As the Frieze fairs return to their hometown next week, the mood music around London’s creatives has turned upbeat. Despite a still depressed economic backdrop that has begun to impact sales of art around the world, the message from the city’s loyal commercial galleries is clear: it’s time to shake off the shackles of Brexit and the pandemic and back the capital in style.

Those who have chosen Frieze as a focus for opening bigger, impressive spaces in town include Alison Jacques, Tiwani Contemporary and Stephen Friedman — all moving to Cork Street — while Pilar Corrias joins nearby, in a high-spec corner building on Conduit Street. Moving to a more central location is east London’s Union Pacific, with a new headquarters in Bloomsbury. All are also exhibiting in Frieze London, with some supporting works in Frieze Sculpture, a recognition of the role that the 20-year-old fair has played in the trajectory of London’s homegrown galleries.

Such commitment comes at a time when successful galleries have the option to open anywhere else in the world, notably in Paris, which has proved the main beneficiary of the Brexit blues. “I would rather have a really, really beautiful gallery in London, where I have been for 15 years, than dilute myself and have three mediocre spaces around the world,” Corrias says. Jacques is of a similar mind. “We might do pop-ups elsewhere, but I don’t want to be a multi-location gallery. I wanted the next stage of our gallery’s growth to be where it began, in London.” Paris, she says, “is exciting, but we shouldn’t talk about one [city] versus the other,” echoing a growing refrain.

Two mannequins made to look like they are dancing or playing wearing multi-coloured patterned clothing and wooden and metal masks
‘Sun Dance Kids (Boy and Girl)’ (2023) by Yinka Shonibare at Stephen Friedman Gallery © Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Photo by Stephen White & Co

London’s art-market credentials have professionalised since its Cool Britannia days at the turn of the century. Jacques, who started out in 1998, finds that “the industry used to be more collegiate, but as more international galleries opened, we had to look after ourselves.” This, she says, is not such a bad thing, at least for the success stories: “We became more competitive, but less sleepy.” The concentration around Cork Street is helping to bring back the sense of collaboration. “We are all talking to each other again,” Friedman says.

He launched in London in 1995 and identifies a shift in the city’s collecting community. “We built our business on the international audience that came to town but have found a number of new collectors in London these past five to eight years, growing at a faster rate than ever before.” Friedman is arguably hedging his bets by also opening his first overseas gallery in New York next month. It’s a smart move — the US, with New York as its hub, accounts for the bulk of global art sales. But, Friedman says, London, second by sales, “will continue to be an art capital” and is “a very progressive city, with the greatest range of communities”.

A brunette woman in a black jumpsuit stands in front of a giant pile of orange, blue and green fabric balls
Alison Jacques in front of a new work by Sheila Hicks

The opening exhibitions in London’s newest spaces seem to underline the city’s relative diversity. Jacques has new work by Sheila Hicks, “at the peak of her career aged 89”, the gallerist says, noting that the artist has broken through the limits of being a woman working in the lesser-rated field of textiles. Pilar Corrias has the young and in-demand LGBT+ artist Christina Quarles; Union Pacific offers the first UK show of the Swedish artist Niklas Asker; Tiwani opens with the British-Nigerian artist Joy Labinjo. Over the road, Stephen Friedman shows the more established British-Nigerian Yinka Shonibare, who has a coinciding show at Cristea Roberts gallery, work in Frieze Sculpture and is the chosen artist for this year’s Deutsche Bank lounges in the fairs.

A painting of three children swimming in a green and blue body of water
‘The Swimmers’ (2023) by Joy Labinjo at Tiwani Contemporary © Courtesy the artist/Tiwani Contemporary

The city’s multi-faceted society is core to Maria Varnava, who founded Tiwani Contemporary in London in 2011 to focus on contemporary art from Africa and its diaspora. “The current cultural landscape of London is, to a great extent, a result of the UK’s complex colonial history. How we work and what we build from this point onwards [is what] matters,” she says. Her gallery runs a space in Nigeria too, which Varnava opened last year. “Locations such as New York and Paris almost guarantee commercial viability. For us, however, Lagos is vital to our long-term vision and London has such weight, and such history, in the contemporary-art conversation. And, very simply, English as a language plays a big role,” she says.

Cristina BanBan, a Spanish artist who opens a solo show at Skarstedt in London next week, says that learning English while living in the UK “was important in everything”. The city’s history inspired her work, she says. “London has such a strong heritage of painting, with Bacon, Auerbach, Freud and Rego.” Winning a young-artist prize through the 2017 Royal Academy of Art’s Summer Exhibition “really helped my career”, she says. London’s longstanding art schools, including Goldsmiths, the Royal College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools, are “like nowhere else’s”, says Jacques.

An acrylic and oil painting of multiple nude female figures surrounded by blue strokes
Cristina BanBan’s ‘Grupo de Cuatro’ . . . 
An acrylic and oil painting of two nude female figures sitting closely together against an abstract background
. . . and her ‘Dos Figuras Sentadas’ (both 2023) at Skarstedt © Courtesy the artist/Skarstedt (2)

Frieze’s other exhibitors are ready to showcase artists who have studied and live in London. Thaddaeus Ropac, for example, will include Zadie Xa and Megan Rooney. Meanwhile, the directors of the fair underline their continued responsibility to its hometown on a broader level. This year is the most international Frieze London to date — with 160 galleries from 40 countries — but among the newcomers to its emerging galleries section are four Londoners: Ginny on Frederick, Harlesden High Street, Public and Vardaxoglou Gallery. Eva Langret, director of Frieze London says, “The landscape is continuously changing and there is an increasing understanding of the difficulties of running a gallery. It is important for us to support the London scene and keep it alive.”

A rectangular abstract painting with peach and yellow brushstrokes evoking a sun in the top half with pink brushstrokes in the lower left corner evoking the shape of a flower.
‘Chasing Sun (Blooming)’ (2023) by Megan Rooney at Thaddaeus Ropac © Photo by Eva Herzog, courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac/the artist

Langret’s remarks show a recognition that despite the more positive spin, it is still tough for many artists and galleries in London, where rents do not come cheap and other costs of living are high. But there is a sense among London’s cultural community that a welcome political change is afoot. Many expect a Labour government to come in next autumn and — as has historically been the case at least — be more sympathetic to the arts.

To a rapturous insider crowd at September’s Art Business Conference in London, Thangam Debbonaire, the recently appointed shadow culture secretary — and a trained classical cellist — described her department as “where the joy is”. She promised to put creative education back on the school curriculum and implement a post-Brexit deal to enable creatives to travel more freely. Her resounding verdict is that, in the UK, “We do quirky, eccentric, bonkers stuff that turns out to be world-beating.” Much of it goes on show from this week.

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