'I see more art than anyone else alive'
Martin Gayford, The Daily Telegraph
Charles Saatchi, Britain's most famous collector, talks to Martin Gayford about his latest controversial show
''Everybody you meet is an art collector now," says Charles Saatchi, exaggerating a little. "It's no longer interesting or unusual. But that's good, isn't it? I think it's good." We are sitting in the portico outside 6, Burlington Gardens - the old Museum of Mankind, now part of the Royal Academy and venue for his latest exhibition, USA Today.
It's a dark drizzly September day. Saatchi is under pressure because a fortnight ago there was a serious fire in the galleries where the exhibition is going to be held (Saatchi seems to be unlucky in that way: two years ago, famously, he lost many works in the conflagration at the Momart warehouse). Inside Burlington Gardens now there is a constant roar from fans drying the rooms after water damage. The place is a chaos of builders and art-installers as everyone scrambles to get the exhibition ready on time.
When we go outside, passers-by keep snapping Saatchi on their mobile phones - after all, he's a reclusive celebrity, the most interesting kind. This unsettles Saatchi, a shy man who eschews his own openings and hates appearing on TV. But basically he's happy because he's doing one of the things he enjoys most: padding around in his trademark loose white shirt and black trousers, installing an exhibition.
This one consists of work by American artists whose names, by and large, are unfamiliar even to art-world insiders. But at the moment it is new American artists, not British ones, who are exciting him. From what I could see amid the fans, electric cables and plaster, the work in USA Today is characteristic of Saatchi's taste - visceral, messy, raw and inclined to tangle with big themes such as death, sex and politics. Quite a lot of it takes the form of painting, a medium written off by many cool art-world types.
What Saatchi likes, he told me a few years ago, is art that is "head-buttingly impossible to ignore". This show won't be ignored, either, though it is safe to predict that some will hate it, and others - journalists being fond of a nice, familiar story - will search the rooms for a "shocking" or "sensational" exhibit (there are a few candidates, and the show is said to have offended some members of the Royal Academy).
Exhibitions are at the heart of what Saatchi does. "The thing I enjoy most," he tells me, "is showing very new art to people who probably don't know a great deal about it. There's obviously a much wider audience now than there used to be, so it's not as impossible a task as it might have been 20, 30 years ago. In those days England was certainly not embracing its contemporary artists - or indeed anybody else's either. Maybe the general public had heard of David Hockney, but probably didn't go and see very much in the way of contemporary art outside of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition."
His fundamental motivation, it seems, is to teach - a traditional aim of British art evangelists. But where the Victorian sage John Ruskin advocated Pre-Raphaelitism and Gothic architecture, Saatchi has proselytised for the sometimes sexual and violent art of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and other British artists of the past decade.
"The great thing," he recalls, about his last London gallery in County Hall, "was that I experienced school visits for the very first time. And that is a very enchanting spectacle. We had over a thousand schools come, and it was enormously gratifying watching them sit down and do their little drawings of the Chapman Brothers."
There has indeed been a startling transformation in awareness of contemporary art in this country. Saatchi gives the lion's share of the credit to Tate Modern. "It has had a tremendous impact and we've ended up with a much larger pool of people who are interested."
But Saatchi himself has been a hugely influential trailblazer. Over the past 20-odd years, he has introduced the London public to an enormous quantity of novel sights. His old gallery on Boundary Road, east London, was the place where many of us encountered not only Damien Hirst's shark - still probably the most celebrated piece associated with either Saatchi or its creator - but also the work of Jeff Koons, Jenny Saville, and Grayson Perry, the transgressive potter.
This urge to exhibit what he has bought to the rest of us is the key, perhaps, to Saatchi's activities. In art-world terms, he is a bit of a conundrum, a shape-shifter who does not fit easily into a known category. He is part collector, part gallery curator and, according to his detractors, part dealer. Famously, he buys in bulk. An old friend told me he was bemused by Saatchi's habit of buying whole exhibitions. "Why can't you just choose one example?" this acquaintance would inquire.
Saatchi has an answer to that. The collector he most admired when he began, and still does, is an urbanely intellectual Italian aristocrat named Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. Count Panza, like Saatchi, believes in buying work by the artists he admires in depth, in wholesale quantities - a wing of his mansion north of Milan is devoted to light-pieces by the American minimalist Dan Flavin. But, unlike Saatchi, Panza has tried to keep his collection together - although most of it has now been split between two US museums.
Saatchi is not interested in that sort of benefaction, and the brand of immortality that comes with it. He is one of the most notable collectors alive. But he does not do what other collectors do. He does not keep what he has - he has sold off, to date, at least three great collections: one of minimalism, one of so-called School of London painting, and the definitive array of British art from the 1990s. Any of these would have been valuable additions to any museum of modern art. But he's sold it all, and in its place bought a new lot of pieces by new artists. Why?
"How would I have not felt embarrassed at having it all now?" he asks. "What would I do with it all? I'd feel that I was like Citizen Kane sitting in Xanadu, surrounded by my loot." But doesn't he ever feel the urge to look at some piece he used to own and has now sold on? "I never think like that. I only think about my next show. It would be very, very difficult to keep the momentum for looking at very new work all the time if you spent your life looking over your shoulder at what's happened in the past. How could I have looked at this new work in a fresh way? I am entirely future-orientated"
Even in an art world that is constantly on the look-out for new blood, Saatchi's is an unusual stance. Most art writers become fixated on a certain style or period and stick there (the same is true of most collectors). Does Saatchi's future-orientation explain his remarkable, and undeniable, talent for spotting new art stars? He won't admit that he has any such skill.
"But I do see much more art, I think, than anyone else alive - pretty much as much as anyone can take in their heads." He is famed for obsessively trawling degree shows, small galleries, artists' co-operative exhibitions - anywhere new art might be found.
"If you look enough - and I've been doing it for a long, long time - you get a sense of what suits you. That doesn't mean that I don't make tremendous mistakes all the time, walking straight past something that I discover a year or two later is terrific."
Sometimes he gets it right and sometimes he gets it wrong - that applies to his exhibitions, too. But if we are now much more aware of contemporary art than we were in 1980, Charles Saatchi has had a good deal to do with that change - and continues doing so: a new Saatchi Gallery opens in Chelsea next year
"I'm not interested in anything other than showing off the art I own," he says. "That's why I buy it. What I do is based entirely on what would make a good show."
There may be more collectors around now than there were when Saatchi started out, but there's still only one who thinks like that. Read the entire article here