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Phoebe Saatchi and Arthur Yates: "We're bringing something different to the art world"

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Saatchi Yates on changing the art worldcourtesy

“I think we are bringing something different to the art world,” says Phoebe Saatchi Yates. “We’re doing it our way.” We are talking in the stunning back room of the gallery she shares with her husband, Arthur Saatchi Yates. Around us is a coterie of art just as eclectic as the shows staged in the main space of the Saatchi Yates gallery. Opposite us is one of Damien Hirst’s gigantic heart ‘Birthday’ paintings, originally made for his collaboration with Marco Pierre White.

“There’s the best story behind it,” Arthur enthuses, regaling me with a spectacularly petty yarn about White and Hirst’s falling out, which resulted in the artist mass-producing his ‘gift’ to White and one of these large heart pieces landing in this beautiful room in St James's. “I guess that's the joy of what we do here,” Phoebe adds. “You get these paintings with histories and stories.”

The joy of art is something proudly on display in the couple’s new gallery space on Bury Street in St James's (“It’s just the most London of London locations, if that makes sense,” Arthur explains later, of their move just last month). Their current show, the American artist Bijijoo, is a wonderland of graffiti art meets Vermeer, fairy-tale settings and childhood monsters; a fever dream of imagination and art history. He is a perfect example of a Saatchi Yates artist. Though the couple believe there is no such thing as a signature creative for them, Bijijoo would appear to fit their MO for seeking out bold, fun, emerging artists with something to say.

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“What happens is you fall in love with an artist or a painter and it's normally the strength of their personality that comes out,” says Arthur. “We always say that we love the painting to be such that you can just see who the artist is from across the room, you just feel the presence.”

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Bijijoo at Saatchi Yatescourtesy

They are constantly on the lookout for new names, for a fresh perspective. It is what sets their gallery apart – a hunger for unearthing talent from the most unlikely of places and thus opening up the art world to more diverse standpoints. They unapologetically state that they trawl TikTok and Instagram for new creatives. “But honestly, why not?” Phoebe says. “Our current artist is in his late forties and putting his art online is what made him a viral sensation and brought him to our attention. I see so many burgeoning talents getting their start on [social media]; it's full of amazing artists and a great place to discover art.”

“Instagram has almost become like the Paris Salon,” Arthur speculates. “It is where artists congregate and chat, and ideas are shared. And we can be in touch with everyone.” Phoebe agrees, pointing to the fact that it can be a democratic tool for the otherwise often hard to penetrate art world. “It’s tearing down those red velvet ropes,” she says. “And that is very much what we are about here.”

The couple launched their gallery in the middle of lockdown in 2020. It would seem an odd time to begin a business, but they both stress how formative and actually useful that time was for them. “Honestly I think it was the best thing in the world,” says Pheobe. “It meant we concentrated so much on every artist, and it set the tone that every show you put on is months of work. So, strangely, the pillars of the gallery were established in that time.”

Since their opening, they have showcased some astonishing talent. The new St James's space opened with a show from Ethiopian artist Tesfaye Urgessa, whose imaginative and classical configurations writhe among dialogues about race and identity. Last year, they showed feminist Swiss artist Angela Santana, who produced large-scale inversions of the male gaze, as well as Nokukhanya Langa, a US-born modernist who brings together the plurality of her mixed-race heritage into her striking creations.

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Arthur and Phoebe Saatchi Yatescourtesy

Building relationships with their artists is fundamental to what the couple has planned for their gallery. “It’s why we never pick an artist we don’t believe in,” Phoebe explains. “Everything we show is something we love, because we put so much work in and spend so much time with them. You have to love it.” Arthur nods, adding: “But even if this is all our taste, that doesn’t mean it’s just one thing. Taste changes over time – I mean, you don't want to be the guy who only likes purple paintings, you know? We have huge curiosity, and that’s key. It leads you to so many different places.”

Even the room we are sitting in is testament to that; old oil paintings in antique frames jostle for attention with the Hirst and with choppy, broad, primary colour bursts of expressionism and modernism. This is a couple who obsess over art, who live and breathe it every day. Yet their opinions do not dominate. “The best idea wins and there's no one, whether it's an intern or a director, who can't bring something to the table,” says Phoebe, declaratively. “I think that’s one of the reasons why the gallery has been such a huge success: we have amazing people around, and we have fun.”

“Well it should be fun,” Arthur adds. “It’s art, its creative! It should never be boring.” Phoebe looks at him and laughs, agreeing. And with that, I park my ‘what’s it like to work with your spouse?’ question. It’s just been answered.

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