“We’ve done the gritty urban space, you can’t stay underground forever”

Dealer Steve Lazarides opens grand new London space

In 2006 Steve Lazarides, 39, opened his first gallery in Greek Street, in London’s Soho, to show “graffiti” or “urban” art including the work of the anonymous street painter Banksy. With considerable promotional flair, he has organised attention-grabbing shows in London as well as Los Angeles and New York, helping to generate an interest in urban art that others have capitalised on—today there is a lively secondary market for several of his artists. Last year he opened a space in Charing Cross to accommodate an ambitious exhibition programme.

Now Lazarides, who has expanded his stable of artists to include the portrait painter Jonathan Yeo and the Parisian artist JR, among others, has signed a ten-year lease on an elegant five-storey Georgian townhouse in Rathbone Place, just off Oxford Street. It opens on 15 May, with just under 4,000 sq. ft of space for exhibitions, artists’ spaces and offices, while his former gallery in Greek Street has reopened as a shop selling works on paper and multiples and his Charing Cross space has closed.

The Art Newspaper: Everyone else seems to be downsizing at the moment. Is this the right time to open an ambitious new space?

Steve Lazarides: I don’t think there’s a better time to find a new space and [negotiate] a good deal. Luckily my [Greek Street and Charing Cross] leases were coming up for renewal just when the rents were plunging and I ended up with a fantastic deal on great premises in a wonderful location. You either close up shop and cry behind closed doors for the next five years or you have a go and see what you can do.

TAN: Many dealers have become massively over-leveraged in the last few years so they are now vulnerable.

SL: My operation grew from a grass-roots level. I never came up with a business plan and went to the bank and said: “Do you mind if I borrow £200,000 to get this started?” What we earned I put back into the business. It is a lot harder to sell things at the moment, but the market hasn’t stopped. There’s still money being made, and there’s still a lot of interest in art. And there are some artists who are bucking the trend. We sold a piece by JR for £8,000 last September. It lands up at Sotheby’s at the beginning of the year and sells for £26,000. Maybe the crazy times of the last few years have stopped. Maybe this is how the normal world is and what we experienced for the last five years is a complete anomaly, so it’s pointless to sit back and say: “I’ll wait until it gets better.” Maybe it won’t.

TAN: Greek Street is quite gritty, a perfect launchpad for urban artists. How are they going to look in a more traditional gallery?

SL: We’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get away from the tag of just being a graffiti gallery because we’re not. The closest some of my artists, like Anthony Micaleff, have ever got to the street is to go and buy a pint of milk. There are a lot of artists who are influenced by graffiti but that’s a generational thing. Every generation draws on the influences they have growing up. For this generation it’s extreme consumerism, graffiti, as well as lots of other things. We’re all growing up. The artists are getting older, I’m getting older. We’ve done the warehouses, we’ve done the gritty urban space, you can’t stay underground forever. It doesn’t work in any discipline—in music, art, fashion, whatever. You get older and you become part of the mainstream. It’s impossible to stop.

TAN: Do you think you will attract more of the traditional art world to your new space?

SL: I’m not sure they’ll ever come round. If they do, they’re more than welcome. It wasn’t done for them. I think art should be inclusive and no one should feel intimidated about coming in, whether it’s the old, established art world or some snotty-nosed teenager.

TAN: Do you have any plans for the US?

SL: Los Angeles has always been kind to us. The Hollywood crowd have always been collectors of our artists and they’re really loyal. I can do things there that I could never dream of doing in London. I can rustle up a guest

list of ridiculously [famous] people who then phone up their friends and get them to come along as well. I’m still planning a group show in LA. It depends on whether I can find the right space for it. Organising pop-up shows is an incredible amount of work, it’s phenomenally

expensive and you have to sell an awful lot to break even, but it’s the most fun. People really enjoy you taking art to them—the Americans particularly. I fancy doing something in Moscow, maybe in Miami at some point. I might do something in Spain. A year ago I had confidence in going out and spending £200,000 on a show and making enough money to make the show pay for itself. At the moment, I don’t. I’m going to focus on London.

TAN: Do you think Banksy belongs in the Tate collection?

SL: I think they all do: Banksy, Faile, JR—as a collective group they’ve had a huge influence around the world. Blu’s [wall painting] animation on YouTube has been seen by almost five million people.

TAN: But the Tate has to take the long view. They don’t have much money for acquisitions and an artist who everyone thinks is great today might not look so important in ten years.

SL: It’s hard to know who the tastemakers are. Is it three people sitting in a room deciding what’s going to last a long time or is it the five million who go and look at a video online? It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy because if those three people say [a work] will be long-lasting and it goes into a museum then it’s long-lasting because none of the other stuff ended up there…it’s a very elitist way of deciding what ends up in a museum.

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