Being Mrs. Saatchi

The ex-wife of the megacollector is back on the London art scene.


∂or two decades, Charles Saatchi has been the Daddy-O of London’s contemporary art world, buying young artists’ work by the truckload and using his adman wealth to turn nobodies into celebrities. Throughout the late Eighties and Nineties, while he was playing the patron—for Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers and myriad others—his then wife, Kay Hartenstein Saatchi, a blond, honey-voiced art lover from Little Rock, Arkansas, took over the role of Mom. In addition to scouting for fresh talent and hanging scores of shows, she’d invite the young artists home for supper at the couple’s six-story Chelsea house, encourage them and generally pick up where her famously grumpy and reclusive husband left off.

“I quite like mothering them,” says the 54-year-old Saatchi, who divorced Charles in 2001 after he left her for his current wife, TV chef Nigella Lawson. “The whole point of contemporary art is that you get to know the artists, and you watch them grow up.”

Since that well-publicized split in 2001 (Lawson was newly widowed, and her late husband, John Diamond, had been Charles’s dear friend), Saatchi has operated behind the scenes, organizing small student shows, writing for Art Review magazine and working on photographic portraits at the studio she once shared with Tierney Gearon—one of her early discoveries—in Chelsea. But Saatchi gets her real thrills from nurturing talent, and earlier this year she returned to the art game with “Anticipation,” a sellout show of work by 26 students from the big London art schools. The show raised more than $200,000, enabling one artist to quit her job as a secretary and rent a studio and another to fund her master’s degree at Chelsea College of Art and Design. The show—another version of which Saatchi plans to stage next May along with her collaborators, Catriona Warren, former editorial director of Art Review, and Flora Fairbairn, a London curator and art consultant—drew guests including Paula Rego, Tate chief Sir Nicholas Serota and dealers Jay Jopling and David Risley. (Saatchi invited her ex-husband, but he was a no-show.)

“Some of these young artists don’t have dealers or anyone to be their spokesperson. I don’t want to be a dealer—I just want the dealers to take them on,” says Saatchi, who declined a dealer’s cut of the sales. Decked out in a black Marni dress, with fluorescent orange toenails peeking out from Yves Saint Laurent platforms, Saatchi is in the cozy sitting room of the Pimlico town house she shares with 13-year-old Phoebe, her daughter with Charles. The place is stuffed with art, including paintings by Rego, photographs by Diane Arbus and jugs painted by Picasso.

Saatchi’s love of art didn’t begin when she met Charles. Though she began her career in advertising at Condé Nast in New York during the early Eighties, helping to launch Self and relaunch GQ,, she spent her spare time hanging out at Leo Castelli’s gallery on West Broadway. “I loved him,” she says. “He was a mentor. He was the one who suggested I move to London to start a gallery because there was so much competition in New York.”

Saatchi made the leap in 1986, partnering with two others to open the Mayor Rowan gallery, which showed artists including Jonathan Lasker. She later moved to Mayfair’s Waddington Galleries, where she organized a sellout show of Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings—although the reviews were mixed. Brian Sewell, the controversial longtime art critic at the Evening Standard, thought it was “rubbish,” says Saatchi with a laugh. “He did an interview that caused such a commotion that people just came flocking into the gallery.”

Kay met Charles in 1987 at the Royal Academy’s “Modern British” show. He was separating from his first wife, Doris Lockhart, also a blond Southern belle, and they began dating seriously nine months later. “The whole reason we got together was because we had this art thing in common,” Kay says. “I was probably the only woman besides Doris who could talk to Charles about Jeff Koons and stuff back then—none of those artists had shown here.” During their 11-year marriage, the Saatchis trudged through London schools, warehouses and artists’ studios in search of the next hot young things. “It was our life,” she says.

Though she didn’t often get the credit, Kay sometimes spotted the talent before Charles did. She remembers going to see Gearon’s “very sweet little paintings” and instead being wowed by the now famous photographs of naked children. “Charles said he didn’t want to see any photographs by an ex-model, but I told him they were extraordinary,” she says. Sure enough, Charles bought them and put them in his “I Am a Camera” show at the Saatchi Gallery in the spring of 2001. Gearon shot to fame after Scotland Yard officers raided the gallery and threatened to seize the photos under anti–child pornography legislation.

The couple eventually agreed on the Gearon photographs, but Emin’s work has remained a point of contention. In Charles’s London apartment is My Bed—Emin’s well-known installation of her unmade bed, complete with dirty underwear and cigarette butts. “I think it’s pretty inappropriate for kids,” says Kay, who shares custody of Phoebe with Charles. “Phoebe has been living with that condom-strewn bed since she was seven!”

Anthony d’Offay, the well-regarded British dealer who represented artists from Joseph Beuys to Rachel Whiteread at his former gallery, says Kay “had an incredibly important effect on Charles” in her role as his full-time sounding board. “If you look at what Charles has achieved in these years, you have to credit Kay as well,” he says. Gearon adds that the pair operated with a good cop, bad cop dynamic that worked surprisingly well. “Charles is not a very nice person, so what Kay would do was find a lot of new and interesting artists and make them feel loved, warm, special,” Gearon says. “Then Charles would take over and push them to produce their best work.” Although Saatchi was an early supporter of Hirst and other Young British Artists—who are now “middle-aged,” she notes—she believes London’s current art students’ inspiration is coming from an entirely different place. “I think those days of everyone wanting to be Julian Schnabel and doing huge canvases are over,” she says. “And the artists aren’t setting out to shock in the way they used to. There’s a trend for better craftsmanship too, beautiful drawing and sculpting.” Still, Saatchi acknowledges, “There’s always someone who’s going to make a big fat lump of lard.”