Waldemar Januszczak

Having had much cause to mention Charles Saatchi in my Guardian column over the past five years, I was pleased when this most secretive of men finally agreed to meet me around the time of the opening of his new private museum. I found, more to other people’s surprise than my own, that he was a nice enough chap, a Guardian reader no less. Youthful, remarkably shy for a man in his profession, he was clearly in love with his collection in the way that little boys are in love with their train sets. It is the largest and most famous collection of contemporary art in Britain, and he adds to it obsessively, sometimes buying up entire exhibitions. It is so large that he can only hang a section of it at a time. He himself had supervised the hanging and was now clucking around the opening show wondering if perhaps the galvanised iron relief by Donald Judd wouldn’t have looked better over there, where the green lacquered one was. The two things that struck me most forcefully about him were his innocence – he had, after all, agreed to speak to me ‘off the record’ despite all the horrible innuendoes I had made about him, and his ordinariness, in my Guardian column. A boyish 41-year-old, casually smart in a floppy double-breasted suit of indeterminate adman brown, he didn’t look like the devil at all and kept asking me if I minded when he stubbed his cigarettes out in my saucer. Of course I minded. But I wasn’t about to say so, not there, not then.

For I was drunk at the time – on the heady alcohol of modern art, I hasten to add. My head was spinning from the impact of the marvels that I was being shown. For some time now a rumour had been circulating the art world that Charles Saatchi was building himself a museum. There was talk of a converted warehouse in St John’s Wood. The architect was named as Max Gordon. What the rumour had not prepared me for was the size of the place. There are six galleries in the complex, and the two main ones must be the biggest exhibition galleries in Britain. A Donald Judd sculpture 80 feet long sits against the wall in the central room and looks distinctly lonely with so much space around it. Saatchi’s museum is ten times larger than the Serpentine, nearly four times larger than the Whitechapel Gallery. As rich men’s dreams go, it is the nearest thing to a Xanadu of the arts that we have seen in London since the building of Dulwich Picture Gallery. The Victorian plutocrats with their passion for leaving behind museums in their name did so mainly in the provinces. Since their museums were built on the wealth of textile mills and coal mines they tended to be grim and grey buildings, encased in pompous Doric pilasters, decorated in the mock-classicism which Roger Fry used to call pseudo-art. In Victorian museums, most of the ostentation was on the outside. As we all know, Charles Saatchi made his money in advertising. His museum is so discreet it is almost invisible, a giant hiding behind a row of tiny shops in a quiet street in the architectural no-man’s-land between St John’s Wood and Swiss Cottage. Even the security cameras are painted grey to blend in with their surroundings. The museum courtyard is the kind of dull tarmac-laid space you find at the back of hotels, where the bins are kept. Saatchi’s money has gone on the inside not the outside of his building, a large proportion of it on white paint.

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