Gallery owner John Martin discusses the new art hub he is bringing to Kensington

Last week we reported the exciting news that an ambitious new art hub, Cromwell Place, will be opening in South Kensington in 2018. We caught up with John Martin, the gallery owner and co-founder of Art Dubai who has spearheaded the project, to find out more.

What led you to the idea for Cromwell Place?

The idea of a gallery building is nothing new. It was seeing the Fuller Building in New York offering several floors of galleries to the visitor that convinced me that such a concept would work fantastically well in London. That was fifteen years ago. I took any opportunity to bore property developers with the concept until I had a coffee with an old friend and property specialist, Scott Murdoch. By chance, sitting at the next table was the legendary developer, Sir Stuart Lipton, who has been involved with Tate Bankside and the Royal Opera House. We discussed the concept and the vision for this gallery hub and Sir Stuart has since been a great advocate of the scheme, recognising that it would broaden London’s art world into an interesting new destination.

Why did you choose South Kensington as a location?

It was Scott who steered the search towards South Kensington and eventually to Cromwell Place, an exquisite block of five listed buildings owned by South Kensington Estates. One used to be Sir John Lavery’s studio, and has one of the most magnificent rooms of its kind anywhere in London.

It was the nature of the space that led to the idea of a slightly modified version of the Fuller Building. Essentially we want to create a unique club for galleries, specialist curators and institutions; a space where they can have a permanent office, but where the exhibition space is completely flexible and only paid for when required.

Why do you think London needs a scheme such as this?

London’s art market has been in desperate need of a second location for galleries for some time. Attempts to colonize the East End, King’s Cross and south London have been hugely valuable for the areas on a local basis, but they simply don’t attract wealthy collectors. South Kensington is very well located – it is one of the most affluent and international neighbourhoods in Europe, is half an hour from Heathrow and has architecture that is ideally suited to galleries. I am convinced that Cromwell Place will lead to more galleries looking at spaces in the vicinity.

Do you think it will encourage galleries to move away from areas like Mayfair?

With the auction houses all in Mayfair, I can see no reason why the bigger, established galleries will not continue to concentrate there; so I don’t think the area’s importance will be eroded.

The great problem with Mayfair is the rents. Smaller, single-location galleries don’t have the turnover to cover premium rents and compete with global businesses in the art and fashion world. Cromwell Place seeks to support these independent grassroots galleries.

The other issue with Mayfair is that there is no single concentration of galleries in a couple of streets. For a gallery cluster to work effectively, they really need to be shoulder to shoulder with one another so that new collectors can find them easily. A second art hub, if the quality is good, will be a huge boost to the London art market.

Will John Martin Gallery be relocating from its current premises on Albemarle Street?

Like everyone else, I will apply and the selection will be arms-length, so it is too early to say whether I move or not.

Who is expressing most interest in participating in the project so far?

It is at least two years before we open, but the response has been extremely strong with interest from established galleries – contemporary, modern and old master specialists.

Some of the galleries are considering a move ahead of steep rent reviews. Equally there are London galleries wanting to move more centrally, international galleries needing a London base, and others that simply want to cut the enormous running costs of a permanent gallery space especially at a time when art fairs are becoming more important for the success of a gallery. At present we simply want to gage the level of interest and create a coherent cluster of exceptional members.

What are your hopes for the future of Cromwell Place?

I have always seen Cromwell Place being at the heart of a global network. It will allow the best and most ambitious small galleries to operate internationally at a fraction of the cost of doing fairs or operating permanent space. We are already talking to potential partners in Asia, Europe and the US, but whether we can find existing buildings that work may prove tricky; the key thing is ceiling height, and without that, a gallery doesn’t work.

How can galleries get involved, and when can we visit? 

Galleries, art consultants, curators and institutions can register for updates at http://www.cromwellplace.com/, and we are set to open in 2018.

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