Gallery owner Sadie Coles: ‘I don’t feel digital will replace art or objects’ Art

ANDAfter studying art history at Middlesex University, Sadie Coles, 59, worked at Bristol’s Arnolfini, then at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery where she specialized in younger artists, including Sarah Lucas and Grayson Perry. In 1997, she set up her influential Sadie Coles HQ gallery in London’s West End. The artists she represents are Lucas, John Currin, Helen Marten and Alvaro Barrington. Last year she received OBE for merit in the arts.

How has Brexit affected your business?
What is interesting is the perception that it is [trade] it will be harder. London after Brexit is still a world-class city and still functions brilliantly in terms of location, language and time. Therefore, I feel that there will be a painful period when people will realize that the barriers they imagined exist do not actually exist. A little correction will be a good thing because everyone will try harder, rethink things, be a little more creative.

How do you decide you want to work with an artist?
I see something that makes me curious. Work that does something original and moves the needle. I ask other artists who they like or who they watch. Either critics or museum people. I see a lot of shows, so locking up was pretty hard because it was two years without traveling, which meant watching shows digitally instead of in real life.

Abstract painting on a white wall
LATAH OSB, 2022, Seth Price, one of Sadie Coles ’seat artists. Photo: Robert Glowacki / © Seth Price, courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London.

Are you choose to work with anyone from something you’ve only seen on the internet?
Not. I always want to see things and talk to an artist. To go and stand in their studio. I want to feel their passion for what they do. When you compose a program for your gallery, it cannot be a monoculture. You want to reflect the world, and the world is constantly changing. Art has become more political in the last two or three years as the problems we face have changed and our anxieties have become more acute.

You say “more political”, is there more features?
Artists use new media and platforms to create art and NFT [non-fungible tokens] are an example of this, although I personally think the name is red herring. We should say “digital art” because it’s just a new medium that artists use through a new technology, blockchain. So that’s a change, but a lot of the way people communicate has changed. It is obvious that during the isolation there was a boom of people watching and buying works of art digitally. But it always happened. People bought art from Jpegov before closing. The biggest revolution in my entire time as an art dealer was the internet, because when I started working for Anthony d’Offay there was no fax machine, there was no world wide web. The fact that you can reach a global audience from your desk has grown the art market into this newly democratized, open market.

They are there parameters of what NFT can and cannot be or exists only as a digital thing?
We are at the very beginning where digital art can live and gather and what artists do with it as a medium. There will be major shifts and innovations that will impact content and come from the media.

So, is it being defined at this point?
Great art is great art, so if an artist makes something really interesting in digital form, for me it’s just as exciting as someone who makes a great picture.

David Bowie posed under the K. West sign on London’s Heddon Street for the cover of his 1972 Ziggy Stardust album.
Sadie Coles ’first gallery was in Heddon Street in London, next to where the cover of David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was photographed. Photo: Brian Ward / David Bowie Archive / PA

Your first gallery was included Heddon Streetright next to where Ziggy Stardust the sleeve is shot. Is it K. West does the sign still exist? Yes, when I first opened it.

And have you seen people come and pose?
Lots of tourists. The phone box is still there, so people are still taking pictures. When David Bowie died, there was a huge pile of flowers on the street where the sign would be – in the style of Princess Diana.

Has he ever come to your gallery?
He came to the first Sarah Lucas show we did as what is now called pop-up, at a warehouse on St John Street. He came with Charles Saatchi and was really interested in the overall energy of the YBA group at the time. He invited us all to a concert, I remember.

Was there a special one a work of art that made you realize you wanted to be a gallerist?
One of the first items that piqued my interest was the Tutankhamun mask. I was about 10 years old. We waited six hours in line to enter and there was a sense of anticipation and excitement, and then this dark tunnel, which replicated the entrance to the pyramids. And then the light blue and gold thing at the bottom – I was like, “Ooh aah, this is what I want in my life!”

We met when Pulp asked to use reproductions of John Currin’s paintings in a video for Help the olddid you doubt allowing the use of the artist’s work in the pop spot?
No, because the synergy between John’s work and your vision was perfect. That kind of rudeness reigned around Pulp at the time. For example, I really like that song Underwear and it can’t get any closer to John’s unique vision.

I also liked how non-dogmatic you made replicas of the pictures, if you remember. They’re still in the Rough Trade office, very faded, because I passed by recently and saw them. But you were fine that we didn’t have to borrow real artwork to put them in the farmhouse for the video. John was excited about your music. There was a lot shared so it seemed right, and you remained great friends.

What is the IGA (International Galleries Alliance) initiative you just launched?
It came out of the blockade. There was this feeling, which everyone felt, unknown and how to negotiate it. And then it became a more conceptual question of what the future of the art world will be and how to come together to be stronger. Today it has 260 members worldwide.

I hope that some of the cooperation and collegial communication that took place during the isolation will continue. I think isolation has made real-world experiences – such as a walk to the park – much more desirable than it was before. In many ways, the fact that we are so saturated with digital means that real-world experiences are more precious than ever.

There is always a misunderstanding that technological advances will kill a thing before them, but they actually often improve that thing. Therefore, I do not think that digital will replace art, objects or IDP experiences.

We will not all be forced to live in the metaverse for the rest of our lives?
Not! Someone’s experience in the metaverse can lead you to a real experience or vice versa – it’s an improvement, I guess, as I see it.

Art Is Not Human, an exhibition of Seth Price’s works, is located at Sadie Coles Headquarters, 62 Kingly Street, London W1 until 28 May 2022.

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