Where one door closes, another door opens – or more than one, if you’re London’s White Cube. 2011-12 was that kind of year for the gallery: it closed its original Hoxton Square branch in London and opened an immense new space, spanning more than 5,000 square metres, nearby in Bermondsey. Then at the end of 2012, bringing its long relationship with São Paulo to fruition, the Londoners opened a gallery in São Paulo – a second international branch, after Hong Kong – with an inaugural show by the artist Tracey Emin.
It’s the culmination of a long, carefully constructed relationship with SP for White Cube and for its founder, Jay Jopling. That process was most visible in 2012 with a major exhibition of the works of the British artist Antony Gormley, in a superb show at the CCBB that overflowed onto the rooftops of downtown SP in the form of a series of watchful human figure sculptures. Another part of the exhibition took place in the Vila Mariana space that has now become the gallery’s Brazilian branch.
‘Jay has massive connections with São Paulo and Brazil,’ says Tracey Emin, who was in São Paulo in December 2012 for the opening of her show. ‘He’s got very old friends here, and he travels here a lot. He really likes it. I think this is the first foreign gallery to have opened here,’ she goes on. ‘I think Brazilian art lovers will appreciate that, and I think the other galleries will be pleased too, because it’s not taking away, it’s adding something.’
Backing that up, White Cube’s artistic director Susan May name-checks a series of galleries that have extended a warm welcoming hand to White Cube, and they include some of the most important figures on the city’s art scene – a sophisticated market in its own right, but where the added prestige in the arrival of a heavyweight international player like White Cube, presumably, doesn’t hurt. ‘They’ve all said, “We’re really happy that you’re coming,’” says May. She mentions Luisa Strina, Galeria Vermelho, Mendes Wood and Fortes Vilaça – the latter in particular has been supportive over many years, since co-owner Marcia Fortes is an old friend – and indeed, an old flame – of Jopling’s.
|White Cube's owner, Jay Joplin, with Tracey Emin
May herself has been visiting SP for the past ten years, and also has an obvious soft spot for the place. ‘Coming to São Paulo is something we’ve been mulling over for years,’ she says. ‘The city has this incredible cultural context – it has the second oldest Bienal and all these long-established, amazing galleries and museums, and the art fair [SP-Arte], which just seems to be gathering pace.’ White Cube had a stand at last year’s SP-Arte, and according to May, the market response was the confirmation they needed to commit to the new opening: ‘It’s not going to be an overnight thing. It’s going to take a lot of work and investment. But at SP-Arte we got the sense that yes, we can do this, we can make this work.’
As well as bringing some of its current roster of artists to show in the new space in São Paulo, the gallery is also planning to show Brazilian artists in London and elsewhere, with plans for London shows this year for local artists Jac Leirner and Marcius Galan.
So how does White Cube fit into São Paulo’s art scene? ‘I think we’ll have more of an idea after this show,’ says May, referring to Emin’s exhibition, which features nudes in a range of media including paint, sculpture, neon, animated film and embroidery.
‘We want to get a sense of what works,’ says May, ‘rather than just parachuting artists in.’ As a follow-up to Emin’s opening show, the gallery will be further testing the water with a group show, curated by May, entitled ‘The Gesture and the Sign’, opening 1 April 2013. ‘We want to come in gently and to become part of the art community,’ May continues. ‘The kind of work we might offer up in Hong Kong, for example, might not work in São Paulo. Conceptual practice, for example – I think there’s a willingness here to work a little harder to look at work and understand it, rather than it being something you can pick up in a second and move on. But we’ll find out, I think, as we go along. We’re just finding our way.’
A handful of other foreign galleries will doubtless also be keeping an interested eye on the way things pan out for White Cube – Gagosian, for example. The US gallery has 11 branches already, including in Athens, Hong Kong, Paris and Rome, and laid on a magnificent sculpture exhibition at the Art Rio fair in 2012, featuring a set of immense, exquisitely lit artworks.
Other galleries aside, May and her colleagues are interested in seeing if the gallery will draw other kinds of businesses into its orbit. ‘I think we’re hoping others might come to the area,’ says May of the off-the-beaten-track Vila Mariana location, ‘whether galleries or restaurants or whatever. That’s certainly what happened in Hoxton Square, which was pretty down-at-heel and desolate. Now it’s full of bars and cafés.’
This article was updated in October 2013 to correct the floor space of the Bermondsey gallery, from the 250,000 square metres written in the original to a more manageable size: just over 5,000 square metres.