Letter From London

Can life get any more bleak on this chilly island? Gastropubs and restaurants across the U.K. are folding by the day, and divorces are rising.

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Fashion isn’t the only industry that’s headed back to basics. The art world has long been overdue for a reality check, and that’s just what’s happening. These days, many a London gallerist is sighing with relief at not having to throw big opening parties. One gallerist is saving more than $250,000 a year by switching from posh, printed invitations to e-vites.

“I hope I get to see the art again,” said Gregor Muir, director of Hauser & Wirth’s London gallery and the author of “Lucky Kunst” (Aurum), about the wild lives of the Young British Artists in the Nineties, who coincidentally gained their foothold during Britain’s last big recession. “Certain openings and events had become so incredibly social, I hope to see a return to focus on the art.”

Michael Hue-Williams, whose Albion gallery has outposts in London and New York, agreed: “Every time it was a different crowd that came to the parties, and the next day I would think to myself, ‘Who were those people?’ ”

He said he’s also looking forward to a shakeout among the artists themselves. “What we’re going to see is a separation between truly talented artists and the not-so-talented ones who were carried along by the tide,” he said.

Muir is also musing about what will happen to slack space, empty property like warehouses and factories that artists, students or budding entrepreneurs tend to colonize during hard times. Damien Hirst and the YBAs used an empty building in Southeast London to stage their first show, Freeze, in 1988 while the Roundhouse, now a major arts venue in north London, was once an unused former storehouse for steam engines.

“Traditionally, artists have benefited from slack space because it allows them to produce and exhibit cheaply, and it gives them much needed exposure,” said Muir. However, he believes the silver lining can only stretch so far. “Without question, this crisis is going to be painful for everyone — artists, public institutions and galleries alike.”

Part of the entertainment business, too, could be headed for a shake-up.

While theaters in the West End are proving resilient so far — box office takings were 3 percent higher year-on-year in 2008 — there are some who believe change is in the air. “One hopes the theater will be used as a forum for protest, and that it will become the theater of the people,” said the agent and film producer Charles Finch, chairman and chief executive of Finch & Partners. “When there’s no money around, you find alternative ways of performing, turn to smaller venues and deal with subjects that are more political.”

However, Finch believes the arts are quite probably the most robust of all during a downturn. “Literature, independent movies and the theater have such a bloody hard time of it anyway — and they didn’t deserve any of this,” he said. “They never, ever lived high on the hog, so they have a certain resilience to adversity.”


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