Twenty years of White Cube
Jay Jopling started his gallery in 1993. Two decades later, he’s no less secretive but a whole lot richer
By Martin Bailey. Art Market, Issue 246, May 2013
Published online: 01 May 2013
Twenty years ago this month, Jay Jopling, then 29, approached Christie’s with an audacious request. The auction house had a room on the first floor of a building in Duke Street: would they allow him to take it over rent-free as a gallery space? In return, Jopling promised to attract a new clientele to the area—those interested in cutting-edge contemporary art.
Naming the gallery White Cube was a stroke of genius. Most commercial galleries are named after their owners, but this snappy phrase made it sound almost as if it was a public space. The name came from Brian O’Doherty’s 1986 book Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space. The room was, in fact, nearly square (4.4m by 4.6m, with a 2.9m-high ceiling). Jopling painted the walls white, of course.
More and more
Jopling’s vision broke with the tradition of commercial galleries. In one room, in the heart of London’s then very Establishment art world, there followed a series of 75 shows by artists including Tracey Emin (1993), Antony Gormley (1994), Damien Hirst (1995) and Chuck Close (1999), all of whom are still represented by the gallery, as well as exhibitions by Lucian Freud (2000) and Ellsworth Kelly (2001). Although White Cube soon came to be seen as representing the Young British Artists, two-thirds of those shown were international.
White Cube expanded in 2000, with Jopling opening a much larger gallery in the East End’s Hoxton Square. The Duke Street space closed two years later. Then, in 2006, White Cube returned to St James’s, with a £12m purpose-built gallery in Mason’s Yard. After this came an even more ambitious venture: a 5,440 sq. m gallery in a converted 1970s warehouse in Bermondsey. It opened in 2011 with a 15-year lease.
Last year, White Cube attracted 120,000 visitors to its three London sites—an astonishing number for a commercial gallery. The Hoxton space closed in December, so White Cube retains two venues (Mason’s Yard and Bermondsey). The gallery represents 52 artists and has 130 employees.
White Cube’s financial affairs are shrouded in secrecy. Its primary company is registered in Victoria, British Columbia, which means its turnover and profit remain confidential. White Cube Art’s annual report discloses no financial data, and the only name recorded is that of a local lawyer. Jopling, however, is effectively the sole owner of White Cube. Although he does not figure in the Sunday Times UK Rich List, which covers those worth more than £75m, it would be surprising if he did not meet the grounds for qualification.
Until recently, White Cube always focused on London, but this is changing. In March 2012, the enterprise opened a gallery in Hong Kong, at the bottom of a tower block. Another, in São Paulo, opened in December in a converted warehouse, on a three-year lease.
No New York
The gallery still does not have a space in New York, the birthplace of today’s contemporary art market—and, says Tim Marlow, the gallery’s director of exhibitions, this is not likely to change in the near future. “You should never say ‘never’, but it would be a very aggressive move to go to New York. You would be doing it in the interests of the gallery rather than the artists, because a lot of the artists we work with already have New York galleries.” The obvious exception is Damien Hirst (who recently left Gagosian Gallery), but US representation is not something the artist is actively seeking at the moment.
To outsiders, Jopling can appear inscrutable and aloof, leaving it to staff to speak on his behalf. Those who know him, however, say that he is good company and retains a youthful sense of mischief. He is extremely focused on what he does and, behind his signature dark-rimmed glasses, he drives a hard deal.
So what makes J.J. (as he is known) tick? Marlow says: “Energy and impetus. He once told me that if he could not be the best at what he did, he would do something else.”
Early days: front rooms and football louts
White Cube’s first show, which opened on 14 May 1993 at 44 Duke Street, was of photomontages by the Israeli artist Itai Doron. It received only one review, by Time Out’s Sarah Kent. She began by saying that “Jay Jopling has a knack of getting things right”, after showing Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn in “his front room in Brixton”.
White Cube’s gallery was too small for the opening party, which was held in Soho’s Groucho Club. A letter from the club, now in White Cube's archives, complained about the guests’ “dreadful behaviour”. They smashed glasses and a vicious fight ensued. This spilled out onto the street and the police were called.
Jopling apologised profusely, saying he was shocked and embarrassed. “There is a small minority connected with the art world who, like football louts, are incapable of behaving with any degree of charm or decorum,” he wrote.
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