"There's now a very wide spectrum within the commercial gallery circuit," says Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel. "You have the scale and ambition of White Cube, Gagosian, Victoria Miro, and Hauser & Wirth at one end, and then the laboratories of dodgy, experimental spaces in East London. One of the big differences between London and New York is the level of experimentation. The market is still smaller here, so people are less afraid of failure and more willing to take risks."
Another difference is that the London art scene is livelier and more rambunctious than New York's. Artists like Hirst and Lucas played an important role in London's rise during the late 1980's by organizing their own shows. Art students are omnipresent too, as most of the leading British art schools are in central London.
The scene is also much more cosmopolitan than that of any other European cultural center and arguably even New York. "The main change I've noticed is that the art scene has opened up to become more international," notes Ralph Rugoff, a New Yorker who lived in London as an art critic during the 1990's and returned last year, after a stint running the Wattis Institute in San Francisco, to become director of the Hayward Gallery. "Every five years the Hayward organizes the British Art Show. In the last one, in 2006, more than half of the 50 artists were born in other countries." Last year the prestigious Turner Prize (awarded annually by Tate Britain to encourage interest in contemporary art), went to the German painter Tomma Abts.
For some collectors, the current frenzy of the contemporary art world has prompted a surprising turn, and some observers sniff a trend. Last summer at Sotheby's in London, well-known art collector Gunther Sachs, the German industrialist, paid a record $9.5 million for The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. It was one of 20 records set at an auction of 15th- to 18th-century works. Even the Old Masters are basking in the white heat of the London art scene.