For Londoners and visitors alike, Mayfair retains a reputation of opulence, wealth and exclusivity. Take the dozens of art dealerships off Piccadilly, for instance, selling collectors beautiful authentic paintings with seriously steep price tags.
While I certainly wasn’t looking to buy any art when I visited Cork Street for the first time, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I feel out of place in the swish, upmarket galleries on these quiet Mayfair side streets?
After a recent morning outing to three galleries, however, I needn’t have worried. My visit was a huge success: friendly and unpresuming staff, no entrance fees and a diverse range of people appreciating world-class art.
The galleries had a much different atmosphere to that of larger, institutional galleries like the Tate Modern or V&A. Innovative exhibitions, inspiring spaces and the discovery of lesser-known artists were pivotal aspects of the experience.
So whether you’ve been considering a gallery visit that’s a little off the tourist-beaten track, or you’ve previously felt intimidated by the reputation of Cork Street, here are five simple reasons to get down to Mayfair.
#1 They’re free
One major advantage of seeing art in London is that many museums and galleries are completely free. It’s a big part of what makes the cultural scene in this city so great: it’s accessible and open to all who wish to explore it.
You might not expect smaller galleries to be free, such as the chic but ample collections in Mayfair, especially given their premier locations and overhead costs, but wonderfully, they are.
This makes it even easier to pop in at your leisure, pick up a complimentary pamphlet on the current exhibition and artist, and stay for as long or as little as you like.
#2 You don’t need a whole day to visit
A visit to somewhere like the British Museum or National Gallery could comfortably take a whole day. While this is great if you want to immerse yourself in art for an extended time, it can be daunting if you’re busy and don’t have much time to spare.
If you’re in the Mayfair area on the other hand – on a lunch break or visiting nearby attractions – it’s easy to fit in a gallery visit and have a rounded experience in under an hour.
On my recent outing, for instance, I spent around an hour absorbing Alfredo Jaar’s 25 Years Later at the Goodman Gallery: a thought-provoking photography exhibition in commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. In that time, I watched a 28-minute film installation called We wish to inform you that we didn’t know, based on Clinton’s 1998 speech attempting to justify the US’s apathy for the genocide, while refusing to use the term ‘genocide’ at all.
In contrast, at the neighbouring Stephen Friedman Gallery, I spent a pleasant 15 minutes with the minimalist work of American artist Ed Baynard. His flat, graphic style is reminiscent of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, and the exhibition focused on his still-life work from the 1970s.
I could have spent less time at the Goodman, or more at Stephen Friedman – but if all you’ve got is 30 minutes on your lunch break, you can still have a full exhibition experience in one of these Cork Street galleries.
#3 They feel more personal
Everyone’s always talking about the newest exhibition at London’s big-name galleries. And hey, we’re never one to knock them: the V&A’s Mary Quant show was wonderful, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings at Buckingham Palace was a major highlight of 2019. But these displays are often crowded and some times difficult to appreciate when a swarm of people are around.
When you visit a smaller gallery, especially mid-week, you are treated to a more intimate, personal experience with more time to connect with the art.
#4 A perfect blend of inclusivity and exclusivity
Everyone’s welcome, but not everyone knows they’re welcome.
Once you leave the bustle of Piccadilly, the streets of Mayfair are peaceful and contemplative. As you step into a gallery it feels like you’ve arrived somewhere special: a carefully-curated exhibition, tucked down an architecturally-stunning street in the most culturally diverse city in the UK. You’re about to witness world-class art that many people don’t know is on display.
To sweeten the experience, friendly and welcoming staff are on hand to help you with any questions you may have, often providing information packs to guide you through the gallery. They invite you to take your time to absorb the art, so when you step back into the world, you know you’ve just witnessed something pretty unique.
#5 The regeneration of Cork Street is promising
Cork Street’s reputation precedes it in some circles: an elitist and traditionalist collection of timeworn exhibitions that isn’t receptive to avant-garde, contemporary projects. But the galleries on and around Cork Street are making a concerted effort to rid themselves of that reputation, and regenerate into a fresh, forward-thinking space that invites radical artists to exhibit.
This attitude shift can be seen by a physical transformation, too: over the last three years, 60% of the street’s frontage has been redeveloped, increasing gallery space by over 100% to 43,000 sq ft.
The Pollen Estate, as the development is known, seeks to “reignite the spiritual home of modern and contemporary art in London, making it as important in the 21st century as it was in the early 20th when it launched the careers of Francis Bacon, Max Ernst and Paul Klee.”
The fact that galleries are working to shift their out-dated reputation is extremely positive. Mayfair galleries’ new message that art should be accessible and available to all, encouraging fresh ideas and perspectives from international cultures, is one that Londoners will welcome with open arms.
Our city is vast, multicultural and open – all it takes is a trip to Cork Street to see that.
An Art Walk Around Cork Street:
Goodman Gallery, 26 Cork St, W1S 3ND
Stephen Friedman Gallery, 25-28 Old Burlington St, W1S 3AN
White Cube, 25-26 Masons Yard, SW1Y 6BU
Victoria Miro Mayfair, 14 St George St, W1S 1FE
Hauser & Wirth, 23 Savile Row, W1S 2ET