After studying art history at Middlesex University, Sadie Coles, 59, worked at Bristol’s Arnolfini, then at the Anthony d’Offay gallery where she specialized in the younger artists including Sarah Lucas and Grayson Perry. In 1997 she set up her influential gallery, Sadie Coles HQ, in London’s West End. Artists she represents include Lucas, John Currin, Helen Marten and Alvaro Barrington. Last year she was awarded an OBE for services to art.
How has Brexit affected your business?
What’s interesting is the perception that it [trade] is going to be more difficult. Post-Brexit London is still a world-class city and still functions brilliantly in terms of location, language, time. So I feel that there is going to be a painful period of people understanding that the barriers that they imagined to be there are not actually there. A little bit of correction will be a good thing because it will make everybody try harder, rethink things, be a bit more creative.
How do you decide that you want to work with an artist?
I see something that makes me curious. Work that is doing something original and moving the needle. I ask other artists who they like or who they’re looking at. Or critics or museum people. I see a lot of shows, so lockdown was quite difficult because that was two years of no traveling, which meant that you were looking at shows digitally instead of in real life.
Did you decide to work with anyone from something that you’ve seen only online?
No. I always want to see things and to talk to the artist. To go and stand in their studio. I want to feel their passion for what they do. When you’re putting a program together for your gallery it can’t be a monoculture. You want to reflect the world, and the world changes all the time. Art has become more political in the past two or three years because the issues we are facing have changed and our anxieties have become more acute.
You say “more political”, are there any other hallmarks?
Artists are using new mediums and platforms to make art, and NFTs [non-fungible tokens] are an example of that, although I personally think the name is a red herring. We should be saying “digital art” because it is just a new medium that artists are using via a new technology, blockchain. So that’s a change, but a lot of the ways people communicate have changed. Obviously, during lockdown there was a boom in people looking at and buying art digitally. But that had always happened. People were buying art from Jpegs before lockdown. The greatest revolution in my whole time as an art dealer has been the internet, because when I started working for Anthony d’Offay there were no fax machines, there was no world wide web. The fact that you could reach global audiences from your desk has grown the art market into this newly democratised, open marketplace.
Are there parameters of what an NFT can and can’t be or does it just exist as a digital thing?
We are at the very beginning of where digital art can live and be collected and what artists do with it as a medium. There will be great developments and innovations that will affect the content and come from within the medium.
So it is defining itself at the moment?
Great art is great art, so if an artist does something really interesting in a digital form, for me that’s just as exciting as someone making a great painting.
Your first gallery was on Heddon Streetright next to the location where the Ziggy Stardust sleeve was shot. Was the K. West sign still there? Yes, when I first opened.
And did you see people coming and posing?
Lots of tourists. The phone box is still there, so you still get people taking images. When David Bowie died there was a huge pile of flowers – Princess Diana style – on the street where the sign would have been.
Did he ever come to your gallery?
He came to Sarah Lucas’s first show that we did as what’s now called a pop-up, in a warehouse in St John Street. He came with Charles Saatchi and he was really interested in the whole energy of the YBA group at that time. He invited us all to a concert, I remember.
Was there a particular work of art that made you realize that you wanted to be a gallerist?
One of the first objects that triggered my interest was Tutankhamun’s mask. I was about 10. We queued for six hours to get in and there was this sense of anticipation and excitement, and then this dark tunnel, which replicated going into the pyramids. And then the bright blue and gold thing at the bottom – I was kind of like: “Ooh aah, this is what I want in my life!”
We met when Pulp asked to use reproductions of John Currin paintings in the video for Help the Aged – did you have any misgivings about allowing an artist’s work to be used in a pop video?
No, because the synergy between John’s work and your vision was perfect. There was this sort of loucheness around Pulp at that moment. For instance, I really love that song Underwear and that couldn’t be closer to John’s singular vision.
I also liked how undogmatic you were about making replicas of the paintings, if you remember. They’re still in Rough Trade’s office, very faded, because I walked past recently and saw them. But you were fine that we didn’t have to borrow the actual artworks to put in the country house for the video. John was excited about your music. There was a lot shared so it felt right, and you have remained great friends.
What is the IGA (International Galleries Alliance) initiative that you have just launched?
It came out of lockdown. There was this feeling, that everybody felt, of the unknown and how to negotiate it. And then that became a more conceptual question of what is the future going to be like for the art world and how do we come together to be stronger. There are now 260 members across the world.
I hope that some of the collaboration and collegial communication that went on during lockdown continues. I think isolation made real-world experiences – walking to a park, for instance – much more desirable than it had been before. In many ways the fact that we are so saturated by digital means that real-world experiences are more precious than ever.
There’s always this misunderstanding that technological advances will slay the thing before them, but they actually often enhance that thing. So I don’t feel that digital will replace the art or objects or IRL experiences.
We’re not all going to be forced to live in the metaverse for the rest of our lives?
No! One’s experience in the metaverse may well lead you to the real experience or vice versa – it’s an enhancement, I suppose, is how I see it.