Britain’s economy is stagnant, the international art market is in a downturn and the wider world is weighed down with ongoing geopolitical crises in the Middle East, Ukraine and beyond.
Yet, perhaps counter-intuitively, London’s contemporary art gallery scene is expanding.
This past weekend was the preview of the sixth edition of Condo London, a collaborative citywide exhibition featuring 27 invited international dealerships presenting exhibitions at 23 London contemporary galleries. Host dealers can choose to give over their spaces to their visiting colleagues, or hold their own exhibitions alongside them. Most of the works at the event, which runs through Feb. 17, are by emerging artists and are priced at under $20,000.
Back in 2016, the inaugural edition of this innovative alternative to an international art fair featured just eight London dealerships. Since then, spinoff events have been held in Athens, Mexico City, New York, São Paulo and Shanghai. This latest iteration is the first in London since 2020.
The four year gap “was because of the pandemic,” said Vanessa Carlos, a co-founder of the Carlos/Ishikawa gallery in the East End and the creator of the Condo concept. “We wanted to wait for the moment when the most people could travel freely,” she said.
Now, she added, “new things are happening in London.” The biggest challenge was keeping Condo London “small and intimate” at a time when the city’s re-energized gallery scene is growing, she said. “Scale is important. There are too many large, exhausting events,” she added, pointing out that Condo was small enough for many visitors to see all of it.
“I feel this is a distinctly new phase, a reset” said Phillida Reid, one of two Condo participants from the new cluster of galleries in the Bloomsbury district near the British Museum, a neighborhood not previously associated with serious contemporary art. Reid opened her 2,500-square-foot gallery there in 2022; four more dealers opened nearby last year.
During Condo, Reid is mounting “Labour of Love,” a solo exhibition of canvases by the New Zealand-based artist Claudia Kogachi that affectionately depict the painter and her girlfriend. The gallery is also hosting paintings by the Brazilian artist and transgender rights activist Lia D Castro, presented by Galeria Jaqueline Martins of São Paulo and Brussels. Reid said several of Castro’s paintings had sold, priced at about 6,000 euros, roughly $6,500, each.
Just a few hundred yards away, the newly opened London branch of the Athens gallery Hot Wheels was hosting a joint show for Condo with Maxwell Graham gallery from New York.
“It’s competitive at an art fair. Condo is a collaboration,” said Guillaume Sultana, the director of the Paris-based Sultana gallery, which was presenting photographs by the young French artist Nanténé Traoré at Amanda Wilkinson gallery in Farringdon during the event. These tender, of-the-moment studies of bodies in motion and transition are for sale in editions of three, priced between €1,200 and €5,000 per image. Six of those sold during the preview, according to Sultana, who said there had been a steady stream of visitors at Wilkinson’s gallery during the weekend. “London is such a big city. Anything you do, you have people,” he added.
In reality, unlike major “destination” fairs — such as Art Basel or Frieze — Condo, with its concentration on young galleries and emerging artists, isn’t the kind of event that attracts many international visitors, particularly in January. But with the guest gallerists having to pay just 750 pounds, around $950, to participate, dealers can take the sort of risks they can’t afford to take at a fair. And price points at Condo are often low enough to encourage sight-unseen online buying.
“It’s much more relaxed. I can bring much more experimental works, instead of spending $20,000 to $30,000 at an art fair and risking my business,” said the Condo regular Alexander Shulan, the director of the New York gallery Lomex.
Lomex was showing paintings by the Berlin-based American artist David Flaugher, whose austere, deserted interiors were priced between $9,000 and $22,000 at Ginny on Frederick. According to Shulan, an American collector bought one at the preview.
Given Condo’s more relaxed format, the pace of sales wasn’t like an art fair either. But there were takers at the debut show of abstract paintings covered with enigmatic markings by the Belgium-based Senegalese artist Libasse Ka at Carlos/Ishikawa.
The gallery’s star artist Oscar Murillo got to know Ka, 25, while the latter was working in a Brussels superstore. Murillo, impressed by Ka’s artworks, recommended him to Carlos/Ishikawa. Several of Ka’s 11 paintings had sold by Sunday afternoon, priced between $7,000 to $38,000, Carlos said.
The Condo preview was also an opportunity for the London dealership Emalin to show off a new, second space in one of the oldest buildings in the Shoreditch neighborhood. Dating back to the early 18th century, the building, called the Clerk’s House, now contains an elegant white-painted gallery displaying works by Alvaro Barrington, Matias Faldbakken and other artists from Emalin’s international stable.
Outside of Condo’s program, other London galleries were showing signs of growth. Last Thursday, the dealer Niru Ratnam opened a new 2,000 square-foot space in the Fitzrovia district with a show of contorted figure paintings by the British artist Emma Cousin.
“It’s a risk opening a bigger gallery in a better location,” said Ratnam, who previously occupied a small, upstairs gallery near Carnaby Street, “but you do make more of a statement and it enables our artists to make more ambitious shows.”
“It’s also a risk staying still in a challenging climate,” Ratnam added. “You can simply fade away.”