On the day Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, the commercial excess of celebrity art peaked as Damien Hirst made history with his £111m-netting Sotheby's auction. A year on, the disappointment that greeted Hirst's latest exhibition of paintings reflected a wider disillusionment with the YBAs (young British artists). Quietly, the energy in British contemporary art is moving away from big money and towards work that is not defined by the market.
A new generation of not-for-profit, independent galleries, in tune with a more critical tradition, is emerging. It is defined by new curators working in collaboration with artists and with each other, in smaller spaces such as Chisenhale Gallery, Studio Voltaire, the Showroom, LUX, Transmission, Gasworks and Cubitt. "There's a different energy around these small places that are not driven by the market," says Ben Cook, director of LUX, an agency for film and video artists.
Chisenhale Gallery, in Mile End, where Polly Staple took over as director last year, and the Showroom, in north-west London, under Emily Pethick, reflect this collaborative, critical and more political way of working. Make it new John, a film by the Glasgow-based artist Duncan Campbell, showed at Chisenhale until late last month. Co-commissioned by several agencies, it charts the spectacular rise and fall of the DeLorean sports car, which was once produced near Belfast, and contextualises it within a critical period in Northern Ireland's recent history.
Staple believes it is the different processes that non-profit-making galleries depend on, operating beyond the market, that are behind much of the critically important new work. Campbell, for example, is represented by a commercial gallery, but would not have been able to produce a film on this scale without the pooled support.
"Non-profit relies on different systems of production and distribution," says Staple. And at the Showroom, Pethick's programme is also supporting work that does not necessarily fit in with the commercial gallery system. "I work in a way which is quite speculative and doesn't depend on a particular outcome," she says, pointing to several current projects based on collective production.
Besides new work, there is a greater emphasis on discursive programmes of talks and events. At Chisenhale Gallery, Staple has launched
21st Century, a research-based programme of talks, film screenings, publication launches and performances, linking in with university programmes and spanning a range of disciplines, including architecture, music, philosophy and critical theory.
Most not-for-profit spaces are publicly funded and, in an uncertain funding climate, with a possible change in government looming, some of the galleries have formed an informal group and are working on a manifesto. Joe Scotland, curator at Studio Voltaire in Clapham, explains: "In the past few months we've been meeting up on a regular basis. We try to share resources and we discuss various issues around funding and how we can work collectively."
Positioning the group, Staple points to a more intellectual, European direction. "We recognise that what we do is quite specialised. It's about critical thinking and about presenting ideas of difference," she says. "This is a post-Blair moment, where we can see the world is tough and difficult and we're not on a hell-bent consumerist path. The popular public role of the artist in British society has recently been this showman figure. There's a much more self-consciously intellectual generation coming along. It's much more European."
The trend was even reflected at the annual Frieze Art Fair last October. In place of a number of high-end galleries that dropped out, Frieze introduced Frame, a new section offering space where young artists from the smaller galleries could show their work at one-tenth of the price. It was widely seen as the most exciting aspect of the whole event.
These new artists are working in a very different tradition from the overblown celebrity stunts of the previous generation. And that this practice has already been embraced by a bellwether of the art world such as Frieze implies that it's here to stay.
Anna Minton is the author of "Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the 21st-Century City", published by Penguin (£9.99)