There is something unbelievably seductive about youthful enthusiasm. I arrive at Saatchi Yates – the newest, youngest Mayfair gallery (and one of the largest), which opened on Cork Street in those precious days in October when we were allowed to breathe on each other – carrying a hefty load of grump. By the time I’ve spent an hour with Phoebe Saatchi Yates, 26, and her husband Arthur Yates, 30, showing me around their new show of work by a collective of unknown French artists, I’d gladly part with £50,000 for one, if only I had it going.
That’s not to say that enthusiasm is empty. When they announced their plans to open this 10,000 sq ft of white space on London’s iconic art street, the pair were adamant that their programme would focus on emerging artists, who are “doing something really different”.
“We felt like there is definitely an Instagram echo chamber of artists right now, and a similar programme that you see across some galleries. We really wanted to show a different body of work, a different group of artists,” Saatchi Yates says.
Untitled, 2020 by Hams Klemens
She is, in case you were wondering, Charles’s only daughter, and though she initially went to film school, credits her years of involvement with his collection as her “training” in how to seek out new talent. She and Yates met when they were 17. “I’m like the Jared Kushner, the weird son-in-law,” he jokes. He’s underselling himself – the couple have been working together managing Charles’s collection and increasingly advising him on acquisitions since 2017.
Allez La France!, though their second exhibition (their first was a solo show for Swiss artist Pascal Sender, whose paintings shift and mutate when viewed through an app), showcases the first group of artists they found that made the couple feel “this is really exciting. We can do this”. The works are compelling – very large scale canvases by four different artists (Hams Klemens, Jin Angdoo, Mathieu Julien and Kevin Pinsembert) in four very different styles, the confidence of which belies the fact that none of them normally paint on canvas or exhibit at all. They share work with each other privately on Whatsapp immediately after completing it on public walls, knowing full well it’ll be painted over within hours by the authorities.
“Basically what the artists have in common is that they were making these gigantic, beautiful abstract paintings on the streets of Marseille and Paris,” says Yates. “We see it as an antidote to, you know, gaudy graffiti and horrible street art.”
The couple with works by Jin Angdoo at their gallery
They discovered Klemens online – they find most of their artists through social media or through friends – and went to Marseille to meet him and then on to Paris “on that weekend where everyone went to Paris and got Coronavirus, but luckily, we weren’t at Fashion Week,” says Saatchi Yates.
I’m tickled by this image of them, dressed “as we’re dressed” (which is, delightfully, exactly how you imagine a pair of Cork Street art dealers to dress, in quirkily formal black with a soupçon of Victoriana). “We got into this guy’s car and we’re driving through the streets of Marseille, then we get to a wall, and we’re scaling this wall, and Phoebe’s wearing a dress and it’s going everywhere, then he gives us headlights to wear and takes us into this tunnel that allows a canal to pass under Marseille,” says Yates. “And it’s his studio. His museum. It’s like boom, boom – just one giant painting after another.”
Their dedication is remarkable. After an introduction by Klemens, they met another of the collective, Pinsembert, in an Aubervilliers backstreet at the crack of dawn “because he’d been painting all night – he knew it would be covered over [quickly] so he’d spent the whole night painting it to show us,” Yates says.
Of course, they haven’t spent the whole of lockdown making a killing out of emerging artists. One of the refreshing things about the pair is the freedom with which they talk about the other, rather more financially reliable side to their business, which is secondary market dealing – selling paintings consigned to them by private collectors to other private collectors, without the faff and steeper fees of the auction house (they have a sales team of five, and a number of paid interns).
Unlike many commercial galleries, which tend to keep their secondary market dealings behind closed doors, Saatchi Yates are putting it on display, curating exhibitions in their basement space with works they have on consignment. Currently it’s a selection of portraits by artists ranging from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Jenny Saville to George Condo and Andy Warhol. It did get “very weird” selling this stuff from home in lockdown though, Yates says. “It was like, someone in Dallas has got this, someone in Austria is looking for that – never seeing the paintings, it was like stock trading. We could have been selling anything.”
Hams Klemens’ work in a tunnel under Marseille
They’re a funny, sweetly old-fashioned pair, these two. Their joy at being part of the Cork Street crowd is palpable as they take me up the road to the Burlington Arcade, where they’ve installed work in a couple of empty shops. As we pass, they point out the street’s other new arrivals (Lisson, Goodman) and old timers like Waddington Custot gallery.
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“It’s really amazing to be part of this heritage road,” Saatchi Yates says. “Cork Street is protected, it can only be art galleries.”
“And you know, Savile Row, Cork Street, Burlington Arcade – that old-school British elegance is due a moment,” adds her husband. He laughs. “I mean Phoebe’s Dad, when he started showing the YBAs, he took all the business away from Cork Street, and the irony that we’re coming back…”
A work in the wild by Kevin Pinsembert in Marseille
Though they’re open to new technology (Yates’s demonstration of Sender’s whizzy painting app is done with typical enthusiasm), they’re less impressed by the recent non-fungible token bubble and the sale of an NFT by the artist Beeple for $69m. “You’ve got people saying, is this like [Duchamp’s] urinal? Is this like Damien Hirst putting a shark in a tank? And I’m like, well, if it’s about the object, then it is, but I don’t think Beeple’s anything about the object, it’s about the market. It’s about Bitcoin. It’s about GameStop. It’s about Tesla. It’s about the stock, not the object,” Yates says.
They’re not entirely old-school though. The classic reluctance of galleries to be open about prices became unworkable during lockdown due to the increase in online sales, and the pair are all for it. “I think that is the way it should go,” Saatchi Yates says. Ultimately, “there needs to be less bullshit in every aspect of it.” It also helps to ease the process with younger collectors who might be put off by the smoke and mirrors of the old ways, she thinks.
Oublie FA Vendu, 2020 by Mathieu Julien
“As much as working with artists at the beginning of their careers, we want to work with collectors from when they start collecting. So that’s why we offer works on paper and things like that, for people who might engage in our programme who don’t have a huge amount of money.” The works on paper, for the record, are “under £5,000”.
Still, it’s a rich seam, she thinks. “I think people are feeling more drawn to art. For instance, even in our circle of friends, who aren’t necessarily art collectors, they’re caring much more about what’s in their home. People are willing to consider, instead of spending money on the shoes, or the bag or the holiday, because they haven’t been able to, buying a fantastic piece of art.” If you go in there, be careful – if you get chatting to these two, you might leave with more than you bargained for.