Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.
I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and in this episode I’m joined by Sadie Coles of the eponymous gallery Sadie Coles HQ, which she founded in London in 1997.
Sadie Coles: Working with artists to achieve their projects is the greatest joy because artists are so fascinatingly able to completely rethink everything all the time.
This show was recorded in the UK towards the beginning of the year. Obviously, we are now in what feels like a new world. There is the dawning realization of a before and an after, that the coronavirus pandemic confronts us all with changed realities.
Nonetheless, editing the show this week, it struck me that many of the things Sadie discusses, brilliantly, serve as a timely reminder perhaps, that even in moments of great turmoil, some things do remain the same.
Before we get to today’s episode, here’s your regular reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com.
And also an irregular request to get in touch with us: we want to know what you want to know about at this time, whether pure escapism or straight reporting on the latest news as the art world shifts gear. Email me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
In the meantime, stay safe, and enjoy today’s show.
Sadie, there’s so many things I want to ask you—I remember very clearly coming to your gallery when I was trying to get into the art world myself—but I want to start in a slightly quirkier place. I was reading, in research for this, a review that you wrote of a play—
Sadie Coles: Oh, my goodness.
Charlotte Burns: —called Up for Grabs in which Madonna played a ruthless art dealer in 2002. You wrote for The Guardian about it, and it’s really funny. I recommend people dig out the article and read it.
Sadie Coles: Oh, please don’t.
Charlotte Burns: It’s really a funny article and you say several things in there that are quite amusing but one of them—and it’s actually a really great review, so you also have a future as a theater reviewer if you wanted—
You say that Madonna’s character is accused of being a “manipulative adrenaline junkie, which reflects most dealers and collectors fairly accurately. We are instinctive gamblers; we love the rush of betting on something that comes up trumps and the all-or-nothing risk that it involves.”
And so, I thought I’d talk to you about that because, when we talk about art dealers, there’s lots of different things that come to mind, which you also talk about: the kind of clichés of being “a manipulative, seedy, morally corrupt business in which you certainly wouldn’t want your daughter involved. It isn’t of course. But art dealing is one of the last unregulated businesses.”
I thought it’d be quite fun to start talking to you about this idea of the adrenaline-junkie nature of art dealing because you got into it somewhat by accident. You were at the Arnolfini gallery and went to work for a private gallery without really understanding, you said at the time, the difference between public and private—
Sadie Coles: Absolutely.
Charlotte Burns: —but you said you took to it like a duck to water. So how would you describe the life of an art dealer?
Sadie Coles: The first day or the first couple of days of working in the commercial sector, which was Anthony d’Offay gallery, it was immediately obvious that there was this speed; that projects that you wanted to do would happen really, really quickly.
And when you come from the public sector, where funding is always the big brake that stops your ideas, the ideas of the artists, the scale of the ambition of things that you can do. There are all sorts of other things in the public sector that put the brakes on ideas that have to do with legislation. You have to consider a whole lot of other things that you don’t actually consider when you have a private business.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Sadie Coles: You can pretty much do whatever you like in a commercial gallery.
Charlotte Burns: When you think about this idea of being an adrenaline junkie, how do you balance that? You’ve spoken recently about one of the most difficult things as the business has changed is, “The simple fact is that everything is expected to be accomplished immediately, meaning that the pace of our activity has a quite devastating effect on the life/work balance. Getting time to think and to imagine seems harder and harder.”
So that was always part of the business. This idea of moving quickly and acting fast. But with technological advances, the increasing internationalization and travel of the world, it’s busier than ever. How do you balance that, or do you thrive in that?
Sadie Coles: I sort of thrive in it, because it’s exciting. But I think there are other reasons that it’s become bigger and more stressful and that’s also that the kind of work that’s being made for the scale of museums and galleries has changed enormously in 20 years. Everything got bigger.
The program of my gallery 20 years ago was of course much more modest. The scale was more modest. The kinds of works the artists were making were much more modest, and I would say that that was pretty much true for all galleries and for all museums at that point.
Now, I think one of the challenges for a primary gallery like mine is that a lot of the projects that you’re doing are enormous in scale: in terms of physical scale, in the ambition, production costs, where they might be going—because a lot of the things that we’re working on are not necessarily in the gallery anymore. And a lot of work that is being made for public consumption now has a dimension that didn’t really exist before.
Charlotte Burns: Why do you think that happened? Was that changes in artistic practice? Was that the expansion of museums? Was that the money that came into the system that allowed to facilitate these kinds of visions?
Sadie Coles: In many ways it’s a response to the increased interest in art by the general public, which was sort of engendered by the expansion of museums, really. And also, the internet, that people can access and learn about contemporary art. The public for art has become enormous, so that means there’s just more in the public realm. I also think that the public want to have experiences. There has been a big rise in public sculpture commissions as well, and that’s also part of that same thing.
It’s about content, actually. It’s about what people want from art. And I think that’s changed quite a lot.
Charlotte Burns: What do you think they used to want and what do they want now?
Sadie Coles: I think they want to feel part of it and want to be involved. Performance, for instance, used to be on the periphery and was quite rare, and these days it’s right in the center, and that’s really interesting.
I don’t think one thing replaces another. It’s just an expansion. Of course, standing in front of a fantastic painting by Elizabeth Peyton in the National Portrait Gallery, that’s a one-on-one experience between the viewer and the painting, really. But I don’t think that a performance by Monster Chetwynd replaces that. It’s just all existing in the same sphere now and that’s quite interesting I think.
Charlotte Burns: Successful dealers find their generation and then hopefully grow with that generation and evolve with them. Is it much more difficult to bring on a younger generation, which you’ve been doing successfully? Do you find that as natural, as organic, in the same way as you did your relationship with Sarah, for example?
Sadie Coles: It’s just irresistible. You just fall in love with art, really. I have added a lot of artists over the last few years to the gallery and many of those are much younger, like Helen Marten or Jordan or Martine. It feels the same. It’s the same process. I see their work and I just have to have it. That’s what happens.
Charlotte Burns: Is there something that unites, in your mind, your program? The kind of thing that you look for—
Sadie Coles: No.
Charlotte Burns: —in an artist.
Sadie Coles: No. In fact, I would be very worried if it did feel united because then I’m replicating myself or the program of the gallery and that’s not really that interesting to me. I’m looking for things that show me something different.
Charlotte Burns: Right. And you have two collections: you have your collection of artists from your own stable and then you have collections of artists that are younger, emerging artists. You said that you go to fairs and typically buy something by a younger artist and then sort of live with that and look at it and think, “Oh, I actually really like that. This is actually pretty good.” Does that often lead to a relationship with that artist in terms of representation or showing them somehow, or does it remain separate? Is that collection fodder in any way for the other one or does it remain distinct in your head?
Sadie Coles: It might be fantasy fodder. But often I’m buying from a colleague who I really like and respect. Then I try not to be a poacher. So, I would say not really, no. They’re just things I like to have around and am curious about, like, why they work. If you live with something that often becomes a bit clearer over time.
Charlotte Burns: Do you have a large collection?
Sadie Coles: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Do you live with everything?
Sadie Coles: No, I often bring something home for a while and then it goes into storage, I’m afraid.
Charlotte Burns: You talked about this idea of buying from colleagues and not poaching. When you first started the gallery in 1997, you said it was just such a different scene. You could kind of work with anyone in London.
At the time there were a few galleries, really great galleries. But you had a freedom in terms of who you could represent, especially artists locally and internationally.
Sadie Coles: Well, actually particularly internationally, because a lot of the younger galleries in London at that time weren’t showing that many international galleries because it was expensive. So, it really was pretty open in terms of putting together a really, really interesting program of the world’s best artists of my generation.
Charlotte Burns: When did that start to become more competitive?
Sadie Coles: I mean, I guess it just got tougher around 2000 just because then at that time that there were suddenly a lot of galleries in London, a lot of really, really good galleries in London. And of course, that’s only increased as international galleries have come here, which is a good thing, but it does mean that it’s now very, very competitive.
Charlotte Burns: In what ways? In terms of keeping your artists? Is it artist competition; client competition; all of the above?
Sadie Coles: I think it’s more competitive in terms of identifying artists that I would want to show in my program who are not already represented.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Sadie Coles: Back in 1997, you would go to small shows by young artists. You’d go to graduate shows at Goldsmiths or other art colleges and there wasn’t a huge competition to sign up those people immediately.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Sadie Coles: So, there was just space basically to make those decisions slowly and without other people—
Charlotte Burns: Driving things out.
Sadie Coles: —in the race. Whereas now it’s quite different.
Charlotte Burns: Would you ever pay an artist a signing fee to join the gallery?
Sadie Coles: No. Do people do that? I’ve never heard of that.
Charlotte Burns: There’s talk of that. Yeah.
Sadie Coles: Oh, really?
Charlotte Burns: In a way, it’s sort of like getting a signing bonus if you join a company. It’s not unheard of in other industries or even in this industry in other larger corporations, but it’s not typically what galleries have been doing.
Sadie Coles: Well, I think the rules of representation, whatever they may be, are in flux right now. So, you know, who knows? That may well become the norm. I think it’s actually quite a useful thing that we’re examining what representation means for both artists and dealers, actually.
Charlotte Burns: For people who don’t know the system, it used to be the case that you had exclusive representation in your territory of an artist and say, if there was a gallery in New York that represented your artist, you would work together often with one gallery being the dominant gallery. And that’s shifting because galleries are everywhere now. So, rules of representation are less strictly adhered to and also some artists are more interested in the idea of having several different galleries. I know that Alvaro Barrington, who you recently started working with is an artist who has quite a few galleries and you spoke about the fact that you quite liked the idea that it’s a different way of doing things.
It would be boring to stick to the Castelli model of exclusivity—
Sadie Coles: Well, the Castelli model was a different world then. It was pre-internet for a start. And I also feel in many ways that the Castelli model gave more power to the galleries, and that seems to have shifted in the opposite direction. The artists now have more power, because they have more choice in terms of galleries that they can choose. And I think that’s a healthy thing.
Charlotte Burns: It’s healthy, but it also puts pressure on the dealers.
Sadie Coles: You could see that in kind of an interesting way, in that it actually raises the bar for all of us to be better dealers.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Sadie Coles: Yes, it’s more competitive, but you retain your artist by working as hard as you can and by having good business practice and providing them with what they need, that’s how you keep an artist. You listen to them. In a way; stop complaining.
Charlotte Burns: You’re one of the people who is actually quite positive about the erosion of the old gallery system and the idea of the gallery as a gatekeeper and holder of a unique archive. Where do you see that going? What are you excited about in the future?
Sadie Coles: I’m definitely against restriction of any sort. I mean, we’re dealing with art, and art is about ideas and transgression and art needs freedom. So, I actually think all of that paperwork, consignment stuff is actually a little bit—
Charlotte Burns: Inhibiting?
Sadie Coles: Inhibiting. And I had a conversation yesterday with one of my artists about working with a new gallery and he said, “Will it be consigned through you?”, and as little as ten years ago I would have said “Yes, for the first show,” perhaps. But actually, the answer is no, because I want to encourage that relationship and for that relationship to really launch, I can see that, for the other dealer, they want to work directly with the artist. That’s what’s going to make that relationship—
Charlotte Burns: Bond.
Sadie Coles: —bond as quickly as possible. I’m kind of against restrictions of any sort, actually. And the other thing you were talking about earlier was global restrictions, i.e., that certain galleries have dibs over certain territories. I think that went the moment the internet-business-by-email happened. There are no territories. There’s just the internet.
Charlotte Burns: You have a reputation for being collegial. You’ve said that London feels quite collegial, whereas New York feels more dog-eat-dog. Is that still true, now that there are more international galleries in London?
Sadie Coles: I think so. That’s my experience, but I’m not in New York. And I also know that the New York art world is very supportive and has a sort of admirable moral conscience in many ways. Like when Sandy happened, for instance, that was kind of great.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Sadie Coles: So, I can only really speak about London. My experience of London is that it’s quite collegial from the bottom to the top. I think we’re all very conscious of that here.
Charlotte Burns: You briefly lived in New York when you work for Jeff Koons as his studio manager, but you missed trees and Sundays.
Sadie Coles: Well, London has so many green spaces, so I missed that a lot. I really missed garden squares. New York is a very, very energized environment, but there’s a great thing about Sundays in London which is that everybody surfs their sofa, reads the papers, has Sunday lunch, walks in the park without feeling any guilt. There’s this sort of non-guilt clause to Sundays that I really like.
Charlotte Burns: I understand what you mean. We did a show when I was working at a PR agency—Bolton & Quinn in London—we did the press for a show at Tate Modern, which was “Global Cities” and it was all about cities transmogrifying into megapolises that are so big now. They looked at all the green space and whilst New York actually has, per capita, quite a bit of green space, it’s so unequally allocated. There’s Central Park and Prospect Park, basically. Whereas in London, more than any other major city on the planet, people have access to green space because of all those gardens squares.
Sadie Coles: And I think it makes a difference. I really do.
Charlotte Burns: Did you ever want to open a gallery in New York, or were you always pretty convinced that London was your base?
Sadie Coles: Well, when I went to New York, I wasn’t even thinking of opening a gallery. When I left Anthony’s gallery, everybody just assumed that I was going to open my own space because I’d been doing the project program there. The people who assumed more than anyone else were the artist friends of mine, like John Currin and Sarah. Both of them, pressured me a bit to open in London. So that’s—
Charlotte Burns: Didn’t Sarah say, “If you don’t do it, I’m just going to have to join White Cube?”
Sadie Coles: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Which was also synonymous with YBAs.
Sadie Coles: Yeah, she did. It was the YBA gallery.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm. Did you enjoy being a studio manager for Jeff?
Sadie Coles: Yeah. It was fun. It was super interesting. And he’s an amazing artist. He has an amazing team. It was incredible. But I did know it inside out anyway, because I’d been working with him for six years at Anthony’s, and after a while it did feel like I missed the conversation with multiple artists and I could see that that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I wanted to open a gallery.
Charlotte Burns: So, you came back to London, opened here, but you were always international.
Sadie Coles: To be honest, with my program initially, there were only a very few British artists. It took me quite a while to figure out what I wanted to show in terms of Britain, because the YBA thing had been so established by Karsten [Schubert] and Jay [Jopling] and Victoria [Miro] and I didn’t really want to go deep dive into that really. I wanted to set up my own content, have my content feel a bit different. To start with it was mainly international artists so—
Charlotte Burns: You’d been doing American artists with Anthony as well, so that had been your—
Sadie Coles: Yeah, and I used to go to New York once a month, and LA. So, I was quite well-connected there, a lot through Clarissa Dalrymple who is like a networker-connector for millions of dealers, including me.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Sadie Coles: And then, opening there has never really appealed to me just because art dealing is such a very, very personal business—or at least it is for me—and as a control freak I would find it very, very difficult to have a remote location and feel that my hand was on it; really on it. So that’s why I’ve never really wanted to do that. Plus, I had a child, and I didn’t want to have another location that I had to—
Charlotte Burns: Divide time.
Sadie Coles: —regularly go to. And as there were more and more art fairs and international shows to visit that meant that was just more and more—
Charlotte Burns: Adding more travel.
Sadie Coles: —more emphasized. But never say never. Who knows? I don’t know. We have to see what happens both in the landscape here in London post-Brexit and also in the United States. So, I don’t know.
The truth is that New York remains the most important market for contemporary art, a leader in so many ways, in terms of ways of thinking. It’s where artists need to be seen; it has incredible museums. There’s no doubt in my mind that it will stay as that leader for generations.
Charlotte Burns: Talking about Brexit, you’ve described it as a massive act of self-harm for London and for the UK.
You did look at opening in Europe, I think in 2018: you’d looked at another European possibility and sort of decided against it. Where were you thinking when you were looking at Europe?
Sadie Coles: Amsterdam, actually.
Charlotte Burns: Why Amsterdam?
Sadie Coles: Because you’ve got no competition or very little competition, and it’s a very well-connected city, and it’s a city that has wonderful museums and is growing. And at that time Beatrix was there, who’s a tour de force at the museum.
But, in the end, I felt very conflicted about dumping on London, really. I love London. It’s an amazing city with incredible people, incredible museums, incredible art. And I now feel very committed to the idea of just doubling down.
Charlotte Burns: Or tripling down.
Sadie Coles: Tripling down, yes: so, doing more here.
Charlotte Burns: Are you opening another space here?
Sadie Coles: I will this year.
Charlotte Burns: Do you know where yet?
Sadie Coles: No. But it’s bound to be in the West End because that’s—
Charlotte Burns: That’s where you are. Why another space?
Sadie Coles: To add another dimension to the programs—and that’s actually going to take some time in order to define what that will be, because I don’t want to just open another gallery because then it’s just another address. I want it to have an identity of its own. So, it’s working out what that identity will be.
Charlotte Burns: There’s been various recessions and booms in the art market. One of the things, actually, in your review of the Madonna play, was that you said, “The central premise—that the painting has a fixed value of $18m—is one of the surprisingly few inaccurate representations in the play. Value in the art market is never fixed but it is worth what a buyer or buyers are willing to pay at that moment.”
Sadie Coles: I think if you have great, great, great art, you can be pretty bullish, actually. I think that’s really become clear over the last couple of years.
What’s been interesting over the last few weeks, given that we’re in the first weeks of a new decade: new decades are always really interesting because you look backwards in a longer way than you would at any other new year really.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Sadie Coles: And I’ve been thinking a lot about that. What was the last decade? What happened? And one of the things is this changing content, that I mentioned earlier about what kind of art we’re looking at; what kind of art is needed by our audience; what kind of art artists are making to directly discuss the issues in our society from race, gender, #MeToo politics, environment, all of those things. Content has changed, form has changed.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Sadie Coles: But I also think the market has changed, too. And all of those things have been driven, in a way, by the anxiety that started in 2007. If I was to think back and try and quantify the mood of all of that—art, the market and the content in the art world in 1997—it was so kind of feel-goodie.
Charlotte Burns: It was that moment.
Sadie Coles: That new Labour moment, and the Tate opened, and Frieze opened; everything was feel-good.
Charlotte Burns: There was a sense that progress was infinite.
Sadie Coles: Yeah. Progress was infinite—
Charlotte Burns: It was a generation that had come after the war. When people made money, they owned homes, they—
Sadie Coles: And the art market only increased in the first 25 years of my working in it. It only increased, which is sort of fascinating, really. Then in 2007 the whole world kind of changed, not just through the financial crisis but through a whole set of other things that kind of affected the mood of humanity. And that seems to have continued. It’s been an anxious few years, generally, and that’s definitely affected both the market and also the content.
Charlotte Burns: It seems like there was a moment in which everybody thought the anxiety was a blip.
I actually would date it back to 9/11. I remember watching a documentary about 9/11 a couple of years ago and thinking, “Wow, how did that switch?” There was this moment in which the people working in the financial sector in New York and internationally, everybody felt really sorry for them because they’d lived through this trauma and lost colleagues in this devastating way.
And then, a few years later, the financial sector was seen as the huge villain of society for taking all the money. It seemed to me to be sort of like PTSD-connected, that anxiety-stemmed… behaviors changed drastically after 9/11 in a way that we’re still unraveling, and understanding wasn’t—
Sadie Coles: 100%. I think that’s absolutely true. I think that it does date from then. It absolutely does. It’s basically that moment where everybody had to question the fragility of their existence on this planet and that all of the post-war political structures were up for grabs, basically.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah and remain so.
Sadie Coles: Yeah, and they really remain so. I mean things are very, very fluid.
Charlotte Burns: I think that all the time. The London I left is not the London I come back to visit, but equally the New York I live in is not the America I joined.
Sadie Coles: No, and the art market responds to all of that. So, in some ways the polarization that’s gone on in terms of blue-chip, for instance: blue-chip in in some ways is the safe place you put your money. The reason that’s become so extreme is because there’s so much nervousness.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, and also following patterns of wealth inequality.
Sadie Coles: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: There didn’t use to be that much disparity between the hyper-rich and the hyper-hyper-rich and the surreally rich. There are so many different qualifiers to rich now.
Sadie Coles: I think that’s what’s interesting about being a primary gallerist, actually, is that the work that we’re doing with our artists is not just for that blue-chip sector. It’s not just for the 1%. It’s also to put content into the museums. So, you are kind of trying to do both things, and that’s actually quite interesting I think.
Charlotte Burns: And also, when you were saying if you have something great, great, great—
Sadie Coles: Mmhmm.
Charlotte Burns: —you can be bullish about it, and I was thinking: a) how do you define great, great, great?
Sadie Coles: I mean, I think great, great, great gets defined by a lot of forces: critics, museums, time. The filters that are applied that cause an artwork to be determined as a masterpiece are huge and various but as a primary dealer, I have to have confidence that I am able to spot things and go with that confidence and convince other people that what I’ve highlighted is a good thing.
But of course, not everything is going to be a masterpiece. The experience of looking at art and thinking about art can take place on all sorts of different levels and around all sorts of different artworks, and that experience itself is very, very useful. Just talking about art and looking at it—that doesn’t necessarily need to be led by a masterpiece, that discussion.
Charlotte Burns: No, of course.
Have you always felt confident in your ability to spot talent in that way? Have you ever wavered in—
Sadie Coles: Depends what time of the day you ask me. Like right now? Hmmm.
Charlotte Burns: First coffee in.
Sadie Coles: First coffee in. I don’t know, sometimes I feel very, “Yes!” Like the opening of a great show, you feel super excited. The opening of Sarah Lucas’s show at the Red Brick just before Christmas in Beijing, was very moving for me because it looked so great. It was a survey show and every piece has a very, very personal story between me and Sarah, and it was quite remarkable.
Charlotte Burns: I was at the New Museum for her show, too, in New York, which was a great show and it was a great moment to see all of that work—
Sadie Coles: Incredible.
Charlotte Burns: —together. But it was her first major New York show, which I know is also to do with Sarah and the things she says yes and no to.
Sadie Coles: Mostly no.
Charlotte Burns: But it’s also to do with how relevant things become again. I was thinking about Gillian Wearing this week because did a podcast with Maureen Paley and how some of her work from the late 1980s and early 1990s seems very pertinent. I was thinking the same thing about Sarah’s work. And when we did a podcast with Massimiliano, he was talking about how he grew up in the 1990s, he was listening to that music and that informs him.
But also, how that’s a kind of generational thing. Nick Serota on the podcast talked about how in 1989 when he was at Whitechapel, the press talked about how he really favored too much the Germans and not enough the British and he said, “That tells you something about the attitude of the British towards the Europeans in 1989,” then paused and said: “I suppose it also tells you something about the attitude of the British to the Europeans in 2019.”
It’s really interesting that there was this 30-year period in which it felt like things were heading in a different direction. But I guess they’re all the same issues that we have always been talking about, and what was interesting seeing Sarah’s show in New York was how relevant everything seems. Same with the Nari Ward show at the New Museum.
Do you think that things repeat themselves in that way, that cycles come around? There are moments in an artist’s career where they’re seemingly relevant; other moments where they’re not and you just have to keep the faith?
Sadie Coles: Yes, absolutely. 100% there are moments where you feel that no one is really noticing an artist. Maybe the content of their work is not sparking with what people are talking about or thinking about or need, perhaps, even. But sometimes you just have to keep the faith.
Like an artist like Andrea Zittel. This is someone who lives deep in the desert in Joshua Tree, has had a project—a project—in the desert that’s very much to do with the environment. She’s a very important artist who’s been very true to her concept and has displayed great determination and rigor, I think. That seems now to be sparking everybody’s interest in sustainability and the environment—
Charlotte Burns: But she’s been doing it for a long time.
Sadie Coles: —new models of behavior and… absolutely.
Charlotte Burns: Things come back around or seem relevant in new contexts.
You’ve talked about, on the “Talk Art” podcast—which was a great conversation.
Sadie Coles: “Talk Art” is lots of giggling.
Charlotte Burns: There was lots of giggling. They asked you about your being a woman in the art world and I want to ask you about that, but also, lots of people roll their eyes when you ask them about that. So, do you like that question? Do you resent that question? Do you find it annoying?
Sadie Coles: I kind of resent it. I think I resent it less now. I used to really resent it when I was younger because I just couldn’t understand why someone was trying to put me in a ghetto. I wanted to be accepted as an art dealer, not as a female art dealer and I actually found it really patronizing and irritating. Today I feel less irritated by that question because life has shown me that actually there are some disadvantages to being a woman because it is assumed you will cope with everything in your personal life, motherhood for instance, and you will put that first and that you somehow have to juggle both things and it’s hard.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Sadie Coles: Plus, there are some annoying prejudices against women. You’re sort of not taken seriously in some ways, or less seriously, and you have to push against that quite a lot. The other thing is that there is also great disparity in terms of female prices in the art market, which is enormously irritating to me.
Charlotte Burns: I’m sure it’s enormously irritating, and what you’re saying you know as facts, we know as fact too from our data study that we did looking at the representation of women artists. The art market has actually doubled—we look at auction results because it’s the only publicly available information, but we interview lots of dealers too—and the market actually doubled over the past ten years, well, 11 and a half we looked at. But it doubled to 2% of the overall market. And actually, it’s just dominated by five artists so it’s really the growth of those five artists. I mean, I think Kusama was just over 13% of the entire market.
Sadie Coles: I know. I know.
Charlotte Burns: So, those things are quite real. We interviewed a lot of academics about it. One had done a study looking at computer-generated images of works of art that they randomly assigned either a male-sounding or female-sounding name to and gave them to a group of people who were sort of “art adjacent” and overwhelmingly, they all gave more value to the work by the male names than the female names for the same image. So, it speaks a lot to sort of ingrained biases—
Sadie Coles: Yeah. It’s called sexism.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. It’s called sexism. You said on that podcast that there is something about “rich white men wanting to spend their money with white men” that limits the pricing for women that you resent.
Sadie Coles: Well, it’s the argument that the chairman of the board is always a man, or the CEO is.
Charlotte Burns: One in ten of the top museums in America is run by a woman and it’s not an art museum.
Sadie Coles: Exactly. That’s what one is up again up against.
Charlotte Burns: How do you deal with that? How’s your thinking about it changed?
Sadie Coles: Well, it’s interesting because with the best will in the world—however determined I might be to have parity in terms of pricing between my male and female artists—the market does what it does. I can’t control it. I can set a price, but if the market decides that price is not what it will pay, then it fails. You have to position things well. You have to show the works well; you have to have museum support; you have to have critical support; and then you have to try and gently increase the prices. But it needs to be received well by the market. You can’t just grab a number out of the sky.
Charlotte Burns: No, well you can’t do that in any case.
Sadie Coles: No, you can’t.
Charlotte Burns: But it’s a more gradual process, you’re saying.
One of the dealers that we spoke to in New York, for a big gallery, they said that they’d realized that when it came to pricing, they were building an inherent bias, essentially, into their pricing. If they were pricing work by women, they tended to look at other work by women and—
Sadie Coles: Oh, I definitely don’t do that.
Charlotte Burns: No. But it was kind of interesting to think about how the market—when we talk about the market, what do we really mean? How does that get formed? Do you see that shifting? Are there more women buying art? Does that make a difference?
Sadie Coles: I would say yes.
In my lifetime things do feel better. I do feel generally that things are going in the right direction. It’s just very slow. And, of course, the way to improve things is just to keep the issue front and center.
Charlotte Burns: So, we were talking about the threads that run through your gallery and you were saying you don’t think there is a special thread, but it seems to be that thread has always been that the gallery is so incredibly artist-centric. It came out of conversations with artists to open a gallery and remains that way. What is a life working with artists? What is that life like?
Sadie Coles: The feeling every day that you are in some small way a collaborator with the artists that you’re working with, and that you’re trying to help them realize their projects, big and small. One of the questions I ask the people I work with all the time is, what do you want? Do you want to do a book? Do you want to produce this kind of work? Do you want a show in China? What do you want? And working with artists to achieve their projects is the greatest joy because artists are so fascinatingly able to completely rethink everything all the time.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm.
Sadie Coles: They question everything all the time. They question form; they question content; they question the reception they’re having. Often, they’re trying to provoke or transgress or get the work to have an effect and being involved in that process is incredibly exciting.
Charlotte Burns: It’s sort of like living, I always think, in the pages of a book except it’s all happening around you.
Sadie Coles: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Live.
Sadie Coles: Yeah. Yeah. This is really cheesy, I know, to admit, but my favorite reading is biographies. I love reading biographies about creative people, because you’re trying to get in the mind of someone who’s made, like, Primo Levi or, I don’t know, Samuel Beckett or somebody like that. But my everyday job is the same, really. It’s trying to get in the mind of or being actually allowed access into the mind of people who are radicals, and that’s kind of amazing.
Charlotte Burns: Mmhmm. Yeah. It’s a kind of privilege.
Sadie Coles: It’s a huge privilege. I mean, one is so lucky. And in my career, which is now quite long, I have worked with some incredible people. I can’t believe it. I’m sort of like this permanent fan.
Charlotte Burns: That’s the best way of being.
Well, thank you so much Sadie. It’s been such a pleasure having you on the show. Thank you for coming in today.
Sadie Coles: Thank you.