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The Influence of Charles Saatchi and his Gallery on British Art

  • The Saatchi Gallery
August 25, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The 1980s global landscape was marked by the decision-making of two significant leaders – the American president Ronald Reagan and the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The implementation of neoliberalism in both countries resulted in the class discrepancy and social discontent grew. Despite that, the market-based initiatives blossomed and such was the case with the art market. In the UK, the appearance of one individual changed the rolls of the game, and that was no other than Charles Saatchi. Thanks to him, artists started earning enormous sums, rising to the status of pop stars.

Namely, this successful advertising mogul enforced the new generation of artists willing to step out from the constraints of the traditional representational cannons. That group was named simply Young British Artists and it gathered names such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst who are today among the richest contemporary artists on the world. Throughout the years, Saatchi became a leading patron of the arts, benefactor, and most importantly the person behind the extensive and quite famous gallery and the collection which encompasses a great number of important artworks from the 1960s onward.

Although this figure is always under the public eye, he is known as extremely mysterious, refusing interviews or giving them rarely and in controlled conditions. Nevertheless, his activity has marked the art history in the last forty years, and it still dominates current art tendencies.

The Saatchi Gallery Installation view
The Saatchi Gallery Installation view @ Saatchi Gallery

The Story of Charles Saatchi Success

Charles Saatchi is of an Iraqi-British Jewish descent and his family settled in London in 1947. Namely, his father who was a successful textile merchant who bought two textile mills in north London and quickly rebuilt a thriving business. Interestingly so, the family name Saatchi comes from Turkish and it means watchmaker.

During his studies at the Christ’s College, young Charles was mesmerized by the American pop culture, especially rock and roll music and the painting of Jackson Pollock. In 1965 he started working as a copywriter for an agency Benton & Bowles, and shortly afterward, he teamed up with art director Ross Cramer, with whom he worked in different agencies. In 1967, they opened the creative consultancy Cramer Saatchi.

Finally, three years later, Charles founded the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi together with his brother Maurice. Their business went so well that by 1986 it became one of the largest ad agencies in the world, with over 600 franchises. Among their most successful campaigns in the UK was the one done for the Conservative Party’s general elections victor led by the mentioned Margaret Thatcher back in 1979.

Despite the grandiose management and huge accomplishments, the Saatchi brothers left the agency, and they formed the rival M&C Saatchi agency. Naturally, they managed to withdraw a majority of their staff, as well as a significant number of clients British Airways being one of them.

Saatchi Gallery

Becoming The Art Patron

In 1969, Charles Saatchi purchased the first piece and that was the work by a celebrated Minimalist Sol LeWitt. He also supported the Lisson Gallery in London, which was specialized in American Minimalism, and that is how he later purchased all the works from Robert Mangold’s solo exhibition.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s when the successful advertising mage decided to invest in his own exhibition space, buying the warehouse which was fully redecorated by architect Max Gordon. The Saatchi Gallery started functioning in 1985. The artworks Saatchi gathered were on display – twenty-seven pieces by Julian Schnabel; twenty-three by Anselm Kiefer; twenty-one by Sol Le Witt; seventeen by Andy Warhol, and eleven Donald Judd pieces.

In the late 1980s, Saatchi, now a great patron noticed young, talented and rebellious students at Goldsmith’s Art School, so he decided to expand his collection of American abstraction and minimalism by supporting and gathering entirely new pieces which often resisted categorization such as Hirst’s animal installation A Thousand Years. As a matter of fact, by acquiring several artworks by Hirst, as well as by Marc Quin, Saatchi became a promoter of their work. The full extent of his influence came to public attention with the iconic touring exhibition Sensation which encompassed few pieces from his collection and was initially presented at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1997. It sparked quite a controversy with some of the works, such as a large painting created by Marcus Harvey in 1995 featuring the gruesome child murderer Myra Hindley.

The Saatchi Gallery Installation view
The Saatchi Gallery Installation view @ Saatchi Gallery

The Cultural Legacy and The Presence of Charles Saatchi

After everything stated above, it is apparent that Charles Saatchi played a significant role in the development of contemporary art in the UK. However, he even founded an independent Jewish synagogue, and in 1998 donated one hundred and thirty artworks to a Christie’s auction enabling scholarships for four London art schools. In order to further extend and confirm the role of Britain’s most prolific patron, in 1999, Saatchi gave away one hundred pieces from his collection to the Arts Council of Great Britain.

The 2009 book My Name Is Charles Saatchi And I Am An Artoholic features Saatchi’s answers to a number of questions submitted by both journalists and the public. The same year, the great patron launched a sort of reality TV program on BBC called School of Saatchi in which the young artists were given a chance to present their works.

Despite the ongoing activity and a need to be publicly present for his deeds, Charles Saatchi functions like a shadow master. While various scholars debate his influence through a prism of power, decision making and dictate, the media tend to unravel Saatchi’s persona from a more personal perspective, for instance, his last marriage with an acclaimed British journalist, author and cook Nigella Lawson.

Whoever Charles Saatchi really is, it is definite that his doings have shaken the art circles to the bone, not only in local but in a global context. In 2014, the Saatchi Gallery was featured on a list of the most visited art museums in the world, and some of the iconic artworks of the 1990s were made thanks to his support, so it is not strange that his name became a synonym for the modern-day patron the Medician style.

Editors’ Tip: My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am An Artoholic: Questions from Journalists and Readers, New Extended Edition

Charles Saatchi is one of the moving forces of the modern age. Founder of the global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and the most influential art collector of our time, he has vigorously shaped the contemporary art scene. His exhibitions, notably 1997’s Sensation exhibition of the so-called Young British Artists—Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Chris Ofili, among others—at the Royal Academy of Art, London, and at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, sparked an explosion of controversy. Though he famously refuses to be interviewed, in this book he provides frank, genuine responses to questions from journalists and critics as well as members of the public.

Featured image: The Saatchi Gallery in London. Image via creative commons.