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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
Saatchi's new shock tactics

By Rebecca Thomas
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Contemporary art champion Charles Saatchi opens his new gallery at London's County Hall on Thursday.

The advertising guru turned patron of contemporary art has always cut something of an ambiguous and controversial figure.

On the one hand he is the reclusive millionaire media mogul who notoriously shuns the limelight.

Ron Mueck mask
Take a look inside the Saatchi Gallery.

But on the other, he has caused both uproar and admiration through a succession of bold exhibitions of sensationalist pieces.

Now, however, Saatchi has gone one stage further in challenging both the public perception of himself and of contemporary art.

His coup lies in the opening of a new gallery for his unrivalled collection in the unlikely setting of County Hall.

Saatchi's original gallery was housed in an old paint factory in St John's Wood, north London.

Its stark interiors pioneered the now common "white cube" method of displaying contemporary art.

This in turn helped propel the likes of Damien Hirst to stardom and create the movement of the YBAs - Young British Artists, a title Saatchi coined himself.

But the Edwardian oak-panelled environment of County Hall - once the home of London's city authorities - could not be further from Saatchi's original vision.
Charles Saatchi is
Saatchi champions the work of British artists

'Massive gamble'

He has preserved the majestic interior just the way it was left by the defunct Greater London Council in 1986. This decision was sound, says Malcolm Woods of English Heritage.

"County Hall is one of the best and largest town halls of the period, and if you like Edwardian municipal buildings you can't get any better.

"The art works well in that environment, the building is robust enough to cope with it. But it will be interesting to see how the public react."

Saatchi spent weeks leading the exact positioning of each work and is no doubt hoping visitors will share his enthusiasm for his project.

Ultimately, he wants his pieces, such as Tracey Emin's bed and Hirst's animals in formaldehyde, to be viewed in a new light, says the gallery's spokesman William Miller.

"Something unique and new happens to the pieces when they are seen in a traditional interior," Mr Miller adds.

"It was a massive gamble but the interior gives them an authority they perhaps haven't had before."

New image

The gallery will open with a retrospective of Damien Hirst's work, most of which are placed in separate rooms along the sweeping corridor.

The permanent centrepiece of the gallery is the circular central "hall of fame" exhibiting some of the most famous "shock" pieces in Saatchi's collection.

They include Marcus Harvey's portrait of serial killer Myra Hindley and Chris Ofili's dung-slapped picture of the Virgin Mary.

County Hall
County Hall is a long way from Saatchi's "white cube" phase
These much-debated works are thrilling to see up close, but they have lost much of their outrage value since they first burst onto the scene in the late 1990s.

Clearly, this was not lost on Saatchi when choosing to show them in the comfortable surrounds of County Hall.

But the gallery's 40,000 square feet of space also allows Saatchi to exhibit a fuller example of his 2,000-piece collection - and dissipate the perception that he is an indiscriminate hoarder of sensationalist, new and British works.

Among the 100-plus pieces, there are a number of sedate oil paintings by Portuguese artist Paula Rego, Peter Doig and John Bratby, one of the founding members of the "kitchen sink" school of the 1950s.

Big contribution

Saatchi is charging an entrance fee of 8.50 to see everything in the gallery. Tate Modern, which is partly state-funded, is free, but charges for special exhibitions.

Ivan Massow, the former head of London's Institute of Contemporary Art, who has previously expressed ambivalent views about contemporary and conceptual art, says Saatchi deserves to profit from his collection.

Works by Paula Rego
Works by Paula Rego are among several oil paintings in the gallery

"He's contributed a tremendous amount to the development of contemporary art, has one of the best collections and has spent a lot of time and money collecting and creating artists," Mr Massow says.

He adds that he is "surprised" to find himself defending Saatchi and, indeed, others have not been so ready to give him praise.

Philip Dodd, Mr Massow's ICA successor, recently called the likes of Emin and Hirst "relics of the nineties" and the new gallery a "museum".

Many in the media have interpreted the gallery as a direct challenge to Tate director Nicholas Serota. However, Tate Modern says it offers a "warm welcome" to Saatchi's gallery - "an exciting addition to the visual arts in London" and its thriving South Bank area.

Free spirit

The Saatchi Gallery says it wants the freedom to be autonomous, something not possible at the Tate which has a remit to fulfil.

"Charles hates being governed by committee and answering to other people, what you get with him is a collection built on free spirit," says Mr Miller.

Saatchi Gallery's Boiler Room
The gallery's Boiler Room will showcase new artists

"When you are answerable only to yourself you can blow 1m on an artist who doesn't work out, but at least you won't be fired for it or have the Arts Council coming down on you."

And Saatchi has every intention to continue buying works by new artists, and making their presence part of the evolution of his gallery.

Artistic duo The Little Artists were on the verge of having their Lego miniatures of well-known works bought by Saatchi.

They conclude that, whatever your opinion of his taste in art, Saatchi's contribution to the art world cannot be denied.

"It impresses me that he goes out and finds out what's going on," says Little Artist John Cake.

"And, as an artist, when you sell your work to someone who genuinely loves it you feel great and that all your hard work has been worthwhile."

BBC London's Brenda Emanus
"The gallery provides a showcase for Saatchi's extensive collection"


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