The Renaissance might never have happened without the Medici, the dynasty of Italian princes, merchants and bankers who embedded the 15th-century concept of patronage in society, and commissioned artworks that illustrated their intellectual, humanist and poetic interests. 

Six centuries later, Phoebe Saatchi Yates could claim the same pedigree. Her father, Charles Saatchi, is one of the biggest art patrons of the late 20th century. His patronage of the Young British Artists in the 1990s thrust British art onto a global stage, and transformed the advertising executive and his artists – among them Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin – into the most influential cultural figures of their day. This autumn, however, Saatchi Yates and her husband, Arthur Yates, are taking things in a slightly different direction. Instead of amassing art, they are selling it – opening a contemporary art gallery in the heart of Mayfair. 

Phoebe Saatchi Yates with her father, Charles Saatchi, in 1999
Phoebe Saatchi Yates with her father, Charles Saatchi, in 1999 © Richard Young/Shutterstock

Work and pleasure have often overlapped for the couple, who met eight years ago through mutual friends and were married last summer in Lake Como, Italy. “We’re very co-dependent,” says Yates, 29. “We work together a lot. We live together. I’m sure there’s some kind of disorder that we’ve got going on.” But, he counters, “it really works.” 

This is not their first entrepreneurial venture. In 2008, while at King’s College London, Yates started a fashion business, supplying clothing to high-street retailers. Seven years later, he launched the high-end embroidered shirt brand Bruta, for which Saatchi Yates was company director. Loved by both the fashion and the art crowd, Bruta was stocked in Dover Street Market and Liberty. But the couple stopped working on the project two years ago to focus on art.

Saatchi Yates studied at film school, but, unsurprisingly, she has long felt art a better fit. “I didn’t just want to go into it automatically,” she says of following her father’s giant footsteps. “I wanted to come to it on my own.” Even so, work experience wasn’t hard to come by. Since 2017, the pair have been working at the Saatchi Gallery, managing the collection across all its departments and increasingly playing the role of art adviser to Charles. “Phoebe has been in training for 25 years,” says Yates, of his wife’s prodigious art-world knowledge. In the past five years, he adds, “We’ve met some of the world’s best collectors and institutions.” It’s been invaluable in building connections so that they could set out on their own.

The couple are not lacking in ambition. Their gallery, Saatchi Yates, is opening on Cork Street, a road that has been associated with art dealers since the early 20th century, and where galleries such as The Mayor Gallery, Waddington Custot and Robert Fraser have staged boundary-breaking, game-changing art shows. Peggy Guggenheim opened her Guggenheim Jeune art gallery at number 30 in 1938, with the inheritance she received after her mother’s death. She went on to host shows by Jean Cocteau and Kandinsky. 

Guggenheim is an obvious role model for Saatchi Yates: a collector who was also equally involved in promoting and selling works of art. But the pair name-check the New York dealer Leo Castelli, who died 21 years ago, as their most powerful influence. Castelli, arguably the most important gallerist of the past century, created shows in the 1960s and ’70s with abstract expressionist and pop masters including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, among others, before having a second wave of influence with Julian Schnabel and David Salle a decade on.

“He sounds like the perfect art dealer. He didn’t screw anyone over, was loved by everyone, had a great time, and was very good at his job,” says Saatchi Yates. “He really maintained the whole charm of the art world, yet the innocence of the art world,” Yates agrees. “That’s something we really want to replicate: Castelli elegance.” 

The gallery, 10,000sq ft situated opposite the new Richard Rogers-designed residential development and the gallery arcade linking Cork Street and Old Burlington Street, will be one of the largest in the West End, outsized in scale only by the likes of Hauser & Wirth, with its 15,000sq ft double-exhibition corner space on Savile Row. Rather than mimic the clean, modern exteriors of other galleries, however, Yates is pleased that their gallery looks “romantic” from the street with its historic façade. 

Play2, 2018, by Pascal Sender, one of the gallery’s first artists 
Play2, 2018, by Pascal Sender, one of the gallery’s first artists  © Pascal Sender

The gallery aims to create a new focus on emerging artists in the heart of London. “We’re looking to make the difference,” explains Saatchi Yates. “We want to show cutting-edge, breakthrough work in the centre of art land.” The main ground-floor space will show contemporary, previously unseen work, while the lower ground will focus on secondary-market sales garnered from private collections. 

“We wanted to build something very alien to Mayfair,” Yates continues, as the conversation ping-pongs between their points. “The days of going to east London and south London to discover new artists are kind of over.” 

Central London is certainly re-emerging as a centre for gallerists who want to show work by emerging artists. Stuart Shave Modern Art recently closed his east London arts hub on Vyner Street (though he is keeping his second Clerkenwell gallery), and has opened a gallery on Bury Street in SW1 with Martha Jungwirth. In the West End, there’s Josh Lilley; and Pilar Corrias is in Bloomsbury. But Mayfair itself has always been more associated with blue-chip artists and galleries. Lisson Gallery opens a third London space on Cork Street on 6 October. But Saatchi Yates wants to create a new landscape. Says Yates: “We want to have a platform for young artists and radical new art.” 

The gallery’s first exhibition is by Swiss-born artist Pascal Sender, who studied under Peter Doig in Dusseldorf. Sender’s work (from £50,000) is a futuristic, digitally infused take on painting. Think Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No. 1, spilling out into three-dimensional planes. The duo discovered him in “a small, random corner of the internet”, live-streaming his work to a devoted digital community. “We just thought this was just so strange, so bizarre, that it’s got to be good because it’s so original,” Yates explains. 

Phoebe Saatchi Yates and Arthur Yates outside their new Cork Street gallery
Phoebe Saatchi Yates and Arthur Yates outside their new Cork Street gallery © Gabby Laurent

While they won’t reveal other artists in their roster just yet – aside from saying their second exhibition will be a four-person show by French artists, titled Allez La France – they do say that they have discovered most by chance, through friends, and via social media. “Looking in the wrong places”, as Yates puts it, as opposed to graduate shows or smaller galleries which traditionally “feed” artists to major ones. Their focus initially will be on painting, which is a medium that most appeals to their clients, and a rich seam for emerging art.

When it comes to the secondary-market element of the business, Charles Saatchi has been an adviser, but Saatchi Yates is adamant that they won’t be working directly with his collection in their space. As well as hosting presentations of major works by leading postwar and contemporary artists, including Yayoi Kusama, Robert Motherwell, Anselm Kiefer and Christopher Wool, private sales will be consigned from other collectors they have relationships with. “We work with established collectors around the world. But, in the same way we are trying to champion new artists, we are equally interested in cultivating a new generation of art collectors. The two need each other to flourish.” 

While early signs are that the London gallery scene is proving more robust in a post-Covid world than other commercial art capitals – such as New York City, which has seen several gallery closures – opening a commercial arts venture during a pandemic is a bold move. “[People say] are you completely mad?” Yates laughs. The duo’s space is the first big London gallery to launch since the lockdown, even though they have been working on the project for three years. The pair see it as an opportunity to break the rules and do things in a new way. As Saatchi Yates observes – inverting the motto of her father’s one-time ad agency rival, BBH – “Why don’t we zig when they zag”?

Saatchi Yates opens on 15 October at 6 Cork Street, London W1.

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