For many years, art dealing has been a man’s world, but that’s all starting to change thanks to a crop of talented London female gallerists who are shaking things up and ushering in some much-needed diversity. The boys’ club mentality of yesteryear is gone – instead, you’ll now find women running some of the capital’s most prominent galleries. Here, we meet the women that have been key to driving that change.
It’s no secret that for much of history, the art world has been a boys’ club. Throughout the 1800s, as public galleries began to open in Britain for the first time, many prominent male art critics declared their staunch belief that women could not create ‘serious’ art. Entrance into art schools was also nearly impossible, with the Royal Academy not allowing women into its Antique Schools until 1862. Even if they managed to secure entry, the education women received differed wildly from their male counterparts, with life-drawing classes, in particular, kept firmly off the table.
Forced to work against nearly insurmountable odds, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that as late as 1971, a male gallerist was still able to ask an art historian, “Why have there been no great women artists?” Luckily, that historian was the now-legendary feminist critic Linda Nochlin, who took the man’s question and wrote an eviscerating essay on the topic as part of a controversial issue on ‘Women’s Liberation, Women Artists and Art History’ in the journal ARTnews. With characteristic wit, Nochlin shattered the illusion that art history is universal and demanded an end to institutional and social prejudices. In doing so, she changed the field forever.
Now, over 50 years since Nochlin’s ground-breaking essay, there are, of course, a great many Great Women Artists. But, perhaps even more significantly, there are a great number of women running some of the most well-respected, prominent London art galleries, and establishing the careers of many of the most interesting artists working today.
Indeed, many of these female gallerists in London’s thriving contemporary art scene have been instrumental in diversifying the art world, challenging established norms, and championing the talents of rising art stars. As Nochlin wrote, “feminist art history is there to make trouble, to call into question, to ruffle feathers”.
Alison Jacques Gallery
Berners Street, Fitzrovia, W1
“I don’t consider myself as being defined in the art world by my gender, but by what I do and what the gallery has achieved,” Alison Jacques tells The Glossary. She has more than ample reason to feel this way – the Fitzrovia gallerist has established herself as one of the most influential figures in the contemporary art world, not least for her unwavering support for female artists.
Her eponymous gallery is renowned for its focus on the work of women previously overlooked in the canon of art history. Thanks to Jacques, many of these under-acknowledged artists have been given major international shows, including Brazilian painter Lygia Clark at the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2020 and textural artist Sheila Hicks at the Hepworth Wakefield in 2022; while this September, Tate Modern hosts a retrospective of the work of Slovakian sculptor Maria Bartuszová.
Yet it hasn’t always been rosy. “Up until the last five years, I have encountered misogyny and certainly a privileged ‘boys’ club’ which was deliberately exclusive, patronising and stereotypical in terms of its attitude to women,” she says.
Jacques often speaks of her respect for established female gallerists such as Maureen Paley, Victoria Miro and Sadie Coles, as well as New York pioneers such as Barbara Gladstone and Marian Goodman. “Today, the art world does feel more equal,” she says. Though she cautions that, despite progress, we must “remain mindful of those who are not supportive of women’s rights. We are not quite there yet. Artists and art world professionals are still working with countries with horrendous women’s rights records, but hopefully we will get there in the end and the compass will reset itself.”
Addis Fine Art
Eastcastle Street, Fitzrovia, W1
“It is incredible to be a female gallerist in London’s dynamic art scene at this time,” says Addis Fine Art’s Rakeb Sile, “and to have the opportunity to provide a platform for artists from the Horn of Africa, a region that has been vastly under-represented in the international market thus far.”
And what a platform she and gallery co-founder Mesai Haileleul have built, opening their inaugural gallery in Addis Ababa in 2016. As Ethiopia’s first white-cube space for modern and contemporary art, it has received plaudits from all corners of the art press. “It has been very gratifying to see the strong presence that young, female artists – such as Merikokeb Berhanu, Selome Muleta and Tizta Berhanu – have recently found in Ethiopia, where they have historically been overlooked,” Sile notes.
The pair have enjoyed similar success with their Fitzrovia gallery, which opened its doors last October, and which is already garnering high praise for the quality of work from Ethiopia that it is introducing to the London market and representing on the international stage. Pace of Life, the recent exhibition of paintings by Nigatu Tsehay, was met with critical acclaim; so too the show of work by Addis Gezehagn – the first of its kind in Europe – whose intricate and labour-intensive assemblage canvases are kaleidoscopic in their beauty. As the gallery approaches its first birthday, the future looks just as bright for Addis Fine Art.
Cromwell Place, South Kensington, SW7
For Yoruba speakers, it is immediately clear who Tiwani Contemporary is for, and which artists Maria Varnava wants her gallery to champion. In the West African language, primarily spoken in southwestern Nigeria, ‘tiwani’ means ‘it belongs to us’. From the outset, Varnava’s intentions have been clear: to support, promote, and showcase the talent of international contemporary artists, and, above all, Black women artists.
Greek-Cypriot by birth, Varnava spent her formative years in Lagos, before moving to the UK to study art. A job at Christie’s followed, but it was while doing a master’s thesis in African studies at SOAS that the idea of Tiwani Contemporary was born. “I started Tiwani Contemporary inspired and encouraged by a great woman and visionary – the Nigerian curator Bisi Silva who founded CCA Lagos,” Varvana says of her gallery’s foundation in 2011. It has since gone from strength to strength, giving early representation to globally renowned artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Simone Leigh, who was awarded a Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Biennale alongside London-based artist Sonia Boyce – the first time in the Biennale’s 127-year history the prize has gone to a Black woman artist.
With a second space that opened in February in Victoria Island, Lagos, Varnava is turning her attention to rising stars, such as Joy Labinjo, Miranda Forrester and Michaela Yearwood-Dan, and the inaugural exhibition at the new site was, in fact, of Labinjo’s work. “I have always felt a responsibility to ensure the work of women remains intimately connected to Tiwani Contemporary’s exhibition programme and infrastructure,” concludes Varnava.
Sadie Coles HQ
Kingly Street, Soho, W1
Sadie Coles has forever had an eye for all things cool. When still in her early 30s, she curated a series of shows championing younger artists she believed were standout talents of their generation. One was Grayson Perry, another Sarah Lucas. By the time Coles set up her own gallery in 1997, there was an undeniable buzz about her. Even when the paint was still drying on the new walls, she was being hailed as “a smart cookie in the contemporary art world” and “a legend”.
The gallery was on Soho’s Heddon Street, right next to where David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust vinyl sleeve was photographed (Bowie apparently popped up at Coles’ first Sarah Lucas show, accompanied by Charles Saatchi). Now, Sadie Coles HQ is based across three West End spaces: its largest gallery is on Kingly Street, as well as galleries on Davies Street in Mayfair and Bury Street in St James’s (though they often mount numerous off-site projects throughout the city and abroad). Coles represents around 50 artists and artist’s estates, including renowned names like Richard Prince and Helen Marten, and emerging talents such as LA artist Martine Syms, London-based simulation artist Lawrence Lek, and Katja Seib, who has just had an exhibition at the Davies Street gallery.
Never afraid to challenge the status quo, Coles is always looking ahead to how the art world can change in response to political and technological shifts. In a recent interview with Jarvis Cocker, she stressed that, “great art is great art, so if an artist does something really interesting in a digital form, for me that’s just as exciting as someone making a great painting”.
Maureen Paley, London
Three Colts Lane, Bethnal Green, E2
It is no hyperbole to say that London’s art world would not be where it is today without Maureen Paley. Since the late 70s, New York-born, UK-based Paley has been a staple on the scene – first bursting into the capital as a student at the Royal College of Art, when she would gravitate towards Soho establishments such as The French House, The Coach & Horses and The Colony Room, hanging out with the likes of Francis Bacon, Derek Jarman and Lucian Freud.
Since then, Paley has certainly done more than mingle. Recognised everywhere for her iconic beehive, Paley has transformed careers and altered the very fabric of the city over the last four decades. First founding her Bethnal Green gallery in 1984, Paley is a stalwart of the East End (she has another space in Shoreditch, Studio M) and was amongst the first to present contemporary art in the area — the previous absence of which is now unimaginable, given East London’s status as a thriving creative urban hub.
A true trailblazer, Paley represents some of the most recognisable faces in contemporary art, including the Turner Prize-winning artists Gillian Wearing, Wolfgang Tillmans and Lawrence Abu Hamdan. This summer, Paley brought a sliver of surreal Americana to the British seafront, with lively paintings by LA-based Esther Pearl Watson featuring flying saucers and glittery meteorites on display at Morena Di Luna, Paley’s seaside gallery in Hove. Visit and you might just get a tour from the gallerist herself, who likes to spend weekends down on the coast when she can.
Pilar Corrias Gallery
Eastcastle Street, Fitzrovia, W1
When Pilar Corrias welcomed visitors to her new gallery on Eastcastle Street in 2006, she was the first woman to open an art gallery in London’s West End for a decade. Some might see such a move as a risk, but not Corrias, who had already established herself as one of the best connected and most magnetic personalities on the capital’s art scene.
Prior to this, Corrias had made her name at the Lisson Gallery and Haunch of Venison – two of the capital’s most revered contemporary galleries – showing conceptual pieces by artists such as the Turner Prize-winning Keith Tyson, American artist Dan Graham, and British sculptor Anish Kapoor. It was her work with Kapoor that first brought her into contact with a member of fashion royalty, who she now counts as a close friend – Miuccia Prada bought her first Kapoor from Corrias, when the gallerist was only 28.
Corrias opened her second space in 2021, commissioning architectural studio Hesselbrand to transform a 1730s townhouse on Savile Row into a space where you can expect to see anything from AI-based new-media art to oil paintings and large-scale installations. She is a champion of a young, global generation of artists, including Swedish-born, Oslo based artist Ragna Blay, New York painter and sculptor Gerasimos Floratos and the German artist Ulla von Brandenburg, who lives and works in Paris.
As her list has grown, she has put representing women artists at the heart of her work and her gallery now represents over 30 international artists, two thirds of whom are female.
Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery
Conway Street, Camden, W1
A journalist once described Rebeccca Hossack as “the beautiful gallery owner, promoter of Aboriginal Art and other cultures, wit and genius” and one of three of “the most remarkable women of our time”. The other two? Germaine Greer and the Queen.
Certainly, Hossack cuts a striking presence in the art world. With gallery spaces in London, New York and Miami, Australian-born Hossack deals in art from all over the world, establishing herself firmly as champion of non-Western artistic traditions. Her London space was the first art gallery in Europe to exhibit Australian Aboriginal painting, which it continues to promote through its regular ‘Songlines’ seasons. In the 34 years the gallery has been active, Hossack has also curated exhibitions of work from the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and from tribal India and Papua New Guinea.
In addition to her roster of non-Western artists, including Mathias Kauage and Brazilian folk artist José Borges, whose prints she describes as “a distinctive blend of bold imagery, lyrical simplicity and a teasing sense of narrative”, Hossack also exhibits Western contemporary art, with a particular focus on mid-career women artists, such as printmaker Rose Blake, painter Emma Haworth and ceramicist Avital Sheffer.
As the traditional boundary between high art and craft continues to be broken down, Hossack should certainly be seen as a pioneer – a prescient supporter and promoter of non-traditional and non-Western art forms, techniques and practices. Little wonder that she is the go-to gallerist for collectors including Sir Paul Smith, PJ Harvey, Dave Gilmour, Emma Hope and the late Dame Anita Roddick.
Victoria Miro Gallery
16 Wharf Road, Islington, N1
Paula Rego. Chris Ofili. Yayoi Kusama. Grayson Perry. Chantal Joffe. Kudzanai-Violet Hwami. The story of Victoria Miro is nothing less than the story of contemporary art.
After studying painting at the Slade School of Fine Art and working as an art teacher in Battersea and Slough, Miro opened her Cork Street gallery in 1985. At 750 sq ft, the Mayfair space was positively tiny compared to her next gallery, a huge converted Victorian furniture factory on the edge of Hoxton, where she remains to this day. Stretching over two floors, its vast scale certainly caused a stir in 2000, prompting one newspaper to write: “At last, one of London’s contemporary art dealers has a gallery space to rival the best of New York.” Indeed, it’s still one of the largest commercial spaces in the capital. In 2017, she also opened a gallery and artist’s studio in Venice, a stone’s throw from the iconic Piazza San Marco.
Over the past four decades, Miro has remained consistent in being a savvy and skilful contemporary art dealer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her representation of previously overlooked or obscure female artists who are now some of the most famous names in modern art, such as Francesca Woodman and Alice Neel. Miro is irrefutably a powerhouse, so much so she was awarded an OBE for services to art in 2018.