Interview with Nicholas Logsdail: Lisson's founder in both expansive and expansionist mood

Contemporary art dealer affirms his confidence in the artists he works with by doubling the gallery space at the Lisson


One of the season’s most exciting developments among London’s contemporary art galleries is the provision of additional exhibition space for the Lisson Gallery. It comes through a building in Bell Street which Nicholas Logsdail acquired four years ago. Architect Tony Fretton has constructed a link at first floor level between Logsdail’s present quarters in Lisson Street and the new building where three new floors for showing art have been created. Dan Graham has been invited to inaugurate the expanded gallery with an exhibition of models and photographs for new architectural projects (7 November to 4 January).

Founded in 1967 by Nicholas Logsdail, the Lisson Gallery is now reaping the rewards for its long standing commitment to European and American minimalism and, since the early Eighties for its extraordinarily successful promotion of a new generation of British sculptors such as Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Anish Kapoor, Julian Opie and Bill Woodrow. However, despite being universally hailed for his ability to spot young talent, it is now four years since Logsdale introduced us to a young unknown. He has remained aloof from the so called Goldsmiths phenomenon and the question that everyone is asking is whether in his new and expanded gallery he will show a new generation of artists or simply consolidate the old.

James Hall interviewed Nicholas Logsdail about the genesis of the original Lisson Gallery, the new space and plans for the future.

What made you decide on this kind of space?

Nicholas Logsdail: I didn’t know what kind of building to build until about eighteen months ago I went to New York and saw the last throes of the boomtime with these unbelievably enormous private gallery spaces which were also very expensive. It struck me as being absurd, ostentatious, not very interesting, all about selling and not about art. There was no intimacy to them. They were like fake museums without the scholarship or the qualities you attribute to good museums. On my return from New York I finally decided that what we should do is a series of rooms stacked on top of each other. We already have a good size space with the existing gallery which will remain more or less as it is. That space is a daunting one, particularly for younger artists. It is difficult to handle. The new building gives us a whole new dimension of flexibility—we can do large scale individual shows; a series of smaller individual shows that are thematic in some way; or a modest show for a new artist, or even for an established artist. Dan Graham will only occupy the new building, and we will have a mixed show in the existing space; then Richard Deacon will use it all. In a way we are spoilt for choice.

I was interested when you said that young artists find the existing space intimidating...

You might be interested to know that nobody has had a first appearance there.

Since the small Bell Street space closed in 1987 the gallery seems to have been missing something. The last first show for a young artist was, I believe, of Grenville Davey in 1987. That’s four years ago. Everyone is wondering whether, with the opening of the new space, you will be promoting young artists again, or just consolidating your position.

There are a number of young artists I am interested in and they have tended to say that the existing space is too hot to handle. Now things will be much more casual. If someone wants to do something and I am interested in it, I will be able to say that’s fine, have the space.

Can you say who these artists are?

I can’t for the very simple reason that the way I work is that I don’t like to make predictions until they become realities. There are three younger artists who either have never shown before or have never shown in this country before, and perhaps five artists to whom I have casually said, “when you are ready come and see the building when it is finished and see if you have some ideas and then we can discuss them”. For younger artists there should be a natural casualness.

Your gallery has been extraordinarily successful in recent years, but do you think that the cultural climate in this country has changed to any significant degree?

Not really. I think that there are two fundamental problems. One is that the public sector is so appallingly underfunded and the people who devotedly continue to work in the public sector are generaly very badly paid. This is symptomatic of the second problem—that there isn’t recognition at higher government levels, regardless of which party is in power, that living cultural activity is very important to the country as a whole. Because there isn’t any money, there aren’t any major international exhibitions in this country. Having said that, I still think that if the public sector was restructured properly, you could achieve much more—by focusing more on what seems to be relevant than by relying on committee decisions in which there is no place for democracy. There is no reason artistically to deal with the good, the mediocre and the downright uninteresting. Another problem is that as soon as British people become rich and successful, they want big country houses, and if they can’t get their hands on the real thing, they fill it with reproduction antique furniture.

Has the proportion of sales to British collectors changed over the years?

Not significantly. It vacillates between about 30% and 10%. In the last year I would say it has probably gone down to about 5%, but that has been replaced by things happening in other countries. Fortunately we have been able to generate income this year at the same level as last year.

With the emergence of a young generation of artists in this country—the likes of Ian Davenport, Fiona Rae and Rachel Whiteread, who are still in their twenties but have been nominated for the Turner Prize—many people think that it is an exciting moment in British Art. You have remained quite aloof from these developments. Do you think it’s an exciting moment?

I haven’t got a clue. I see no clear signals that this is really a formative period because I think it is much too early to say. I think it is probably the last throes of the Eighties boom time where a young genius was being discovered every five minutes somewhere in the world, and being thrust into the limelight with the most extraordinary promotion. Of course the avant-garde—if one can use such a term any more—has always had a predisposition to do that, but it has a very poor track record in terms of people who actually end up coming through. Very rarely do you have these fully formed sensibilities coming straight out of art-school. David Hockney and Richard Long are the only ones I can think of.

What I am fairly sure about is that these situations are never born out of affluence. It is much more likely that something interesting is going to come out of this recession period because that is when people have to live by their wits, have got their backs against the wall and have to be ingenious and inventive. This gallery came out of a period like that. It was about being inventive, and not some kind of publicity scam. Much of the new art that has emerged in the last four or five years is still more re-hashism. Where are the terrorists?

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Nicholas Logsdail in both expansive and expansionist mood'