London’s Saatchi Yates gallery: ‘We like the idea of showing breakthrough art — something that pushes the boundaries’

Meet St James’s newest and youngest gallery owners, Arthur Yates and Phoebe Saatchi Yates, a couple with a penchant for rule-breaking that promises to shake up the capital’s art scene

Arthur Yates and Phoebe Saatchi Yates at Saatchi Yates gallery

Arthur Yates and Phoebe Saatchi Yates. The hang of Lebanese artist Omar El Lahib’s works was the gallery’s first exhibition in St James’s, in January 2023. All photos and artworks courtesy of Saatchi Yates

Bury Street runs roughly north to south through the heart of the St James’s district of London. Towards the top is Colnaghi, the oldest commercial art gallery in the world. The building at the bottom, where it meets King Street, has been home to Christie’s for two centuries. Stretching along its length, and accentuating the impression that you are stepping back in time, are dealers in medieval ceramics, antique maps and Chinese export pictures.

Next week, however, this historic street is playing host to something altogether different: an exhibition of new paintings by an American artist who is barely known outside of TikTok. His name is Michael Todd Horne, usually referred to by his social media handle ‘Bijijoo’.

The couple behind this audacious move are husband-and-wife duo Arthur Yates and Phoebe Saatchi Yates, owners of a new 10,000-square-foot gallery at number 14. ‘From the start, our idea has been to work with artists at the beginning of their careers,’ Phoebe explains.

‘We like the idea of showing breakthrough art,’ adds Arthur. ‘Something that pushes the boundaries. We want to bring a new voice and perspective to London’s art scene.’

Bijijoo (b. 1975), Fish For Dinner, 2022. Oil and acrylic on canvas

Bijijoo (b. 1975), Fish For Dinner, 2022. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 100 x 100 cm. His solo exhibition runs from 16 March to 28 May 2023

Bijijoo is a biophysics PhD who paints pictures of monsters imagined by his daughter. ‘Someone showed us Bijijoo’s work and we just couldn’t get it out of our heads,’ says Arthur. ‘We thought: there is something here — and then we learnt how popular he is online.’

Phoebe explains that the artist’s TikTok videos resonate in particular with the ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) community — who claim they feel a pleasant physical reaction in response to watching Bijijoo splodge, spray and sand the richly textured surfaces of his canvases. One of Bijijoo’s recent social media posts has been watched more than two million times.

Social media has played an integral part in helping Phoebe, 28, and Arthur, 32, to discover new artists. The couple opened their first gallery on Cork Street in Mayfair in 2020, just as the pandemic struck. ‘We signed the lease, but then all of a sudden it became very clear it wasn’t going to be only two weeks until we opened,’ explains Phoebe. ‘But that really gave us time to find the right artists.

‘A lot of the people that we’re doing shows with now are people we spoke to in that period. That’s the power of the internet: it makes us just as close to an artist in London as to another in Seoul.’

Sujin Lee (b. 1990), Afterimage, 2021. Acrylic on canvas

Sujin Lee (b. 1990), Afterimage, 2021. Acrylic on canvas. 200 x 140 cm.

Sujin Lee is a South Korean artist the pair discovered on Instagram. At that point Lee had never shown any of her paintings of wide-eyed girls in a gallery. She hadn’t even sold one. But by the time she arrived in London for her inaugural solo show at Saatchi Yates, Phoebe and Arthur had found a buyer for every single picture.

‘She got here and everyone was like, “You’re a genius!” but she didn’t speak much English,’ says Arthur with a laugh. ‘I suppose it’s the equivalent, for a British person, of discovering one day that you’re famous in South Korea.’

Two paintings by British artist Danny Fox (b. 1986), from St Ives in Cornwall, who had his first solo exhibition at Saatchi Yates in 2021

Above, Treat Him Good, 2022. Acrylic on canvas. 182.9 x 152.4 cm. Left, Born Toulouse, 2022. Acrylic on canvas. 182.9 x 152.4 cm

Another success story has been Danny Fox, an English artist from St Ives who paints freaky, folklore-inspired figurative works. ‘We heard that he’d just moved back from Los Angeles, so we gave him a call,’ says Arthur. ‘We got in the car and drove down to Cornwall to see him.

‘The show went really well. Danny has such true fans — it’s like a cult following. People are obsessed with him. At the opening, someone asked him to sign their arm.’

‘We like having one foot in the past and one in the future, and it feels like here we have that mix’ — Arthur Yates

So what was the reason behind their decision to move to St James’s, after just two years in Mayfair? ‘We’re traditionalists at heart,’ says Phoebe, ‘and there have been dealers here for hundreds of years.’

‘We like having one foot in the past and one in the future,’ Arthur adds, ‘and it feels like here we have that mix.’ The couple also acknowledge the fact that they’re not the first contemporary gallery to have moved to the area. In 2006, White Cube opened a branch on the site of an electricity sub-station in nearby Mason’s Yard. The dealer Thomas Dane has been on the parallel Duke Street since 2004. Sadie Coles, meanwhile, has had an outpost down the road since 2021.

Omar El Lahib, Honeymoon, 2020-22. Oil on canvas

Omar El Lahib (b. 1986), Honeymoon, 2020-22. Oil on canvas. 150 x 250 cm

The key difference between those galleries and Saatchi Yates, however, is that they don’t tend to give huge solo shows to artists at the beginning of their careers — perhaps because the profits from such exhibitions don’t tend to cover the sky-high local rents. Phoebe and Arthur fill this gap with a sideline in brokering deals on secondary-market, blue-chip masterpieces by artists such as Andy Warhol, Yayoi Kusama, Willem de Kooning and Pablo Picasso. They also economise by not attending the ever-growing rotation of art fairs.

‘Until now, we’ve found that we can do the same job as an art fair in slightly more meaningful ways,’ says Phoebe. ‘In Miami, for instance, rather than taking a booth, we staged an exhibition of work by Tesfaye Urgessa in conjunction with his opening at the Rubell Museum. We had a space for two months and we experienced what it would be like to have a gallery there — to exist in the city, rather than a convention centre — which I think was better for everyone involved.’

Tesfaye Urgessa, Love Doesn’t Grow On Trees 1. Oil on canvas

Tesfaye Urgessa (b. 1983), Love Doesn’t Grow On Trees 1. Oil on canvas. 230 x 200 cm

Behind the scenes, the pair’s savvy decision-making has been guided by Phoebe’s father, the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, who did so much to establish the careers of Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin during the 1990s.

‘Advisor isn’t an official title, but he likes to be involved,’ says Phoebe with a smile. In some ways there are clear similarities between what Charles Saatchi did three decades ago and what the couple are doing now — chiefly supporting emerging talent, and often venturing where others fear to tread.

The opening exhibition of works by Omar El Lahib at Saatchi Yates’s new Bury Street gallery in early 2023

The opening exhibition of works by Omar El Lahib at Saatchi Yates’s new Bury Street gallery in early 2023

Even the couple’s new gallery — a cavernous blank room with polished concrete floors and ceilings of exposed cables and pipes sprayed white — is reminiscent of the spaces around Hoxton Square that were used to promote the YBAs twenty-odd years ago. Was that intentional? ‘We try to do our own thing,’ says Arthur. ‘Whether people like it or not, at least it’s another way. Or a new way.’

This summer, says Phoebe, they intend to unveil a show that mixes secondary-market Old Masters and modern works of art together with new paintings commissioned from six of the artists they represent. ‘It’ll be the first time we’ve done anything like that, and we’re really excited about it,’ she says.

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‘Part of the joy of having a gallery is that the artists we work with are people from all over the world,’ says Arthur. ‘It opens your mind to so many different cultures and ways of seeing and speaking. That’s London’s great strength, of course. Every artist who comes here feels at home because it’s so diverse. And that’s just enriching, isn’t it?’

Bijijoo runs from 16 March to 28 May 2023 at Saatchi Yates, 14 Bury Street, St James’s, London. @saatchiyates

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