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Iwan Wirth: Art & Space

At 40, Swiss-born Iwan Wirth is now one of the most powerful art dealers in the world, ousted from top dealer place in an ArtReview Power 100 only by the older, legendary figure of Larry Gagosian.

Text: Fiona Maddocks | Images: Various

Wirth already had established prime-site international galleries in Zurich (1992) London (2003) and New York (2009) without the vast Coppermill Project space, a former rag warehouse off Brick Lane which he launched with a Kippenberger and Roth exhibition in 2006. Wirth’s second central gallery, Hauser & Wirth Colnaghi, 15 Old Bond Street, opened amid the partying frenzy of the Frieze Art Fair in 2006. These historic West End rooms, centre of H&W’s secondary market trading, is used for exhibitions of 19th and 20th century paintings – the inaugural show was of Francis Picabia nudes. 

In October 2010, Hauser & Wirth opened London’s (currently) largest commercial gallery space, with a major show of work by Louise Bourgeois, the artist who filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with her super-size spider sculptures in 2000. On the ground floor of a sharp new Eric Parry designed building at 23 Savile Row, it covers 15,000 sq ft, while upstairs, offices, archives, and a library add a further 7,000 sq ft. The previous year, Hauser & Wirth had launched a newly extended space in New York. Located on the first four floors of the Upper East Side townhouse and previously occupied by Zwirner & Wirth gallery, it’s a building originally purchased by Ursula Hauser in 1997. The six-story building, formerly the site of the Martha Jackson Gallery, was where king of ‘happenings’ artist, Allan Kaprow, installed his seminal 1961 work, Yard.

Wirth, then, is a powerhouse, conquering the market in all directions, geographically and in terms of the artists he represents. Having started dealing as a bumptious 15-year old when he opened his own gallery on non-school days, already has over two decades of experience behind him. His chief business partner is his wife Manuela Hauser, the heir to a Swiss retail fortune and herself part of a collecting dynasty, whom he married in 1996 after first being in business with her mother, Ursula Hauser.

Coppermill was a risk. The drab 1960s building was full of bales of cotton and old machinery when Wirth first encountered it. It was not the first time Coppermill had played host to art. The Whitechapel, nearby at Aldgate East, used it as an offsite space for its show of Paul McCarthy, as it happens one of the artists Wirth represents. Each show he commissioned specially for the space. He stresses that these were ‘curated’ exhibitions, intended to represent the artists as fully as possible. Not everything is for sale. It took a week of ‘pouring cement in from a kind of hovercraft’, as he remembers it, to make the floor even. Wirth said then: ‘It’s about the space and the art, not the appearance’.

Why did he need an East End base? Surely the kind of people with money to buy the works he displays, chiefly museum curators or collectors, would rather stick close to the West End, worlds away from the multicultural dazzle of Brick Lane. ‘If I could do what I wanted to do in Jermyn Street, I would,’ Wirth pleaded at the time. ‘It’s just not possible. This building is 2323 square metres and eight metres high. You find me such a place in the West End. It’s not just cost, it’s availability. These spaces don’t exist.’ Of course, Wirth subsequently solved his own conundrum magnificently with the acquisition of 23 Savile Row. The Coppermill Project building itself survived for just over two years until 2007.

London, he says, is the ‘front line for the meeting of the European and American art markets. And I say that with absolute precision. Not Paris, not Berlin, but London. New York is still number one for selling art but recently London has outperformed and it’s gaining ground.’ How so? 

‘There are many reasons. Tate Modern and its success is a key factor. London is, truly, the most international city in the world and this has stimulated the art world. Look at Paris: yes, it’s important but it has its weaknesses. It hasn’t produced a major artist, with one or two exceptions, for the last ten years. There are very few French collectors.

The French Government, in the way it collects and sells for institutions, has effectively wiped out the art market there.

’Is he arguing against public funding? ‘No. Not at all. But collecting is a strange, mysterious business. It relies on one person’s eye, one person’s passion. You have to be free to be an entrepreneur. That can’t be done by cultural organisations, which have other priorities: balance, fairness and so on.’ His point is that great museum collections depend on great collectors. 

‘The close relationship between museums and collectors is the recipe for an interesting, lively collection in any country. There are many very beautiful museum buildings in France but they have no money left to build up collections, and they are obliged to buy national art. There’s just too much politics involved and that’s always bad. But art cannot be limited in this way. It’s one of the most global businesses in existence.

’What about Germany? New artists emerging from the old East, especially Leipzig, have been winning attention here. ‘Berlin is an extremely civilised and exciting city. And it’s full of artists because it’s cheap. Along with Belgium, it’s the first choice of many to buy a studio, perhaps as a second place to work because it’s affordable. But Germany has had its financial problems in the past. There’s very little in the way of a thriving art market.’

Wirth moved his entire family to London – four children then aged eight months to eight years – to live in Holland Park grandeur, near neighbours of another newer art market player, Louise T Blouin MacBain. ‘One of the reasons we came,’ Wirth observes, ‘is that London was such a vital market and yet our artists had hardly shown here. It was a blind spot on the map.’He admires the way media and audience engage with art. ‘In New York they couldn’t care less whereas here it’s all scandal and excitement. I’m interested in art, not scandal, but it keeps the debate alive’. He is weary of the assumption that all collectors are at war with one another. ‘I’m a big fan of Charles [Saatchi]. Making art available to the public is a great thing. It motivates other people to collect art and this is what Charles does. It’s what I like about him.’

The 40 odd artists Wirth represents vary in age, style, nationality, from sculptor Louise Bourgeois (who died in 2010 at 98) to Martin Creed and 30-year old Jakub Julian Ziolkowski. Scottish artist and 2001 Turner Prize winner Creed, who works at the kitchen table in his Barbican flat, will be showcased at 23 Savile Row – scheduled for January 2011. Wirth notes: ‘There’s no hierarchy in our list. All our artists ask questions. They don’t try to teach you; they doubt; they don’t have answers; they never exclude. They are closer to earth than to heaven!’ 

Iwan Wirth may sound like a philosopher among gallery owners when he speaks like this, but he admits to being thrilled by the sharp end of commerce: ‘Selling is the sexy bit, the really erotic part!’

www.hauserwirth.com

All images © Hauser & Wirth. Courtesy Manuela Wirth

Fiona Maddocks is a critic and writes for the Evening Standard newspaper, London.
Additional reporting: Fay Grosvenor


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