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BATTLING the bureaucracy of Westminster Council and confronting the powerful landlords of central London has been tough for Christopher Battiscombe, director general of the Society of London Art Dealers (SLAD). But his previous career certainly prepared him for conflict, negotiation and mediation, writes Laura Chesters.

Battiscombe retired from the diplomatic service after 37 years in 2000 and began a new career helping London’s art trade.

Knowing little about art when he joined, Battiscombe has spent the past 16 years lobbying for and promoting the galleries and dealers of Mayfair and St James’s, and across the art trade.

A major breakthrough for Battiscombe came at the end of last year when Westminster council launched a new planning policy designed to protect the galleries of central London. Of SLAD’s 140 members, two-thirds are in Mayfair and St James’s. Along with BADA secretary general Mark Dodgson, Battiscombe was the lead voice in resisting redevelopments by landlords that threatened to remove the trade from central London.

Before his 15 years with SLAD, Battiscombe’s postings included Lebanon (where he learnt Arabic), Kuwait and Paris, as well as the United Nations in New York and Cairo. His toughest challenge came 25 years ago when he was appointed ambassador to Algeria when it was “struggling against its first major outburst of militant Islamic fundamentalism”.

ATG: How much did you know about the art world previously?

CB: I knew nothing about art. The job was one of the options offered to retirees at the Foreign Office. I thought it sounded interesting, so I applied. I hadn’t really heard of any dealers before I started, only Agnew’s. I feel I am still ignorant about art. But not as ignorant as when I started!

How did your previous career as a diplomat help with being an art market outsider?

I haven’t yet had to worry about being assassinated or kidnapped, nor do I often get asked to resolve difficult and urgent problems in the middle of the night.

But I do feel a similar burden of trying to persuade ministers not to take our highly successful art trade for granted. When I went to my first proper posting as Third Secretary at the Embassy of Kuwait in 1965, I found myself in quite an important job with no training and minimal supervision, so I had to learn fast and on the job. In these respects the SLAD experience has been similar.

What are the key changes in London since you started at SLAD?

Mayfair and St James’s remain at the centre of the UK art trade. The main change over the last 15 years has been the increased number of galleries forced to move upstairs or to basement premises, or be squeezed out of the area altogether. The major developments in Cork Street have forced 12 of the 22 galleries there to move out.

So how significant is the planning protection or Special Policy Area (SPA) for St James’s and parts of Mayfair?

We are delighted Westminster council has demonstrated it understands the importance of keeping the art trade in these areas by agreeing to the establishment of the two new SPAs.

Also, that major landlords like The Crown Estate and Pollen Estates have made clear that they too want to see the art trade continue to thrive in these areas.

But it won’t stop rents rising, will it?

Landlords are powerful and, of course, we haven’t managed to reduce rents. People are moving ‘upstairs’ or out of the area completely.

But the creation of the SPAs should actually help stop the rents going up at the rate they have done. A landlord can still let a shop to whichever business he or she chooses.

However, any development that needs planning permission will be required to re-let the space for a similar use. So a gallery space will remain a gallery. If a new shop can only be let to the art trade, it limits the pool of tenants the landlord can attract, which will impact rents.

There are, of course, problems still and it is not the total answer – but it will help.

You mention ‘moving upstairs’. What’s the future for art dealers in London – fairs or shops?

Nearly 80% of our members participate in at least one fair a year. But I have been struck by the importance which the majority of members continue to attach to maintaining a gallery in central London, especially in Mayfair and St James’s. According to our most recent survey, over 70% of our members still have a gallery.

Curriculum Vitae

1963

Joined the Diplomatic Service

1964-2000

A variety of roles in the Diplomatic Service including postings in Lebanon, Kuwait, Paris, New York, Cairo, Algeria and Jordan.

1997-2000

Final service role before retirement – ambassador to Jordan.

2001-Present

Joined Society of London Art Dealers (SLAD) as director general