
As government funding dries up—Shrigley’s sculpture was supported by a £130,000 grant from the mayor’s office—organisations are increasingly looking to patrons to plug the gaps. Last month, the artist platform Plinth and The Line jointly launched a series of limited editions by Rana Begum, Serge Attukwei Clottey and Laura Ford. Megan Piper, the co-founder of The Line, says they aim to raise at least £50,000 with the first round, building out the initiative next year as part of a rolling programme. “The support of collectors and patrons is really critical,” she adds.
Ahead of The Line’s tenth anniversary in 2025, next year sees the inclusion of three new pieces by Helen Cammock, Katie Schwab and Albert Potrony, which have been co-commissioned by local East End residents. Though The Line is not a selling exhibition, Piper acknowledges that charities—including hers—are having to diversify their income. She notes how the Arts Council’s recent cuts to London institutions have “put pressure on trusts and foundations to provide funding for the core costs of a charity, not just their projects”.
But even wealthy trusts and foundations have limited resources, which is where the mega-galleries often have the advantage—and they, too, are diversifying their portfolios at a rapid rate.