A decade ago, it would have been inconceivable that all this might be happening in a single month in London. "Things were very different in the early 1990's," reminisces New York-born Maureen Paley, who moved to London in 1977 and is now one of its leading gallerists. "There was no contemporary art scene as such." The city has long had great museums with imposing historic collections and scholarly exhibitions, but the avant-garde was relegated to publicly funded exhibition spaces like the Whitechapel, Serpentine, and Hayward galleries. There were very few commercial galleries, very few contemporary art collectors, and certainly no world-class contemporary art fair.
Even during the last global art boom, in the 1980's, the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi was the only London collector of note with an interest in contemporary art. In 1991, the Saatchi Gallery had organized the first show in its Young British Artists (YBA) series, three years after YBA poster boy Damien Hirst introduced himself and his colleagues in the student exhibition, "Freeze." Later in the decade, at the Royal Academy of Art and then at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the exhibition "Sensation," drawn from Saatchi's collection of YBA's, caused a public and media furor—not least because Hirst's tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde and Chris Ofili's Madonna-and-dung painting incurred the fury of then New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Throughout the 1990's, small galleries opened in East London to represent these artists. Hirst and fellow provocateur Tracey Emin joined Jay Jopling's White Cube gallery, which started out in a second-floor walk-up borrowed from Christie's. Painters Ofili and Doig were taken on by the Victoria Miro Gallery, sculptor Sarah Lucas by Sadie Coles HQ, and photographer and video artist Gillian Wearing by Paley.The market expanded through the 90's as new collectors appeared, although at that time London risked being eclipsed by Berlin, which after Germany's reunification had emerged as an inexpensive base for young artists.
The year 2000 marked a decisive turning point, as hundreds of international artists, curators, collectors, and gallery directors arrived for the debut of the Tate Modern museum. "It was an amazing week—the whole art world came to London for the opening," recalls Slotover. "It was the first time that had happened, and we thought: 'Well, why wouldn't they want to come back again?'" (In 2003, he and Amanda Sharp, his copublisher at Frieze, launched the Frieze Art Fair.)
Tate Modern's extraordinary success demonstrated the public's newfound appetite for contemporary art, and that London was prime for international galleries. (Today, both Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth own
multiple exhibition spaces in different parts of the city.) More British collectors began buying contemporary art, as did many wealthy foreign residents who have been moving to London in recent years, to work in the booming financial markets. But the city's most important role is as a bridge between America and Europe: it's the place where U.S. collectors come to buy European art and where Europeans shop for new work by British and American artists.
Today, there are two distinct gallery districts in London: the plush West End, once the preserve of the Old Master dealers, and the rapidly gentrifying East End. Neither is as concentrated geographically as, say, Chelsea in New York, but together they can easily be covered in a day. White Cube, Gagosian, Sadie Coles, Hauser & Wirth, Sprüth Magers, and the rest of the "new establishment" have set up shop in Piccadilly and Mayfair in the West End, close to Bond Street's designer stores and fashionable restaurants like Scott's and the Wolseley. The smaller, more experimental galleries—and a few big ones too—are camped in abandoned factories and warehouses in the East End, mostly clustered around Hoxton Square and Herald and Vyner streets. Here, the atmosphere has a sharper edge, with artists' bars, traditional pubs like the Golden Heart on Commercial Street and George & Dragon on Hackney Road, and nightclubs such as Hoxton Square's BoomBox, a favorite of the fashionable "new rave" music scene.