The Victoria Miro Gallery is a leading British contemporary art gallery in London, with an international reputation, run by Victoria Miro, one of the "grandes dames of the Britart scene", who first exhibited Chris Ofili and the Chapman Brothers. She opened her first gallery in 1985 in Cork Street, where she became one of the principal dealers, then moved to much larger premises adjacent to Hoxton in 2000. Her sale of Ofili's work, The Upper Room, to the Tate gallery in 2005 caused a media furore, as Ofili was a serving trustee of the Tate, which was censured by the Charity Commission. The gallery represents Turner Prize winners, Ofili and Grayson Perry.
Victoria Miro opened her first gallery in Cork Street, West London, in 1985, where she became one of the principal dealers, although the premises at 750 square feet (70 m2) were little larger than a studio apartment. In the late 1980s, she opened a second gallery in Italy, but shut it in 1991 after the art market slump.
She was responsible for starting the careers of some of the most sought-after and controversial artists in the world. Victoria Miro discovered Chris Ofili, whose work The Holy Virgin Mary displayed in 1999 in the Brooklyn Museum of Art angered the mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, who said, "There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!" Another discovery, in 1992, was German photographer, Andreas Gursky, one of whose photographs, eight years later, made $250,000 at auction; a major retrospective was held in 2001 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. A work by Cecily Brown, another artist represented by Miro, also sold for a surprisingly high price at auction in 2000.
Long waiting lists of collectors and museums developed to buy work from her successful artists, and Miro reported that even Charles Saatchi, when he bought a Cecily Brown painting from her, "seemed pleased to get one."
In November 2000, the gallery moved to its present location in 16 Wharf Road, Islington, adjacent to the cutting-edge art area of Hoxton, where it is housed in a two floor, 10,000-square-foot (930 m2), converted Victorian furniture factory, ten times the size of the Cork Street gallery. Miro's co-director, Glenn Scott Wright, attributed the move to the "buzz" in the area, where Jay Jopling's White Cube gallery had also moved, and saw other galleries following suit, since rents in the West End of London were quadrupling. She was described by Christie's curator, Gerard Goodrow, as "a leading figure in making the East End the center of contemporary art in London."
A group show prior to the conversion of the building brought 4,000 visitors, which it would have taken the Cork Street gallery six months to attract. The conversion architect, Trevor Horne retained some of the original features of the building, such as the worn staircase and rough roof beams, while the waste ground at the rear next to Regent's Canal was left to artist Ian Hamilton Finlay to regenerate. The opening show by Thomas Demand was of paper and card reconstructions of photographs of interiors.
The gallery's yearly turnover is in the tens of millions of pounds.
The gallery represents Turner Prize winners, Chris Ofili and Grayson Perry; and former Turner Prize nominees, Phil Collins, Peter Doig (a former Tate trustee), Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Isaac Julien. Other artists, as of 2008, are Doug Aitken, Hernan Bas, Varda Caivano, Verne Dawson, Elmgreen and Dragset, William Eggleston, Inka Essenhigh, David Harrison, Alex Hartley, Chantal Joffe, Idris Khan, Udomsak Krisanamis, Yayoi Kusama, John Korner, Tracey Moffatt, Wangechi Mutu, Alice Neel, Jacco Olivier, Tal R, Conrad Shawcross, Sarah Sze, Adriana Varejão, Suling Wang, Stephen Willats, and Francesca Woodman.
In September 2002, the gallery was one of the eighteen cutting-edge, art galleries with international reputations to be selected for The Galleries Show at the Royal Academy, an exhibition curated by Norman Rosenthal and Max Wigram to highlight the role played by galleries in an artist's creative progress, as well as putting work on sale and re-aligning the Academy with a greater involvement in current art.
In March 2004, at New York's Armory Show, the gallery sold everything on the opening day; this included work by a new artist to the gallery and recent graduate, Raqib Shaw, whose first solo show in London of eighteen drawings and five paintings, stemming from the work of Hieronymous Bosch and priced up to $20,000, had previously sold out.
The Upper Room by Chris Ofili was exhibited at the Victoria Miro gallery in 2002: it consists of thirteen paintings, each of a rhesus macaque monkey, installed in a purpose-built room designed by David Adjaye. Adrian Searle, art critic of The Guardian, wrote that it was a work the Tate had to buy. In July 2005, the Tate announced the purchase of the work as the centrepiece of a new hang at Tate Britain.
The Stuckist art group then drew press attention to the fact that Ofili was a serving Tate trustee, and, under the Freedom of Information Act, obtained Tate trustee minutes, as well as the price paid by the Tate for the work—£705,000 (costing the Tate £600,000 as VAT could be reclaimed). This resulted in a media furore, and other details emerged about the transaction.
Serota said Miro would have to find half the cost, and she obtained £300,000 in donations towards the purchase from five anonymous private benefactors, several of whom were also buying their own Ofili work. The revelation of this arrangement caused questions to be raised in the press as to whether the private benefactors knew privileged information, and if they anticipated a profit through the increased value of Ofili's work after the Tate purchase.
Richard Dorment, art critic of The Daily Telegraph, said The Upper Room was "one of the most important works of British art painted in the last 25 years," that the Tate had got "the bargain of the century," and "If you ask me, Miro and Ofili deserve medals for acting not in their own interests but for the public good." The Times said, "Victoria Miro, Mr Ofili’s dealer, appears to have driven a hard bargain with the Tate, which is the job of a clever dealer." Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckists, said, "Sir Nicholas Serota [the Tate director] mentions Victoria Miro's generosity in constructing this deal. Victoria Miro’s 'generosity' would seem to be in attracting benefactors who will give money to the Tate—so that the Tate can then give it back to her."
When Victoria Miro was young, her father had a Covent Garden grocery stall. Her parents were keen on culture and saved, so the family could take holidays in Italy to see the art there. She studied art, then painted at home. She married a lawyer, and had a son and daughter in the 1970s, explaining, "my need to paint seemed to go away when I had children." She looked after the children, until 1985, when she started her Cork Street gallery.
Two of her baby-sitters at that time were a couple, who later became well-known artists, Jake Chapman, who showed at her gallery, and Sam Taylor-Wood, since married to Jay Jopling. Miro describes Chapman, now known, along with his brother Dinos, for art such as sculptures of distorted children with multiple misplaced genitalia, as an "adorable" baby sitter.
Arthur Goldberg, a noted collector and New York money manager, said of Miro, "She has an incredible eye". One of her sources for finding new artists is a liaison with the Royal College of Art, where Peter Doig taught, and through whom she learnt about Chris Ofili, Cecily Brown and Chantal Joffe. She discovered Thomas Demand at another London college, Goldsmiths.
Miro acts with great politeness. Gerard Goodrow said, "As a person, she's very reserved, but she takes contemporary art very seriously." She backs her artists with a passionate intensity, and was visibly condemnatory of both Mayor Giuliani and Philippe de Montebello, head of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whom she felt had been unjust in a harsh New York Times opinion piece about Ofili and other artists during the Sensation controversy at the Brooklyn Museum.
She has a reputation for integrity amongst clients; one of them, Arthur Goldberg, said, "She's a real quality person. That goes somewhere in the art world, where not every dealer can be trusted." She is widely known within the art world (but less so outside it), where she is one of London's most influential cutting-edge contemporary art dealers, on a par with Jay Jopling, the proprietor of the White Cube gallery. In 2001, despite her success, she rejected identification with the art establishment: "The last thing a contemporary gallerist wants to be called is 'establishment'. I like to think I still take risks in the gallery with younger artists. To me, 'establishment' just means dull."