Talent Magnet: Why London Attracts the Art World

What draws artists, gallerists and curators to London? We talk to creatives from across the globe who have made the city their home about its opportunities and challenges

BY Precious Adesina in Frieze , Frieze London | 20 JUL 23

In The Pram Project (2014–16), Korean artist Do Ho Suh attached GoPro cameras to his small daughter’s baby buggy to capture London from her perspective. The three-channel video piece, first shown at Victoria Miro Gallery in 2017, documented the artist pushing his daughter around their local neighbourhood as he taught her his native language. ‘We were both learning this new world,’ he says. Suh is from Seoul and lived in New York for more than two decades before moving to London. He started The Pram Project just a year after his arrival and soon after the birth of his child. ‘She was just born and just came to this world,’ he explains, ‘so everything was new to her, and for me, this whole environment was new.’

Do Ho Suh, Inverted Monument, 2022, PETg, stainless steel, 2.5 x 2 x 2m. © Do Ho Suh. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London 
Do Ho Suh, Inverted Monument, 2022, PETg, stainless steel, 2.5 x 2 x 2m. © Do Ho Suh. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London 

While the experience of Suh and his family in London is specific to them, he is just one of the thousands of people in the art world who have come from across the globe to settle in the city, drawn by its flourishing creative scene and dynamic cultural landscape. Many of these artists, galleries and curators have drawn inspiration from both their new and old homes, a topic that will be explored in the 2024 Venice Biennale, which will focus, according to its curator Adriano Pedrosa, on ‘artists who are themselves foreigners, immigrants, expatriates, diasporic, émigrés, exiled and refugees’.

On an international scale, London’s connections to the rest of the world attract many people to the capital. ‘It’s a global city, which means it has a relationship to other global cities,’ says artist Alvaro Barrington. Born in Venezuela of Grenadian and Haitian heritage, Barrington moved from New York to London almost a decade ago and has since seen his artistic career blow up. His work has been shown at the Hayward Gallery, the South London Gallery, the Hepworth Wakefield, and in New York and LA. ‘Places like New York, Hong Kong and São Paulo will speak more about their relationship to each other than to other cities in that nation,’ he says. ‘New York has more in common with London than it does, say, Paterson, New Jersey.’

Alvaro Barrington. Photo by Jeremiah Cumberbatch
Alvaro Barrington. Photo by Jeremiah Cumberbatch

Suh agrees. He explains that despite not having that many friends who live in London, he often sees people he knows just from them regularly passing through the city. ‘I meet more art people here in London than when I was living in New York,’ he says, noting that annual art world fixtures like Frieze mean that art enthusiasts from across the world often travel to London at least once a year. ‘They know I’m living here,’ he says, ‘so I get to see people from all over the place in London.’ 

That said, the primary allure of the UK capital for many people in the arts is its rich tapestry of iconic and emerging institutions, galleries and museums. Pilar Corrias, founder of the eponymous London gallery, believes that ‘there is no other city in Europe that offers what London has to offer’. Her father was a diplomat, and she has lived in many cities, including Tokyo, Rome, Luanda, Lisbon and New York. ‘I wanted to try something new, so I came to London on my own,’ she says. ‘The museums are world-class, and so are the galleries.’ Corrias has just announced the opening in October 2023 of her second London flagship space, on Conduit Street in Mayfair. ‘You have an art market [here] that is really vibrant. I couldn’t think of a better place to have a gallery.’

Pilar Corrias. Photo by Charlie Gray Studio 
Pilar Corrias. Photo by Charlie Gray Studio

Fellow gallerist Pearl Lam, who spends part of the year in her London home, agrees. While she does not have a gallery in the capital herself – her spaces are in Hong Kong and Shanghai – she likes to regularly spend time in the city to keep up to date with art from around the world. As a gallerist, she says, ‘you always have to go to exhibitions and see other gallery activities to learn about what is happening in the art world. Since the mid-2000s, London has been an important place for the art market, and you can see that transformation from its growing number of collectors.’ 

Suh believes that art in London feels more mixed into its fabric than it does in others, which often have much more localized cultural hubs. For him, London feels like ‘a cluster of small villages’. ‘There’s no particular art centre,’ he says. ‘Things are integrated more organically, so it feels more diverse and not as segregated as other countries I have lived in.’ 

But while art and its institutions may be scattered across London, many artists at different stages of their careers do form communities in specific areas, often in diverse and (slightly) more affordable neighbourhoods such as Peckham in south London and Hackney in the east. Suh, for example, lives in the latter. ‘A lot of artists live around here,’ he says, pointing out that many creatives initially moved to east London due to its reasonable living prices compared to other parts of the city and the relative availability of workspaces. ‘You need access to studio buildings,’ he says, ‘which is important in where you decide to live.’ 

Alvaro Barrington, rose that grew from concrete, 2022, charcoal and acrylic on paper on cardboard in steel and concrete frame, 103 x 73 x 10 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Emalin, London. Photo by Stephen James
Alvaro Barrington, rose that grew from concrete, 2022, charcoal and acrylic on paper on cardboard in steel and concrete frame, 103 x 73 x 10 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Emalin, London. Photo by Stephen James

Barrington’s studio is in Whitechapel, which has a strong Bengali community. The painter enjoys working in an area with such an ardent immigrant tradition. ‘Whitechapel used to be a working-class Irish neighbourhood,’ he says. ‘Then it became a working-class Jewish neighbourhood and then a working-class Bengali neighbourhood.’ He notes that there is a local building that has been a Catholic church, a synagogue and now a mosque. ‘I love that,’ he says. ‘One of the narratives of my identity is that I come from a legacy of migrant workers, whether forced or by choice.’

Korean-Canadian visual artist Zadie Xa is also drawn by the way that London brings people from varied backgrounds together. ‘It’s important to be in a place that’s not mono-ethnic or mono-cultural,’ she says. ‘I flourish being around a lot of different immigrant communities and meeting many different people with different lived experiences.’ 

Both Xa and Barrington studied at prestigious London art institutions, which have always been crucial to attracting and nurturing the world’s cultural talent. Barrington graduated from the Slade School of Fine Art in 2017, and Xa from the Royal College of Art in 2014. Other notable universities and art schools are just a short train ride away. Gallerist Vanessa Carlos, co-founder of Carlos/Ishikawa, studied fine art at Oxford, graduating in 2005. ‘I like how critical-thinking British education is,’ she says. ‘It’s an amazing place for people to have artistic practices.’

Zadie Xa, House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 20 September 2022–30 April 2023. Photo by Andy Keate
Zadie Xa, House Gods, Animal Guides and Five Ways 2 Forgiveness, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 20 September 2022–30 April 2023. Photo by Andy Keate

Of course, living and working in a city as big, diverse and complex as London is not without challenges as well as attractions. The soaring cost of living and the relentless competitiveness of the creative industries pose massive obstacles for emerging artists and curators. ‘I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said it was an easy city,’ says the director of Chisenhale Gallery, US art historian Zoé Whitley. Whitley came to London to complete a master's degree at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 2003. ‘Big cities rarely are. I think a lot of the things that can make it hard are sometimes the things that make it exciting. But certainly, the cost of living in this city is not conducive to artists having an easy or good quality of life.’ 

Post-Covid and Brexit, even finding affordable studios in London can feel near-impossible. ‘Sometimes I’ll check what’s on the market to rent and there are tiny studios that are so expensive,’ Xa says. ‘These are not spaces where artists can actually produce work.’ Carlos says that sky-high rents also affect the type of art institutions we have in London and the artists showing their work in them. ‘People opening spaces tend to have wealthy parents or be white and English,’ she says. ‘People aren’t going to art school because it suddenly seems even more indulgent.’ 

Listening Party with MIKE for Rachel Jones. Chisenhale Gallery, 2022. Photo by Sam Nightingale.
Listening Party with MIKE for Rachel Jones, Chisenhale Gallery, 2022. Photo: Sam Nightingale

However, those who can make it work in London are rewarded with access to amazing resources, networking opportunities, diverse people and a vibrant community. ‘There are reasons why people choose to live here in spite of it not being the easiest place,’ Whitley says. Xa adds: ‘I love London, and I think that people, myself included, take things for granted. The permanent collections at major museums are free, which is unheard of.’ She marvels, for example, at the simple fact that you can walk into the National Gallery without paying anything or even having to book in advance. ‘I understand temporary exhibitions cost money,’ she says, ‘but public access to culture is phenomenal [here] and something that is not normal everywhere.’ Suh also finds himself regularly visiting art spaces as a result. ‘I go to museums way more often in London than [I did] when I was living in New York,’ he says. 

Barrington appreciates how privileged he is not only to be living and working as an artist in London but thriving in a pretty monumental way here. ‘There aren’t many of us,’ he says. ‘I’m extremely grateful that there are galleries that want to show my work and collectors who want to live with the thing I’m very selfishly trying to explore.’ As in any major global city, there are huge struggles to be had in London, but it continues to attract artists, curators and gallerists from all over the world, anxious to become part of its unique creative mix, and many of them discover a deep and sustained joy here. ‘When you find your people in this big city,’ says Whitley, ‘which is like many cities in one, it can be surprising the communities it can nurture.’

Main Image: Vanessa Carlos © Vanessa Carlos 2023. Photo by Rafael Martinez 

Precious Adesina is an arts and culture journalist, with work in The New York Times, BBC Culture, Financial Times, TIME, The Economist and more.