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By Thane Peterson Until recently, Victoria Miro's art gallery was a tiny space in London's Cork Street, not much bigger than a studio apartment. Yet over the past decade, the Victoria Miro Gallery has launched the careers of some of the hottest -- and most controversial -- young artists in the world.
Remember the painting of a Madonna with elephant dung that so infuriated New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani when it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in late 1999? It was by Chris Ofili, an African-British artist discovered by Victoria Miro.
Another Miro find, Andreas Gursky, a 45-year-old German photographer whose work she first showed in 1992, made headlines last fall when one of his photos sold at auction in New York for a cool quarter of a million dollars, close to the highest price ever paid for a contemporary photo. A major retrospective of Gursky's work opens on Mar. 4 at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Then there's Cecily Brown, a 31-year-old British painter, who hit the headlines at the same time as Gursky when one of her works went for $83,000 at auction, an almost unheard-of sum for such a young artist. You guessed it -- she's also in Miro's stable of artists.
"INCREDIBLE EYE." To the select group of collectors in the world -- many of them businesspeople -- who specialize in cutting-edge contemporary art, Victoria Miro is one of the people to know. "She has an incredible eye," says Arthur Goldberg, a New York money manager who is a legendary collector. Miro may be little known outside the art world, but she ranks with the more prominent Jay Jopling, owner of the White Cube gallery, as the most influential of London's contemporary art dealers. And London, in turn, probably has the most vibrant art scene in the world next to New York's.
Miro made a big leap forward in late 2000, when she moved from high-rent Cork Street in London's West End to a gigantic new gallery in London's gritty East End, across the Thames from the newly opened Tate Modern contemporary art museum. Her old gallery had 750 square feet of exhibition space. The new one has 8,000 square feet on two floors in a converted Victorian building she bought and renovated.
Miro's move (along with Jopling's) is helping spark a general exodus of contemporary galleries out of the West End and Mayfair, in much the way New York galleries have flocked to Chelsea in recent years. "She's a leading figure in making the East End the center of contemporary art in London," says Gerard Goodrow, a curator at Christie's who is based in London and Cologne. Typically, the first show at Miro's new gallery featured Thomas Demand, a German photographer in his mid-30s whose work Miro has long championed and whose stock in the art world is now soaring.
LONG WAITING LISTS. Miro has an enviable record of spotting talented artists early on, sometimes when they're still in art school and their work is going for a song. An Ofili, for instance, could have been had for a few thousand dollars when she first showed the artist's work (vs. $80,000-plus now, if she had one to sell you). Collectors know it pays to keep track of which new artists she's handling.
These days there also are long waiting lists of collectors and museums that want to buy work by her established artists. Being a Miro-gallery regular is one of the few ways to have a shot at buying a piece by some of the artists. Even Charles Saatchi, the controversial adman who is Britain's most aggressive art collector, can't get his hands on many of the works. He bought a Cecily Brown painting last May, Miro says, and "seemed pleased to get one."
For me, Miro's success is also a nice-woman-finishes-first story. I've been talking to her regularly on reporting assignments for five years, and she's almost impossible not to like. Unfailingly polite, she's a straight-shooter who believes passionately in the artists she represents. You'll get an earful if you have the temerity to criticize any of them. During the Brooklyn Museum controversy, she was publicly critical not just of Giuliani but of Philippe de Montebello, the powerful head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She felt he unfairly trashed Ofili and other artists in an op-ed piece in The New York Times (see BW Online, 10/7/99, "Commentary: Come On, Rudy. Move On to Another Subject").
CULTURAL VACATIONS. "As a person, she's very reserved, but she takes contemporary art very seriously," Goodrow says. She also has a reputation among collectors for integrity. "She's a real quality person," says Goldberg, who has bought works from her. "That goes somewhere in the art world, where not every dealer can be trusted."
Miro wasn't born to privilege. Her father ran a fruit-and-vegetable stand in Covent Garden when she was a child. But her parents were interested in art and saved up every year to take the family on cultural vacations in Italy.
Miro studied to be an artist and was painting at home when she and her lawyer husband had children in the 1970s. "My need to paint seemed to go away when I had children," she recalls. She raised the couple's son and daughter, now 25 and 21, beyond toddlerhood before opening her gallery in 1985. In the early days, her children's baby-sitters included Jake Chapman and Sam Taylor Wood, two prominent artists who at the time were boyfriend and girlfriend. Wood has since married Jopling. Chapman, who still shows at the gallery, is an art-world enfant terrible who with his brother Dinos does sculptures of mutant children with multiple genitalia in odd places. But as a baby-sitter, Miro says, he was "adorable."
Miro discovers new artists partly through her tight ties with London's Royal College of Art. Peter Doig, one of the artists she handles, teaches there, and through him, she discovered Ofili, Brown, and other students. But she doesn't follow any one formula. She found Demand at Goldsmith's College, another London art school. She also has been building relationships with New York gallery owners, such as Larry Gagosian, Jeffrey Deitch, and Gavin Brown.
WHO'S NEXT? After seeing paintings by Inka Essenhigh at Deitch's SoHo gallery, Miro recently signed on as the artist's London representative. Essenhigh, 31, is a rapidly rising star who has been featured in Vanity Fair and other glossies and could have had her pick of galleries. She chose Miro, she says, because "I like the other artists she shows -- Chris Ofili, Peter Doig, Tracey Moffat. I like her whole program."
Which unknown artists is Miro homing in on now? One of her latest finds is Hiroka Nakao, a Japanese painter just out of school whose work sells for about $3,000. Miro also is high on Isaac Julien, a 40-year-old video artist. His videos go for about $40,000, but an edition of related photographs can be had for around $3,000. Another favorite is Chantal Joffe, 31, yet another former student of Doig's at the Royal College, whose paintings sell for about $10,000. You can check out the artists' work at www.victoria-miro.com.
Oddly, one of Miro's biggest challenges is the soaring price of contemporary art. She suffered during the last slump -- opening a second gallery in Italy during the late '80s boom, then closing it in 1991 after the art market went bust. She tries to hold the line on the price of her artists' work on the theory that a steady run-up will be sustainable over the long term even if the overall market tanks. But with much of the work in short supply, prices are soaring in the auction market, anyway.
"FEAR OF A COLLAPSE." One example of the sort of thing she finds vexing: In May, she sold a small painting by Doig in Italy for about $10,000 in an attempt to begin developing a market for the artist's work there. Instead, the painting turned up at an auction in London in February, where it sold for around $35,000. She says an Ofili painting she would sell for $80,000 or so would probably go for $150,000 or more at auction. "It's a little bit dangerous, a little bit overheated," she worries. "There's always the fear of a collapse."
Despite her rise to prominence, Miro bristles at any suggestion that she now represents London's art establishment. "The last thing a contemporary gallerist wants to be called is 'establishment,'" she sniffs. "I like to think I still take risks in the gallery with younger artists. To me, 'establishment' just means dull." My guess is she'll be saying the same thing as long as she's in the business. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online