With his wife Manuela Wirth and his acolyte Marc Payot, he is co-president of the mighty Hauser & Wirth gallery. While participating in the Art Basel Viewing Rooms online fair, the very discrete Iwan Wirth talked to us about his projects and his view of the market in this time of crisis.
Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, photo : Amelia Troubridge
In the last decade alone, Hauser & Wirth opened four new galleries, not counting the one set to open in Minorca in 2021. What’s the reason for this growth?
Our evolution has followed the steady growth of the art market, which has weathered several crises over the last three decades. The approach of new audiences and our artists' well-being are the main driving forces behind our development. In the same way we seek diversity among our artists, we’ve favoured a wide range of spaces, architecture and communities.
Your initiatives—Durslade Farm, Fife Arms, Chillida Leku, three bookshops, a perfume and a restaurant—go far beyond the field of art. Does this commitment to the art of living meet demand from your customers or is it a personal dream of yours?
The diversification of our activities is driven by the love of what we do and the desire to make our voice heard beyond the art world. We consider art a vital part of life, like air, food, water or nature. All these elements must be in harmony with the places where they are located. These ideas are in action at our art centres in Somerset and Los Angeles. All our artists support our interdisciplinary approach and have played the game.
What have your artists been telling you since the outbreak of Covid-19?
We’re working even more closely together and the conversations we’ve had have been a daily source of inspiration. Some are more used to being isolated than we are and have created new works during this period, among the most powerful of which we feature in our online exhibition series. The last one, “Still Life”, focuses on Annie Leibovitz.
Do you agree with Art Basel’s decision to cancel its Basel edition in September?
The decision was made in consultation with the fair and galleries, and was a responsible decision. Its impact will be deeply felt. Art Basel is undoubtedly the highlight of the contemporary art world’s calendar.
How did you select the works you exhibited up to 26 June at the second Art Basel Viewing Rooms?
Since this event replaced the fair’s 50th-anniversary edition, it was even more important for us. So we thought about the ideas of time and history in preparing it, and put together a selection of extraordinary masterpieces of modern and contemporary art, all of which reflect the powerful wave that swept over this period. There are works by Louise Bourgeois and Philip Guston, but others were directly chosen by the artists, like Glenn Ligon and Mark Bradford. At the same time as our Art Basel Online Viewing Room, we’re posting a project called “Celebrating Basel Basel” on our website. It’s a virtual tribute with videos, photographs and interviews with many witnesses of the fair’s history, like our artists Phyllida and Zhang Enli.
Do you see a future in digital exhibitions or are they just an adequate response to this time of crisis?
Naturally we’d rather show the actual works, but it mustn’t be forgotten that digital tools have been part of acquisition processes for 20 years! Take Art Basel, for example. Before Covid-19, the art world converged in Basel every year in June. collectors visited the stands and confirmed their acquisitions, and yet they placed options digitally in advance. During online Art Basel, we sold a work by Mark Bradford for $5 m—the fair’s highest transaction—an amount that proves committed collectors are open to the idea of buying online at a very high level.
Do you understand galleries that refuse to participate in virtual exhibitions because they’re afraid the works might lose part of what makes them unique?
I don’t think digital images will ever replace the physical experience. I myself can’t wait to start seeing exhibitions again. It shouldn’t be a question of reality versus digital exhibitions, but how physical models can be combined with digital experiences. In my opinion, a hybrid approach will emerge in the future. Collectors can both see works online at their own pace and actually experience them more intimately. digital platforms round out the experience by adding films and material that help to contextualise it.
What’s the story behind ArtLab, your laboratory of technological solutions?
It was created to foster smarter productivity. Today, for example, we plan our fair stands virtually with such precision that we can cut our shipping in half. Each of our galleries is an integral part of its local ecosystem, and ArtLab was founded precisely to find more sustainable ways of planning shows.
Are your new virtual reality exhibition projects, accessible to all on your website (HWVR), intended to be permanent?
The response to our first virtual exhibition, “Beside Itself” [editor’s note: which immerses visitors in the future Minorca gallery modelled in 3D] was amazing, and our second HWVR show will open shortly with works by David Smith. Soon we’ll start an artist-in-residence programme based at Hauser & Wirth LA so that artists can explore all of this tool’s potential. In the future, we’ll also be able to create virtual hangings at collectors’. This technology has unlimited potential. We use it all the time and we’re already swamped by requests from our clients and artists.