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Published: Verve Magazine, Features, November 2009

Photograph: Ritam Banerjee

Former wife of advertising magnate and art collector Charles Saatchi, Kay Saatchi has been following the path to international curating. At the Art Expo in Mumbai, she talks to Sitanshi Talati-Parikh about watching Damien Hirst as a student, living with unliveable art, and being Kay Hartenstein Saatchi



In the maze of people at Nehru Centre, it took a while for us to find each other. Once I did, it took but a moment for me to realise the lady embodies resilience and vulnerability. There has been much said and a lot more not said about Kay Hartenstein – former wife of the reclusive art collector and advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, who after their divorce in 2001, married celebrity chef Nigella Lawson.


American-born Kay had moved to London to start an art gallery of her own, but not long after ended up curating around 30 shows in eleven years at Saatchi gallery (and a dozen more after) while being Mrs. Charles Saatchi. All through she concentrated on “mothering” young artists. “I like watching them develop their career along the way. I’m not really in it for financial reasons, but you can’t help but feel clever when you buy an artist when they are terribly young and discover that you have made a good investment 20 years later.” She met the now internationally-renowned English artist Damien Hirst when he about 19, an art student going around the degree shows. “I saw his very first show…when I was married to Charles Saatchi, we gave him big shows – I’ve known him always and forever.”


How does she pick up on who will be the next big art sensation? “After all these years of going around shows, your gut instinct becomes the strongest factor. Artists have to have skill, and conviction about what they are doing. I spend a lot of time talking to them about why they want to be an artist and what they’re trying to say with their art.”


The 56-year-old Southern belle with a clipped British accent maintains her interest in art began when she was a baby. “I am quite creative as a person – I paint and draw and take photographs. Every Saturday I would wander into art galleries – it’s always been a part of my life. The process was that we (Charles and I) would go see everything. We would travel to Zurich, New York…that was the fun bit, I loved that. I have behind me 25 years of learning – meeting and talking to dealers, collectors. If I see a work of art in a degree show, I will immediately know if it connects up to something I’ve seen before. Artists tend to copy other artists – they tend to be greatly influenced by the work they admire…until they find their own voice. I can sift through that.”


She has seen all kinds of art – beautiful, outlandish and even macabre. Can she live with the things she buys? “I do! But also, I have had the incredible privilege of having a gallery with my ex, where we can exhibit things that would be of too big a scale or too demanding to have at home. I have had some wild things at our house (think Damien Hirst). It changed for me when I had a child in 1994 and I thought, ‘I don’t want this little toddler growing up and looking at rather shocking art.’”


If people are going to think twice about housing a work of art, what purpose does it serve? There is an idealistic spark in her eyes as she warms up to the topic. “It’s the creative process,” she emphasises. “Whether or not it sells! It’s good for the artist if it does, so they have the money to pay the rent and keep making more art. Some people like living with very shocking art…art is less about shocking now than it once was. Lately there is a trend towards beautiful craftsmanship and beautiful sculpting. In the English art world people wanted attention and publicity and that worked very well. There would be huge headlines about artist Tracy Emin’s ‘unmade bed’ (from the series My Bed) and that’s good up to a point. It’s not what the real meaning should be.”


As she winces at the state of her hair in the local post-monsoon humidity, she confesses that she is very partial to India. “Art is born out of the culture and this is a culture that I am very interested in. Some of the Indian artists are fantastic – I love Anju and Atul Dodiya’s work.” She pauses and as an afterthought adds, “The Indian art market has developed very quickly – it has had to slow down like the rest of the world because of the economy, and that is probably not a bad thing. A little correction and not everyone thinking they can start a gallery without doing their homework!”


“It’s okay not being a part of the Saatchi gallery anymore. At the end of the day, speaking about owning things, they are just things. I buy art all the time. I don’t want to have a gallery again – neither commercial nor private. I buy small things, emerging artists, things I can house. I try to get my other friends that are collectors to buy what I love! What I liked about doing things at the gallery was getting to know the artists, handling the shows, introducing art. When we started doing this, there wasn’t too much contemporary art being shown in London. It was just the excitement of it all and the memory of that which keeps me going. I like to look forward, not backward.”


I delicately broach the topic of the love of art bringing two people together and then suddenly realising that the love for art is all that’s left. That, and a teenage daughter (Phoebe) she talks fondly about. She seems perturbed by all the “rubbish about her past life” that has perpetuated on the Internet. While she considered going back to her maiden name after her divorce, she found that people remembered her as Kay Saatchi – “besides, it helps to get a table reservation!” she quips. On a more serious note, “I hope I am defined by my efforts in the art world and not by my name.”