The Evolution of the Saatchi Gallery

On 9 October 2008, the Saatchi Gallery opened its new premises in the former headquarters of the Duke of York's regiment on Kings Road in Chelsea. Against a backdrop of boutique shops, street-side restaurants and vast greenery, this classic nineteenth century building fits perfectly, although its new job of housing a contemporary art gallery could be viewed as strange. The exterior and interior are contradictory, with the former a typical example of neo-classicalism, with its large Doric portico gracing the entrance and the latter a typical example of a modern museum with its minimalist approach of fifteen standard white galleries artificially lit. The interior and exterior both suit their purpose, which is more than can be said about Saatchi’s last location at County Hall along the South Bank.

Saatchi’s move to County Hall in 2003 was, and still is, viewed by critics as an unsuitable space to exhibit contemporary art. Inspired by an Edwardian Baroque style when it was built in the early twentieth century, its ornamental interior managed to detract from most of the art that was displayed inside. One review on the opening of the Saatchi Gallery at County Hall suggested that, although they applauded him for his vision to abandon conforming to the idea of a modern gallery with large white open spaces, certain works came off badly in the heavily decorated surroundings and saw the art struggle to stand out. Although a prime location for tourists to come and visit (it’s location was by attractions such as the London Eye, the London Aquarium and was across the river from Big Ben), even Charles Saatchi referred to the County Hall location as a “major cock-up” in a recent interview, as its rooms were small with dark wood panelling. In 2005 however, the gallery was taken to court by the landowners of the site over a ‘breach of contract’ and Saatchi announced his plans to move to the new location in Chelsea.

This move is seen as a return to the original Saatchi Gallery space of St John’s Wood, except in a better location. It has taken time to create the space that now exists with the interior being completely rebuilt; however, attention to detail is not the main point of this structure. Upon approaching the gallery, you would expect a heavily ornate interior with columns and pilasters, but when entering, you are greeted by a small, open reception space that quashes any expectations you may have had. The galleries are large white boxes with high ceilings that contain a soft light. This enhances the plain settings which provide a less disruptive platform from which to study the art. It also makes you very aware of the surrounding space. Each room is like a blank canvas itself, and the art within decorates it. It is a very modern construction and you are only reminded of the historical fabric as you enter the vast hallways to ascend the staircases, here is the only evidence of the original brick work. True to the theme of contradictions, while the Saatchi gallery has taken over twenty years to evolve to its current state the first exhibition on display is entitled The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art.

One point that the gallery prides itself on is the fact that through the sponsorship of Phillips de Pury & Co auctioning house, it is now able to become “the only completely free-entry contemporary art museum of its size in the world”. All art work within each gallery does not have guides by their sides, but there is a picture by picture guide that you can buy at the entrance for the small fee of £1.50. It is not compulsory that you buy this guide, but even if you choose to, this price is in vast contrast to the £8.50 that people used to have to pay at County Hall. This is fitting with Saatchi’s principle of wanting to “bring contemporary art to the widest audience possible” as what better way to do so than not charge an admission fee? Although the location is not a tourist hot-spot like the County Hall on the South Bank, with the recession affecting everyone’s bank-balance, it is a real incentive for a cheap day out.

SE For 3E News and research by SA

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