Somerset Nous After reaching the top of the art world, where else does one go but to Somerset? Super-gallerist and unlikely English country gentleman Iwan Wirth tells Josh Spero why he is turning a small rural town into a hub for Contemporary art
After reaching the top of the art world, where else does one go but to Somerset? Super-gallerist and unlikely English country gentleman Iwan Wirth tells Josh Spero why he is turning a small rural town into a hub for Contemporary art
WHEN PEOPLE SAY they will fulfil their intention come hell or high water, they generally mean they have great determination. I actually had high water. When I left my house to visit gallerist Iwan Wirth at his office in Somerset, the station nearest him was open; when I arrived at Paddington, late November’s over-enthusiastic rain had stopped but new lakes had appeared along the line, uniting track and sodden field in watery chaos and closing any useful station.
Four hours later, after tortuous diversions and plans hurriedly changed on strangers’ borrowed phones (mine having recently been stolen), I arrive at Wirth’s, whose offices hide behind a domestic frontage on the narrow high street. He is sitting at a long rustic table in the low-ceilinged room between his and his wife and business partner Manuela Hauser’s offices, in front of a wall of bright-spined art books, a sizeable proportion of which come from the 50 artists Hauser & Wirth represents. He looks unfazed by my intense lateness and damp fluster.
There is, in fact, a certain fluster about Wirth when he starts to talk. Perhaps fluster suggests a lack of control, which isn’t fair: it’s more that his enthusiasm will give a sentence several starts and twists and turns before it finds its perfect formulation. In many ways, it speaks to his larger approach to business, which does not have the heartless logic of global expansion like some of his peers but is passionate and instinctive.
When he discusses the forthcoming gorgeous, gargantuan book celebrating the gallery’s twentieth anniversary last year, he talks about his ‘utterly non-corporate’ style of working with the artists. His enthusiasm is palpably for the art, not for the deal.
This non-corporatism — his unconstrained entrepreneurial passion — is clear in his answer about how, with five galleries, including a new mega-space in New York, he can avoid the trap of mechanical replication.
It’s typical Wirth: ‘It’s not that we’re trying to…’ he starts off, before changing direction, ‘it’s just the way we are. Everyone working for us, it’s just the way we are. It’s not that I ever decided we don’t want to be this, we want to do that. It’s what we love, doing what we love, the way we know how to do it, I’ve never done it any way and anywhere else, I’ve never worked for anyone else, so I’ve no choice. It’s not strategic in that way, it just happens and it can only happen the way it happens. Do you know what I mean?’
His artists — Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed, Matthew Day Jackson, Ron Mueck, Pipilotti Rist, Wilhelm Sasnal, the late Louise Bourgeois — certainly know what he means: as someone mentioned to me at another gallery’s post-private view dinner the night before, no artist has ever left Hauser & Wirth.
THERE’S ART IN the air in Switzerland, particles of paintings carried by the breezes. It’s the only explanation. As well as Wirth, Switzerland produced Hans-Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery and one of the most influential curators around today; artists like Giacometti, the Surrealist Méret Oppenheim, Niki de Saint Phalle, Fischli & Weiss and Urs Fischer; and a broad base of forward-thinking collectors, unconstrained, Wirth says, by a dominant religion or an aristocracy, who have been embracing the avant-garde for years.
Picasso’s first ever museum retrospective was held at the Kunsthaus Zurich in 1932, while Dada was born at a Zurich cabaret in 1916 in the imagination of artists attracted to Switzerland by its neutrality. As Wirth notes, neither acidly nor ironically, ‘Switzerland has been one of the big winners of the disasters, the tragedies of the 20th century’ by attracting refugee artists and intellectuals. We should not read fabled Swiss neutrality as dull, then, but as indicative of an open mind and appealing to the creative.
Super-gallerist Iwan Wirth, photograph by Felix Clay
BORN IN 1970, Wirth ‘was dragged around construction sites for interesting buildings’ by his architect father, but he says it was hard not to take in art as a Swiss child because of the number of museums.
Wirth particularly cites as an inspiration Le Corbusier’s final building, the museum he built on the shore of Lake Zurich for Heidi Weber, with its bright panels and generous light, and while he was still sixteen he organised a show for Le Corbusier’s centenary, convincing his estate to consign him pieces for his gallery, a cheek almost unimaginable today: ‘It was intuitive, naive. I still am.’
He was at first rebuffed; he kept going back. ‘I find that I don’t accept no for answer. I went there and I was very young and I played every card — I knew I played that card well, you have to play whatever cards you have. Now I realise I’m getting older I have to play that card very well.’ And he laughs.
Art-dealing — initially on the secondary market, before selling new work — appealed because it meant he could use art to fund his love of art, and also because it didn’t seem like a real profession: ‘It was a lazy thing in that I thought it was a nice way to combine really enjoying [art] with a real interest in making money. I would go somewhere, buy something, sell it and it paid for the trip.’ Three weeks studying law at university were enough.
Sculptures by Josephsohn in Hauser & Wirth’s Picadilly space
He talks about his love of art and of working with artists with reference to a visit from Franz Meyer, director of the Kunstmuseum Basel and an early supporter of Joseph Beuys. Meyer came to one of his early exhibitions and spent an hour looking at the sole piece on show: ‘I have to tell you that I do not know what this thing is,’ Meyer said. ‘I have no idea what this is but I had exactly the same feeling when I saw the first Beuys show in my life, that you know this is huge, this is very serious and it will affect your life in some way or the other.’
In the early Nineties, Wirth had half the money for an artwork he wanted to buy and approached Ursula Hauser, a wealthy Swiss collector, for the rest, which seems typical of his improvisatory approach: no bank loan or business plan but personality and entrepreneurialism. Evidently the relationship worked for both: in 1992, Wirth, Ursula and her daughter Manuela set up the gallery in Zurich. (Wirth says Manuela took an instant dislike to him in 1992, yet she ended up marrying him.)
He won over artists both local and international by guaranteeing generous support for their work and exhibitions, almost indulging them with materiel; anyone who saw the fully loaded cockpit of a B29 airplane which Matthew Day Jackson showed at Hauser’s Savile Row gallery in 2011 can testify to that.
Plans for the Hauser & Wirth arts education complex in Bruton
HAUSER & WIRTH opened their first London gallery in 2003 in a former Midland Bank on Piccadilly, a red-brick presence looming over St James’s churchyard, and their second — actually two unconnected spaces — on the ground floor of a glassy Savile Row office building in 2010.
Back in 2003, Tate Modern had only been open three years and Contemporary art was still regarded with the sort of mainstream nose-holding that greeted Tate’s 1976 acquisition of Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966), a pile of bricks. (‘What a load of rubbish,’ yelled the Daily Mirror’s front page.) A decade later, it is both an industry and an attraction, its stars familiar to all.
Although Wirth modestly demurs, Hauser’s presence at the start of the boom is certainly causative rather than merely correlative. Pushing beyond the YBAs who had stolen most attention, Hauser introduced European and American Contemporary artists to an audience in gradual thaw.
‘For us, it was just a huge opportunity to show the majority of our programme, the very first time. For many artists for three years every press release said, “For the first time in this country, we are proud to present,” always, it was always the first show ever.’ Compare Switzerland, ‘with its extraordinary collections and programming at museums and century-old interest’ where the new was already old.
London was hungry for culture, Wirth thinks: ‘A blank canvas, yes, but a huge appetite to paint it.’ And hungry for people, too: ‘It’s always been open for us. It was amazing how open, and that’s what people feel when they come and that’s the reason they come here, there is an extraordinary generosity in welcoming foreigners, that’s just been quite something, I mean, not known to me in Switzerland — if I’d come to Switzerland, I don’t think I would have been welcomed the way I was in this country.’
England welcomed Wirth and Wirth has repaid full measure of that welcome, becoming an English country gentleman of the farming-and-shooting variety, albeit one with dulcet soft German ‘t’s and a very un-English bounce in his tone. ‘I’m not sure if I am! An exotic one! … I literally never thought that would happen, not in my worst nightmare I thought I’d be living in the country with chickens!’
As if to emphasise his rootedness, and with a subtle appreciation of how the countryside gets left behind (and some explicit criticism of the marginalising of art education in Britain), Wirth is developing an art and education complex in Bruton, Somerset, on a derelict farm once owned by the Hoares as an adjunct to Stourhead.
His artists and others will show there from 2014; there will be events and an education programme; a renowned local restaurant — At the Chapel — will not just cater but also educate, from sustainability to skinning a rabbit, he says. Piet Oudolf, who landscaped the High Line in New York (and even the tiny scrap of green next to Wirth’s office), will create a community garden.
But why a complex in what is fast becoming, when a cloud glowers, the unreachable countryside? Why not another gallery? ‘I wonder. I can tell you what I do, I don’t know why I do it. This idea of maturing, it’s a maturing business. I would be bored to open a gallery just like a franchise system in every city, but I do have the energy to do something more than the twenty shows we do.’ He wants to combine ‘what I like most and where I want to be most, which is here’, into ‘a cultural contribution’.
Partly it’s because Contemporary art ‘doesn’t exist here in the sense that there is no museum far and wide, and on the other hand there’s lots of local artists and craftsmen and writers and music. Visual arts is certainly an area that can grow… and so you can actually leave some mark and make a difference, a little bit.’
Eva Hesse’s Legs of a Walking Ball
THE GALLERY’S EXPANSION is not entirely rural, however, with a massive space having opened in New York in January. Its evolution suggests a more cautious layer to Wirth than otherwise might appear: Hauser & Wirth almost bought a site in 2008, but then Lehmans went down and the project — a whole block of galleries and apartments — was put on ice.
Instead, they took a smaller townhouse uptown and have only now opened their 23,000sq ft gallery in a former stable and (later) roller-skating rink in Chelsea. Such a space does not reflect on Wirth’s ego — compare Gagosian’s hangar outside Paris — so much as his artists’ ambitions and his desire to enable them; the opening show is some of the late Dieter Roth’s massive and complex installations, for example.
I experience a papercut of jealousy when Wirth talks about New York still leading the world in Contemporary art, albeit conceding that others have caught up; Londoners have grown proprietorial about the art world of late. Still, New York has had to make up ground: its long-running Armory art fair had grown flabby and its galleries were insular and dictatorial; now it has Frieze New York and has seen European galleries set the agenda.
The balance has changed: ‘On the gallery level, representing artists, that kind of champions’ league, that was pretty much the second half of the 20th century an American game. It’s now a global, international game.’
Neil Wenman, one of Hauser & Wirth’s directors, is very good at playing the global game. A close adviser to Chinese collectors, he is working on many of the private museums springing up there (as Spear’s Asia recently described). He is not selling them mega-brand artists but rather introducing newer names not found at an auction house’s evening sale. Despite his — and the gallery’s — reputation in the East, there are no signs Hauser & Wirth will join the rush to open a Hong Kong space. Wirth, like Socrates, claims that the only thing he knows about the Asian market is that he knows nothing; the knowledgeable ones, he says wryly, tend to struggle.
Nevertheless, he can’t help his enthusiasm: ‘I strongly believe that the cultural industry, all of it, is at the beginning of a supercycle, if you like, so we really only just began. Why shouldn’t there be more? Even in the art market, if you really look at it, it’s a tiny, tiny percentage [of wealthy people buying art]. Imagine if there’s a tiny bit more, which there will be — people that join the table don’t care what the Gerhard Richter had cost ten years ago. That doesn’t make any difference to them.’
Walking the parquet at ART HK last year for the first time, the knowledge of the collectors surprised him: ‘What shocked me more than anything — I expected the chicken farmer from I don’t know where, well, there might have been the odd chicken farmer there, I don’t care, I have chickens too, I love chicken farmers — I was amazed about their enthusiasm and interest and I didn’t see the bling, the people who came to me and talked were very interested. It was impressive and the people were enthusiastic. And curious.’ The seed, he says, has been sown.
When we talked about the anniversary book at the start of our conversation, Wirth said he feels about his gallery’s past like his artists feel about their previous shows: ‘I still feel as if we’re just about to begin. [The artists] often feel that the next show is the only show, the last chance, and everything, you put all your eggs in one basket.’ It’s not this book which matters: ‘It’s the next volume which counts.’
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