I found Pilar Corrias in a whirlwind of activity. Huddled around a table in her gallery beneath a beguiling Sophie von Hellerman mural, a bevy of women and screens competed for her attention.
Corrias was doing triage on a flurry of requests. I watched as she palmed off a call with another prominent gallerist to one of her gallery directors, finalized the booth layout for Paris+—where she will show a joint presentation of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Vivien Zhang—and introduced me to artist Cui Jie—who was opening a show with her later that day—in what felt like one fell swoop.
When she had finished conducting this art world orchestra, she smiled at me apologetically, offered a refreshment, and we delved into the reason for my visit—the gallery, now 15 years old, is expanding in London.
It’s a bold move at a time of negative perception surrounding the city, and when many of her cohorts are responding to this moment by opening foreign outlets, but Corrias was confident in her commitment. “We’re a London gallery. I feel it’s really important to do something really well in one place rather than something mediocre in many places,” she said succinctly.
Dressed chicly in the all-black art world uniform that would enable her to transition seamlessly from daytime at the gallery to night-time, which we spent toasting Cui Jie over crystal glasses at a buzzy new hotel, the Twentytwo, she promptly whisked me outside of her swish Savile Row space to show me her newest baby. A few minutes walk away—if, as is necessary in Mayfair, you factor in air-kiss time for bumping into friends—Corrias proudly prodded the combination to the construction site.
After looking for the right space for four years, she had jumped on the lease at 49-51 Conduit Street for its “wow factor” trifecta: size (5,000 square feet of gallery space over two floors), ceiling height (16 feet), and street-level access. “For Mayfair this is really rare,” she beamed.
The new flagship is a contrast to the Savile Row gallery, which she said she opened two years ago out of frustration. It’s large and industrial-looking compared to the distinguished 18th-century London townhouse up the street, which she has now decided to keep as a complement.
“The gallery works with both young and established artists, and not all artists can take on a space like this,” she explained. “It is like a small museum space and it allows artists to challenge themselves a bit more. It is not space you show tiny drawings in, and not a space where young artists who are not experienced in exhibitions can show, either.”
The gallery will, however, replace her original location opened in 2008 on Eastcastle Street. “I had grown out of the space. It was too small, all my staff couldn’t fit, and the artists were tired of showing there, so it was clear that it was time to move on.”
Indeed, Corrias’s roster has ballooned from four to 35 artists, and the operation now represents some of the top-selling artists of our time; the first show in this big space will present a series of new paintings by the Los Angeles-based artist Christina Quarles.
As the daughter to an Italian diplomat, Francesco Corrias, and an American painter, Frances de Villers Brokaw, Corrias still regards Rome as her hometown, despite her father’s job meaning they moved around a lot—from early years in Tokyo, before spates in Lisbon after the Carnation Revolution, Luanda during the Angolan civil war, and later New York. “You feel at home more or less wherever you go and also you become very open-minded because you have to adapt to different situations, habits, and customs in the different places that you live,” she recalled.
For someone whose mother was an heiress who had sat for Diego Rivera, and who can count Jane Fonda as an aunt, it is notable that Corrias has built her own profile, low-key and out of the spotlight. She fell in love with conceptual art at university, and her first art-world job was as a receptionist at Lisson Gallery, where she made her way up to director, before working at Haunch of Venison, and then going it alone.
Today, she is respected as a smart businesswoman who can hold her own in a competitive art market—she shares some of her artists with mega-galleries who dwarf her in size—as well as for running a thoughtful gallery program, which is known for conceptual art and painting, a largely female roster, and globally inclusive outlook.
“We share artists with other galleries because I have only one location, which is in London, and I believe that different voices and abilities are actually good for artists, rather than a homogenous voice or one set of advice coming from one artist liaison,” she said.
“When you have these different locations of galleries in other places, the program is not all endemic to the galleries, some shows are farmed out,” she added. “If I were to open a new location, it would require a very deep engagement with the place.”
Indeed, from our meeting, I didn’t get the impression that she was hands off as a dealer. Nor in her private life; she is extremely proud of her sons. I sat next to one of them at dinner, a recent art history graduate who described her as a very involved mum, recalling the one time she showed up to class to ask his art history professor to write a catalogue essay for one of her artists.
“For now it’s London,” she said, confident in the unparalleled landscape of the city’s public institutions, galleries, and its strategic geographic location at a nexus between China, Europe, and the U.S., to bring a market. Not to mention its premiere art fair, Frieze London, where she will show a solo presentation of Sophie von Hellerman later this week.
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