Saving Cork Street: Is London’s Historic Art District Under Threat?

Plans for a multimillion-dollar development that will see several of the galleries on the road having to leave means the character and future of Cork street is under threat, say those campaigning to preserve it

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A sculpture is viewed at a modern art gallery in Cork Street in London in 2000.

Over the past 90 years, Cork Street, a quiet road in London‘s gilded district of Mayfair lined on both sides by a row of smart private art galleries, has become as synonymous with art as Savile Row has with bespoke men’s tailoring. Now plans for a multimillion-dollar development that will see several of the galleries on the road having to leave means the character and future of Cork street is under threat, say those campaigning to preserve it.

In August 2012, Standard Life, the then owners of a block of buildings on the street, sold the nearly 8,000 sq. meter site to luxury U.K. property developer Native Land in a $141 million deal. The new landlords then gave notices to seven Cork street galleries (Adam Gallery, Alpha Gallery, Beaux Arts, Mayor Gallery, Stoppenbach & Delestre, Waterhouse & Dodd and Gallery 27) to vacate the premises by June this year so that the building can be redeveloped. Subsequently another landowner, Pollen Estate, announced plans to redevelop another block on Cork Street, leaving a further four gallery owners on the road of twenty galleries facing the prospect of no home.

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“It came as a bit of a shock,” says Simon Tarrant, the chairman of the Save Cork Street committee that was formed soon after the notices were given. “They (Native Land) gave these notices in summer last year – a time when traditionally a lot of the galleries are closed for the holidays – they must have known it would take us a while to respond.”

The argument between the developers and the gallery residents has now spiraled into a turf war, which the Save Cork Street campaign has billed as a fight to preserve the very identity of the street as a bastion of British art history and culture against what they regard as the questionable interests of wealthy foreign investors who plan on turning part of the buildings into luxury flats.

Native Land and Pollen Estate are expecting a decision on their proposals in spring from their local London council, Westminster. A spokesperson for Native Land insists these plans will reinforce “the reputation of Cork Street and the surrounding area as a hub of  [the] international art market”, trying to allay fears that they will give the spaces over to luxury fashion brands instead. The developers have yet to make guarantees that the gallery spaces they say they will create will be offered to the current tenants, or indeed that they will keep the rents low enough that the current residents can afford it.

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The Mayor Gallery, the oldest on the street and among one of the seven being asked to leave by Native Land, was established in 1925 by Fred Mayor and is now run by his son, James. When it first opened, the gallery was at the forefront of modern art in Britain, showcasing for the first time in the country the works of artists such as Paul Klee, André Masson and Joan Miro. James Mayor then took over in 1973, championing the works of American artists such as James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein.

Mayor is deeply skeptical of the proposals put forward by Native Land, describing them as “anti-social get-rich-quick schemes.” These plans will require the building to be demolished, which Mayor and the other campaigners fear will impact even the remaining galleries on the street as Cork Street forms part of a popular ‘art walk’ that is known to art buyers, tourists and art students.

For commercial art galleries such as the ones on Cork Street, this location is crucial. While many of the galleries have established reputations in their own respect, their position in Mayfair—close by to the big auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s as well as the Royal Academy of Arts—has put them in an excellent position to trade.

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The U.K. sits behind the U.S. and China in the international art market – valued at $60 billion – and by some estimates, the trades in Mayfair account for 80% of Britain’s total. There have been a few successful moves by dealers and gallery owners away from Mayfair, for example by setting-up New York-style gallery spaces in East London, but the accepted wisdom is that the affluence and easy-access of a W1 post-code is the best option for the commercial galleries that can afford it.

The question is whether gallery owners such as James Mayor would be able to find another suitably located space in the area, and how much of a loss that would be to the art world if they weren’t able to do so. Charles Landry, a consultant on urban change and author of a new book about culture and commerce in Mayfair, believes not all of the galleries that will move out will return. Landry, like others sympathetic to the campaign, is a firm believer that Cork Street should be preserved for art galleries rather than what he calls “boring” fashion houses, but unlike many, he suggests that having new galleries moving in in the future may not be so bad:

“What is the character of Cork Street? Is it an art street, or is it down to which galleries are there? You have to look at the quality and decide whether the galleries that may come in to replace those leaving will be better or worse.”

Landry also touches on a troubling aspect of the debate over Cork Street’s future: “The danger of this argument, as one dealer told me, is that if we are protecting these galleries because they are British, then you have to be aware that this can be misread as a xenophobic argument.”

That dilemma is expressed in the different reactions to the plans put forward by the Pollen Estate, seen as a traditional London landlord, and Native Land, which is owned by foreign investors in Malaysia and Qatar. Simon Tarrant explains that the worry is that the latter, because they are not from London, may not have any “real interest in the long term future of Cork Street.” Yet as James Mayor acknowledges, the majority of clients that their businesses rely are in fact wealthy foreign investors who may be passing through London.

Mayfair’s global reputation as a destination for the super-rich means that residents and developers will continue to fight over getting this balance right between culture and commerce. For now, the campaigners are hoping Westminster City council will designate the street as a Special Policy Area for art, making it harder for developers to suggest proposals that are not in keeping with its character. That process can take up to two years, and for the galleries facing eviction this year, it may be too late. In the short-term at least, it looks as if commerce will take precedence over culture in Cork Street.

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