LONDON — Mayfair and St. James’s, the districts where most of London’s high-end art trading businesses are concentrated, have been eerily quiet. This week’s canceled Frieze London and Frieze Masters fairs have turned into “might click” rather than “must attend” events. Global gallery sales are estimated to be down an average of 36 percent.
The coronavirus pandemic is putting pressure on the international art trade to come up with new business models. And Cromwell Place, billed as a “membership organization offering a first-of-its-kind exhibition and working space for art professionals,” is one of them.
Owned by a private consortium and set to open to the public on Saturday in the South Kensington district, Cromwell Place occupies a stylishly renovated terrace of five 19th-century townhouses. So far, about 10 institutional and 40 commercial members have signed up for “pay-for-what-you-need” facilities that include offices, viewing rooms, exhibition spaces, technician hire, art storage and bar for members and their clients.
“I like the built-in industry flexibility,” said David Maupin, a co-founder of the New York-headquartered gallery Lehmann Maupin, which has taken a 730-square-foot corner of the building. “It provides a space we can do a multitude of things with,” he added.
For the public opening, Lehmann Maupin will use its main exhibition space to show works by its stable of artists, including a copper “Breathing Panel” sculpture priced at $185,000 by Nari Ward, a Jamaican-born artist who was the subject of a solo show last year at the New Museum in New York. On the floor above, socially distanced visitors will be able to watch Billy Childish, one of six British-based artists represented by the gallery, at work in a temporary studio.
“We wanted to support our clients and artists in London,” Mr. Maupin said. “I believe in London long-term.”
“I believe in it post-Brexit,” he added, referring to concerns that the city’s status as a capital of the European art market might be diminished by Britain’s departure from the European Union. “It’s a strong hub.”
The New York dealership Alexander Gray Associates and SFA, an art advisory, are two other prominent American names signed up for spaces in the building. But London remains an expensive place to do business.
“The rents and overheads of a gallery in London are prohibitive,” said Rakeb Sile, the founder of the Ethiopia-based gallery Addis Fine Art, which has taken an office in Cromwell Place. According to Ms. Sile, running a bricks-and-mortar gallery in Mayfair costs about 200,000 pounds, or $260,000, per year. She expects to spend about £40,000 a year in less central South Kensington.
Cromwell Place has become an “even more compelling model,” Ms. Sile said, now that the pandemic has put a stop to in-person international art fairs.
Richard Ingleby, an Edinburgh-based dealer, said that he was “fed up with virtual art fairs.” He, along with others signed up for Cromwell Place, hopes the venture will achieve its goal of becoming a kind of year-round, live art fair, but without the crush.
“Art really exists if you come face to face with it,” added Mr. Ingleby, who will introduce visitors to new paintings by Scottish artists from his space in the complex. Caroline Walker’s warming interior, “Lighting Candles, Evening, March, 2019,” which the Ingleby gallery recently sold for £40,000, is one of the works on show.
Though Mr. Ingleby said he thought virtual gallery spaces were “like a bad video game,” his dealership will also have a viewing room at this week’s online Frieze London fair.
When announced in 2017, the year in which Christie’s closed its South Kensington salesroom, the concept of Cromwell Place was met with some skepticism in London’s Mayfair-centric art world. But now that the pandemic is driving down footfall in the city’s commercial West End, residential “South Ken,” with its busier sidewalks, could become an appealing alternative.
After previews for about 1,000 V.I.P.s this week, public viewing slots for Cromwell Place’s opening weekend have all been booked up.
“It’s been a tough year for everyone,” said Preston Benson, the venture’s managing director. “But here there’s a sense of life on the street. If there’s a crowd, then people will want to see what’s going on.”