Has the East Ended?

Posted: Fri Oct 19 2012

As galleries exit the heartland of Hoxton and Bethnal Green for Mayfair, is it all over for the area's art scene? Not yet, says Helen Sumpter

When art dealer Jay Jopling launched his stately White Cube gallery in Hoxton Square in April 2000 (the same year that Tate Modern opened), it felt that, in art world terms at least, the East End had officially arrived. No longer was it just the edgy fringe of London's expanding contemporary art scene, it was now at its glitzy commercial centre.

Back then the crowd who thronged round the industrial-size bin of Beck's beer placed opposite White Cube at every opening ranged from students and critics (me among them) to well-heeled artists and collectors. On occasion even a few A-list celebs braved the journey to a still rough-and-ready Hoxton, even if they did keep their cabs running.

The establishment of an enclave of cool, contemporary galleries around Bethnal Green's Vyner Street followed. In the past few years, however, there's been a steady exodus of galleries away from E1 and E2. Artists have been priced out, Vyner Street has lost the buzz of its heyday and the recent news that White Cube Hoxton will also be closing its doors at the end of the year, to focus on its two other galleries in south and central London, could be seen as the final nail in the coffin. But there's just as much evidence to suggest that the East End is far from over.

Some galleries who helped establish the East London art map - Max Wigram, MOT, Fred and Nettie Horn among them - may have relocated west to smarter postcodes in Fitzrovia or Mayfair but others have laid down stronger roots. Bethnal Green-based Vilma Gold and Wilkinson both chose to upgrade, moving into and rennovating larger spaces near their original ones.

Carl Freedman, an early supporter of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, has also just moved his gallery to a bigger, brighter venue, directly opposite the space he has run on Shoreditch's Charlotte Road since 2003. All three are regulars at Frieze Art Fair, one annual indicator of a gallery's status and ongoing success.

Galleries have also started to regroup around a more central area of east London: Clerkenwell. Early adopter Emma Hill's Eagle Gallery has been based there on Farringdon Road since the early 1990s, but following the relocation of Rokeby there in 2009, others have followed such as WW and Fold, along with newcomers Tintype and Dalla Rosa.

More established contemporary spaces with an EC1 postcode include Arcade and Ancient & Modern. With Modern Art (which had previously migrated west from est London) rumoured to be heading to EC1 early next year, that trend could continue. And east London's biggest gallery, The Whitechapel, which almost doubled its space in a major expansion in 2009, has been supporting artists and art lovers for more than 100 years. The map may shift but east London's gallery is staying put.