His Shark is Worse than His Bite

Dealer Jay Jopling, the impeccably tailored son of a Tory cabinet minister, brings an air of respectability to some of Britain’s most provocative artists.

Duke Street in London’s Mayfair district, an area long dedicated to art dealing, is a place where you can still see Old Masters in almost every window. Six years ago, there arrived on this street an upstart newcomer that seemed to represent everything that was most alarming and controversial. A new gallery, it was called White Cube, and Jay Jopling, the dealer whose brainchild it was, had brought worldwide attention to some of the most talked-about artists on the British art scene, including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, and Antony Gormley. The “Sensation” show, which opened explosively at the Brooklyn Museum of Art this autumn, had a lot to do with Jopling. He exclusively represents 9 of the 40 artists in that show, and 40 percent of the exhibition’s artworks, all of which are owned by the British collector Charles Saatchi, came from Jopling’s stable of artists.

The 36-year-old Jopling is a tall man with a voluble but reassuring manner of speaking and an expensively tailored wardrobe. His air of respectability is a great advantage to him in his role as a salesman for art’s young and supposedly disreputable vanguard. As the son of one of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet ministers, Jopling makes the wild young men and women of BritArt seem acceptable to those who can afford to invest in their work. He acts as both a kind of shield and a guarantor of good—albeit shocking—taste. His presence helps to tame Hirst’s and Emin’s uncouthness. “No one can work a room like Jay,” says a rival dealer, with just a touch of envy in his voice. “He can convince the most unlikely people to invest in the most outrageous artworks.”

Jopling designed White Cube with the minimalist architect Claudio Silvestrin. The gallery’s single room, cuboid in shape, as the name suggests, usually showcases a single work or a small, coherent body of work. In a recent show, for example, a life-size sculpture of a monk in painted polyester by the German artist Katharina Fritsch stood alone in the middle of the gallery. “I wanted a room,” says Jopling, “where nothing would interfere with the art, where there would be no visible lighting fixtures. Natural light comes in through the diaphanous blinds. Artificial light floats down from the ceiling, though you never see its source. It’s as far removed from the 19th-century notion of the salon, with its flocked wallpaper, as could ever be imagined.”

The setting of his gallery, with the close, concentrated look it affords, reflects Jopling’s attitude toward the artists he represents. He considers himself not so much a dealer as a “gallerist”—a man whose job is not only to maintain close, often day-to-day contact with his artists but also to promote their careers and to prepare the market for their works, which range in price from $1,000 to $1 million. Damien Hirst’s spin paintings, for example, sell for up to $140,000 and Marc Quinn’s sculptures go for up to $82,000. It’s a mixture of friendship and active career management. And as the artists Jopling champions have become more and more successful, White Cube has engaged in the secondary market for their works. The gallery has a staff of ten, which includes a museums liaison, an exhibitions coordinator, an archivist, and a publications specialist. “The point is that it’s multidisciplinary,” says Jopling. “There has to be a shared understanding with the artists in order both to consummate their ideas and to put on impressive shows.” But there are major changes afoot, as Jopling’s ambitions have outgrown the limited exhibition space of White Cube. Next spring, architects and civic planners willing, he will open an additional, and much larger, gallery in Hoxton Square, in north London.

Jopling grew up in northern England in an atmosphere of rural calm and easy prosperity. He went to Eton and then on to college at Edinburgh, where he studied art history. Art was always an abiding passion, though it was not one that his parents ever shared. It was in Edinburgh that he first enjoyed the company of contemporary artists, drinking with the likes of Glasgow School artist Ken Currie in such spit-and-sawdust bars as the Saracen’s Head. In 1986, while still a student, he made his first visit to Manhattan, to assist in a charity auction for poor children. The young Jopling managed to persuade Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel to donate works. Before he opened White Cube, Jopling organized exhibitions in borrowed warehouse spaces while dealing from his home.

His first meeting with Damien Hirst marked a turning point for Jopling and the artist. They met in a pub in the late ’80s after a private viewing of an art show that both had attended. The rough-edged, working-class boy from Leeds and the smooth-talking, middle-class dealer soon found that they had something important in common—a passion for a football team called Leeds United. During the course of the evening they agreed to meet again and discovered that they were neighbors in Brixton, a district in south London. The artist Michael Craig-Martin, who taught Hirst at Goldsmith’s College, observed, “The chemistry between them was so strong. They were like partners. They went everywhere together. Damien was very, very difficult to deal with, and finding Jay was fantastic for him. When Damien had a mad idea that was ridiculously expensive to realize, Jay would simply go about getting the money so that it could be done, rather than figure out how to do it on the cheap.”

One well-publicized project of Hirst’s that Jopling helped to bring about involved the acquisition of a shark. When Hirst mentioned the idea to Jopling, he was immediately moved to action. The two of them spent the night telephoning post offices in Australia. “I asked them to put up a sign,” remembers Jopling, “saying, Wanted: 15-ft. Tiger Shark. It was almost like a bounty notice. Over the next couple of months we were called repeatedly by fishermen offering us sharks.” The resulting artwork of a shark floating in formaldehyde is now part of “Sensation.” Hirst says of his dealer, “I hope he never grows up. I think the great thing about him is his fluidity. He’s always been open-ended, and although he’s an operator, he operates with enjoyment—he enjoys making deals like I enjoy making art.”

Although Jopling appears to have a marked influence on the direction of British art, he claims to hold no preconceptions about the type of work he wants to show. “I respond immediately and primarily to whatever it is that I see,” he says. “But who knows what the future will bring? What I’m sure about is that I don’t want to try to define in which direction art should be moving. I want the gallery’s program to be as excitingly eclectic as ever.”

And what about Mayor Giuliani’s response to “Sensation”? “That was great!” says Jopling. “You’d pay a million dollars to get publicity on that scale!”

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