BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Opinion | 20 DEC 19

How Hauser & Wirth Took Over the World

From Somerset to Menorca, H&W’s ‘art centre’ model has redefined what a commercial gallery can be. Can our public institutions compete?

BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Opinion | 20 DEC 19

The morning fog is lifting reluctantly from the muddy field. All is calm in Bruton, with just a few sceptical cows watching me as I trudge up a path towards the gallery. The hum of a nearby leaf blower merges with the sound of a military helicopter passing overhead and, as I enter the courtyard, the smell of sheep shit mingles with a waft of baked bread. Durslade Farm, which houses Hauser & Wirth Somerset, is a working farm, with sheep, apples and a vineyard; it began its life as a model farm in the 18th century, before falling into disrepair in the 1990s. After moving to Bruton with their family ten years ago, gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth decided to develop what would be the first of their ‘art centres’. A multi-purpose space that includes art galleries, a garden, a restaurant and a shop, H&W Somerset hosts a range of events and performances, from an autumnal pumpkin fair to talks on twine-making, in addition to exhibitions. H&W Somerset opened in 2014 and has since become the working model for their city-block sized space in Los Angeles, which opened in 2016, and a converted naval hospital on Menorca, set to open in 2020: art destinations, built for a day out.

I’ve been to the Somerset gallery a few times before; it’s the kind of place you can bring your parents and grandparents, or friends who aren’t really bothered about contemporary art. You can wander the immaculate paths of the farm’s sloped garden (landscaped by Piet Oudolf, of High Line fame) and maybe stop for coffee, cake or a fancy lunch. Though, of course, the show we dropped into during my first visit was by Martin Creed, and I was obliged to justify to unimpressed friends why piles of rubbish gathered at the centre of each gallery were works of art. That, I suppose, is the aim of a more welcoming, art-viewing space: those unversed in post-alter-manoeuvres should feel able to ask what even counts as art. It’s the kind of question normally reserved for museums and public institutions (and the annual eye-rolling fest of the Turner Prize), which traditionally draw broader crowds than commercial spaces. But, more and more, it seems the places providing the responses are elsewhere, in non-urban sites such as Bruton. H&W Somerset is uniquely emblematic of significant shifts of the past ten years – both in how commercial galleries have sought to diversify, and how this reflects the state of our public institutions.

 ‘David Smith. Field Work’, 2019, installation view, Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth Somerset/ London/ New York etc; photograph: Ken Adlard © The Estate of David Smith/ Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

To zip back, briefly: Hauser & Wirth started the decade with galleries in New York, Zurich and London, launching a new space there at the end of the year and, according to one article from the time, with no further plans to expand. They represented just under 50 artists and a small handful of estates. Then, in 2013, they opened another New York space, and every year since has seen further expansion, with galleries now in Gstaad, Hong Kong and St Moritz alongside Somerset and LA. A new gallery, occupying a 7,400 square-foot footprint in Manhattan’s Chelsea, will open in Spring 2020. They now have a roster of almost 90 artists – one third of which are estates, which in itself indicates the programme’s shift towards the archival and historical. On this visit, Somerset’s most formal, white-cube galleries house a selection of works by the American sculptor David Smith made between the 1930s and ’60s; wrangled bits of stirrups and pitchforks are welded together to make sinister mobiles, alongside whorled, calligraphic drawings. On the wall are a series of quotes from Smith: ‘If you ask me why I make sculpture, I must answer that it is my way of life, my balance and my justification for being.’ Next door, galleries in the barns converted by Paris-based architect Luis Laplace (who is also leading on the development of the Menorca site) hold recent sculptures by British-Indian artist Bharti Kher. Ending Kher’s show is a video following the making of several works at her New Delhi studio. Between the Smith wall texts and Kher’s studio-insight documentary, there’s a distinct borrowing of museum methods and syntax.

‘We don’t claim to be an institution,’ Somerset senior director Alice Workman tells me, ‘but we wanted to make something different from the traditional commercial gallery experience.’ Over coffee, Workman and H&W Somerset’s director of education, Debbie Hillyerd, set out their ‘location-centric’ approach in devising activities and events that people will want to come to. Their spiel is full of pastoral metaphors such as ‘cultivating the landscape’, and I lose count of how many times the word ‘local’ is used, but there’s an obvious enthusiasm for getting a wide range of audiences in to the site, from nearby schools to day-trippers to art world air-milers. It seems to be working, given the visitor numbers: over 152,000 people in 2018. The day after my visit, they host another in their series of symposia, taking the Kher and Smith exhibitions as a chance to discuss commissioning and working with public sculpture. Kher, who devised the works currently on show during a three-month residency in Bruton in 2017, is staying in the living quarters and studio that the gallery have down the road. That evening, I sit in on a meeting of Arthaus, a shifting group of local teens interested in art, as they descend on Kher’s temporary studio. It’s an informal chat, Kher relishing their shy questions about art school, process and biography as she flips through some of her recent drawings. When asked if the area itself had directly inspired any work, she responds that it was more the quiet of the place, its contrast to the bustle of her New Delhi studio and life; she jokingly mentions her enjoyment at being the only non-white person in the village. Bruton is decidedly well-to-do: the area voted conservative in the last three general elections and is home to a set of exclusive boarding schools, and it seems a further privilege to be granted this kind of unguarded access to an established artist. Some of the teenagers here are interested in training to be artists, while others, I can’t help but speculate, are perhaps being trained to be the next generation’s collectors.

‘Bharti Kher. A Wonderful Anarchy’, 2019, installation view, Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth Somerset/ London/ New York etc.; photograph: Ken Adlard

If the past decade has seen a failure of traditional gallery models, with the closure of countless smaller and mid-sized galleries, large-scale galleries have responded by doubling down and expanding in different ways. Somerset is part of a wider ‘lifestyle’ approach that isn’t directly (or, at least, initially) about selling more art, but a vertical integration that extends into research, publishing and hospitality. H&W have been publishing the usual exhibition catalogues for years, but this has recently been augmented with more varied and scholarly tomes. This year, the publishing arm released the collected writings of Piero Manzoni, translated for the first time in English, while next year it will reprint Marcel Duchamp’s long out-of-print first monograph, from 1959. In 2016, the gallery launched a think tank for art research, which, in 2018, became its own non-profit institute to provide resources for archival and art historical research. In 2018, it launched the quarterly magazine Ursula, which produces content not only directly related to gallery shows, including features on figures such as gallerist, filmmaker and activist Linda Goode Bryant and curator Matthew Higgs. Alongside all this, the Wirths, in the guise of their hospitality and development company, Artfarm, operate hotels in Bruton and the Cairngorns National Park, Scotland, with their next project set to be on the grounds of Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The Fife Arms, their Scottish outpost, was named 2019 Hotel of the Year by The Sunday Times. These enterprises, the gallery are keen to point out, are not part of H&W, but neither are they entirely unrelated: work by gallery artists – including large-scale special commissions – decorates the walls; ‘art is central to The Fife Arms experience’, as its website states. 

Hauser & Wirth Publishers HQ, Zurich. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Publishers; photograph:  Sim Canetty Clarke 

While publishing books and magazines is hardly unique (David Zwirner and Gagosian galleries do likewise), it’s the extent and the commitment of H&W’s efforts that marks it out, with broad infrastructural and strategic thinking. White Cube’s Bermondsey megalith was similarly pitched as a new-style public space when it opened in London 2011, but H&W have literally and figuratively gone further afield. Central to the ‘art centre’ is the notion of the ‘museum-quality’ show, able to draw in museum-scale audiences. The Alexander Calder exhibition last summer, ‘From the Stony River to the Sky’, brought in over 74,600 people. Such spaces obviously fill a need, stepping in to the vacuum left by the lack of funding in academia and public institutions and, at the moment, H&W are doing it well. At one point during my visit, discussing the range of philanthropic initiatives and schemes that are supported by the gallery, someone makes a comparison to Renaissance patrons. The reference is apt. In the UK, we’re currently experiencing a retreat from 19th and 20th century ideas of public-ness and what public institutions might provide, and returning to the private models of earlier centuries (a trend that will be borne along further if the recent general election results are anything to go by). As I get the train back to London, and fog again descends on Bruton, I can only wonder what lies in store in the new feudal landscape of the 2020s.

‘Bharti Kher. A Wonderful Anarchy’ and ‘David Smith. Field Work’ run at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, until 5 January 2020.

Main Image: Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Oudolf Field. Photograph: Jason Ingram

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic who lives in London, UK.