artnet Asks: James Mayor

Is the art world’s ecosystem on the brink of collapse?

James Mayor
Photo: Courtesy The Mayor Gallery
James Mayor Photo: Courtesy The Mayor Gallery

James Mayor
Photo: Courtesy The Mayor Gallery

The Mayor Gallery’s James Mayor is among the Cork Street dealers who have had to relocate in the wake of a major redevelopment deal, which is set to turn a large swathe of London’s traditional art hub into luxury apartments. He was lucky enough to move only a few blocks. But Mayor’s new address is symptomatic of wider changes in the whole of London’s commercial art scene, in which developers and mega galleries—many hailing from abroad—increasingly have the upper hand.

The Mayor Gallery has been on Cork Street since 1925, premiering in London the works of such giants as Paul Klee, Francis Bacon, and Max Ernst. At the helm of the gallery since the early 1970s, James Mayor has a unique perspective on the way the market has changed in the British capital over the last few decades. He shared his insights with artnet News days before the unveiling his exhibition showcasing the work of the influential Italian designer and artist Nanda Vigo.

Now that you’ve settled in your new premises, how have things changed for you?
We’ve done half a season. It is a bit of a shock having less than a third of the space. But the light is fantastic, and it does make for a very beautiful gallery, albeit not on the ground floor. All the artists love it, and most people who have come have really liked the space, so I’m very happy about that. It hasn’t been as awful as I thought it might have been.

Is it the beginning of a new era for galleries with a niche market such as yours?
The history of modern art isn’t 500 weeks old, it’s 500 years old. London used to have a lot of specialist galleries, which were small in size and all on the ground floor. They’re now being forced upstairs because of the ludicrous rents being demanded. And when galleries go upstairs, it’s harder to do exhibitions, because the chance of people seeing it, and therefore the chance of educating or allowing people to educate themselves and choose something they are interested in, is scarcer. Now, people are being force-fed by supermarket-type galleries that are totally predictable.

Some describe the art market in London as buoyant, but last time we spoke you expressed some concerns.
I’m very worried about it. The press, the museums, everything is about the obvious. I’m passionate about art. I’m a visual person rather than an intellectual person. And I learn something new everyday. It’s not about what’s going on now. It’s about where things came from. If you go to a show and you learn something, it’s a great show. There are a lot of blockbusters you go to and come back with no new opinions, not having learnt anything.

Do you feel that this homogenization of art means that more galleries will close in the future?
I’m afraid so. There will always be the small, new enterprising galleries that come and go. Some survive, some don’t, but the middle ground, professional people who are doing things that aren’t completely mainstream, catering to the sophisticated, old-fashioned collector—what the French call the amateur—will disappear.

The other problem is that, in the past, auction houses had world experts in obscure subjects, but those departments don’t make money, so they closed. Dealers are changing too. Of these new supermarket galleries, very few of them actually buy stock. If you are just selling fashion, and not buying it, you need market makers.

The whole of my dealing life, which started in 1973, I have basically chosen a handful of artists and built up a stock. I started with James Rosenquist, Cy Twombly, Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, Agnes Martin to name a few. Now people don’t realize that it wasn’t easy. I gave five or six shows to Twombly and I can’t tell you how few I sold.

So do you feel that this role of the dealer as a champion for artists is under threat?
Yes. For the ecosystem of the art world, it’s rather like the honeybee becoming extinct. If the dealer becomes extinct, the whole ecosystem will collapse.

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