The Americans Are Coming! New York Dealers Go Bold in Sheik-Stacked London

Tuymans at Zwirner London. (Courtesy David Zwirner)

Marc Glimcher, president of the Pace Gallery, has hired four international directors to work out of his new 9,000-square-foot space in London, which opened earlier this month. All four are expected to travel regularly—a shame, since the gallery is housed in one of British art world’s most distinguished landmarks, the Royal Academy.

There’s Valentina Volchkova, a Russian, formerly of her own eponymous gallery and Gagosian; Tamara Corm, Lebanese, and Phillips De Pury’s old Middle East specialist; Sharifa Al-Sudairi, a Saudi; and Alina Kohlem, a German. It’s hard to ignore the demographics of this all-female Justice League. Each seems specialized to handle a specific sector of the new art-buying public, with special attention paid to emerging markets in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The fact that art buyers from those regions are more likely to make their purchases in London than New York has been the consensus as to why four New York galleries have opened here in October alone, though for Mr. Glimcher, the most important element in the women’s hiring was that they be able to stage a compelling program of shows without much input from Pace HQ.

“The idea is that there’s a sort of self-sufficiency in this,” he said in the airy David Chipperfield-designed gallery one morning during last week’s Frieze art fair. The women’s immediate boss, and the overall director of Pace’s London operation, is Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, whose family owns a castle in Gloucestershire and whom Mr. Glimcher described, affectionately, as “one of those three-named people” you tend to encounter in the U.K. A longtime fixture of the London art scene, she opened Larry Gagosian’s first gallery in the city 12 years ago and went to work for Pace after a stint as advisor to the Russian philanthropist and mega art buyer Dasha Zhukova’s Garage Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow.

“One of the problems we’ve faced is that it’s too many fairs, too many shows; it’s overwhelming,” Mr. Glimcher continued. “So this is divide and conquer. Not that we’re here to conquer, but.” He let the thought hang, ominously.

‘Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes’ at Pace London. (Courtesy the Pace Gallery)

The Royal Academy space in Mayfair is really the second space Mr. Glimcher has opened here—last year, Pace had the equivalent of a soft launch in London, with a modestly sized second-floor gallery in Soho. In Mayfair, the tony section of town that’s swapped for Boardwalk in the British version of Monopoly, Pace is joined by other New Yorkers—Michael Werner (who also runs a space in Berlin), Skarstedt Gallery and David Zwirner, whose Annabelle Selldorf-remodeled townhouse boasts 10,000 square feet of space. All of these dealers have opened up shop in the past two months and have grabbed the art world’s attention. Mr. Zwirner has long had prominent booth placement at the 10-year-old Frieze fair, but Pace’s up-front placement in this year’s fair during only its second year of participation (and also at its new annex for historical art, Frieze Masters) would seem to constitute something of a vote of confidence from London’s top art fair organizers.

“It’s quite an old-fashioned concept,” said Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn, owner of New York’s Salon 94, of the expansions. “In the ’60s and ’70s, if you were an artist, you had to have a gallery in the Midwest and in New York and in L.A., and if you wanted to go abroad,you had to have one in Paris and London.” The modern angle on all this, of course, is that these days your gallery might be the same one in all of those locations.

But the London expansions are especially surprising when you consider how sleepy the city was only recently, gallery-wise. London has only really became a modern and contemporary art destination in the past 10 years. The resurgence happened for a variety of reasons, among them the opening of the Tate Modern in 2001, the Frieze art fair’s debut in 2003 and the legacy of the YBAs. It’s difficult to say exactly how many galleries a city has, but Marc Payot, partner and vice president at Hauser & Wirth, put the London number at around 200 to New York’s 500. His gallery has made a relatively logical expansion, geographically speaking, first coming to London from Zurich before expanding in New York, a progression to “the biggest market on the planet.

“It goes: New York,” Mr. Payot said, ranking the cities, “and then, long pause, London. And I think there’s is a lot of excitement here, and that’s fantastic, but it’s important to put it in perspective.”

The British press has pointed to London’s wealthy international locals as the main draw for these galleries, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be a factor. This is a town where one of the major landmarks is Harrods, the absurdly expensive department store for foreigners, owned, for the past 25 years, by foreigners. The Guardian reports that almost 6,000 people here have a net worth over $30 million, one-third of them “non-doms,” to use a term utterly British in its blend of the cute and the vaguely xenophobic. The state exempts these people from having to pay taxes on income generated outside the country, and when the recently elected French president François Hollande threatened to levy a 75 percent income tax on salaries over $1.2 million, a flood of wealthy Parisians uprooted to London—so many that property company Douglas & Gordon opened a South Kensington office with four native French speakers. And London has, of course, other non-economic advantages.

“I think the Arabs and the Russians don’t like New York,” said the artist Anish Kapoor at a Pace event last Monday, where he was taking a break from his own exhibition across town at Lisson Gallery. “There’s the whole, American ‘We are the dominators of the globe’ thing that they don’t like, and I don’t blame them, frankly.”

But the potential-client-base motive is such an obvious one for the gallery expansions as to feel reductively simple, like Willie Sutton’s famous answer that he robbed the banks because “that’s where the money is.” It’s never easy to sell art, especially not to those wary of the wily West, and it isn’t as though New York is running out of rich people. And if the business has become more global, it’s easy enough to meet people through art fairs, of which there are currently hundreds a year. The even easier counterargument to the wealthy non-doms being the New Yorkers’ principal motivation for being here is that if the new class of art collectors truly does find its primary residency “on jets,” as Christie’s chairman Brett Gorvy once put it in explaining why the house no longer offers geographic information about its buyers, then why set up a new shop anywhere?

Part of the reason is to reintroduce older work, particularly older American work, to audiences here. Angela Choon, a Zwirner partner who has moved to London to run the new branch, said the potential in this part of the market was a major factor in her gallery, which handles the estates of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Gordon Matta-Clark, moving here.

“There’s a real enthusiasm here to have this art reintroduced, and introduced, to them,” Ms. Choon said. “I think what we do in New York, and what we want we do here, is to reintroduce these modern masters and reconcontextualize it so that it does seem new and fresh and as exciting as any contemporary art that’s just coming out of the studio.”

Doig at Werner. (Courtesy Michael Werner Gallery)

Michael Werner’s director Gordon VeneKlasen said he feels here as he did in New York during the 1990s, when his gallery, which focuses on painting and sculpture, had to compete with trendy conceptual art. It did so by staging shows of the great European painters who, it’s so easy to forget, laid the groundwork for conceptual art, and more directly for the kind of work he sells. London, he found, is hungry for this kind of thing.

“Over here, I’ll have five critics knocking on my door the day we open a show,” he said, referring to the robust number of major newspapers London boasts.

The Americans Are Coming! New York Dealers Go Bold in Sheik-Stacked London