Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the premier power couple of the global art world, have been priming the Asian market for years with a drip feed of artists little known locally, showing their work at Art Basel in Hong Kong and its predecessor. It’s a technique that pays off handsomely. One of the artists they represent, French-American Louise Bourgeois, was relatively unknown here when the Wirths introduced her work at the Hong Kong International Art Fair in 2011, but by October last year the dedicated duo had helped develop Bourgeois’ reputation to the point that one of her bronzes, Quarantania, went to auction in Seoul and sold for HK$36 million, the sale’s top price.
The Asian “discovery” of Bourgeois is a neat illustration of not only the Wirths’ infuence in the global art market, but also of Hong Kong’s increasing importance to it. As co-presidents of the Hauser & Wirth empire—fve international galleries (and a sixth to open this month in downtown Los Angeles) and a dizzying roster of world-class artists—the Swiss husband and wife occupy a revered position among artists and dealers, highlighted by their rise last year to the number one spot in Art Review magazine’s Power 100.
The couple’s commitment to the artists they represent, who also include Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed, hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck, Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist and the late American installation artist Jason Rhoades, inspires ferce loyalty. In 24 years they have lost not one to another gallery.
Iwan launched Hauser & Wirth in 1992, partnering with his now mother-in-law Ursula Hauser; he would go on to marry her daughter four years later. At that time, major artists were only presented in London, Paris and New York. “We had to fnd a different way to compete,” says Iwan. “It’s not so much that we chose to work with emerging artists—I’d love to have worked with Gerhard Richter but those who were interested in us were the more complex, less commercial artists.”
The couple are risk-takers, says Iwan, who made his frst sales as a seven-year-old fogging his own creations to workers at his grandfather’s factory before opening a commercial gallery at 16—“It was the cheapest way to be surrounded by art all day.” Their 2014 conversion of a dilapidated farm in the sleepy English county of Somerset—the family’s adopted home since 2006—is a prime example of this. With galleries in Zurich, London and New York, opening a multipurpose arts centre in Bruton appeared to be a left-feld move if not a suicidal one.
It proved anything but. Within nine months the gallery had welcomed 100,000 visitors, all seduced by art, architecture, education and food united in one aspirational package. Their LA gallery, which will be helmed by infuential museum curator Paul Schimmel, builds on thimodel of art as lifestyle, with an education programme, bookstore, bar and restaurant.
The Wirths are currently weighing up the risks of opening a gallery in Asia. “It’s still early days but we are keeping our options open,” says Iwan. While they represent Chinese painter Zhang Enli and are working on signing another “major Asian Chinese artist,” Asia is “a different world every year,” he says. “The appetite for art is very bullish and there are very strong Chinese buyers, but we feel it’s only really beginning, especially for galleries. The great successes have been for auction houses, then come the fairs, then people will explore galleries more. Asia is going to grow to become one of the major forces in the art market but, for now, we need to explain more about what we do and who we are.”
Read the full article in our March 2016 issue.
Text by Nione Meakin and Image by John Philips for Getty and Ken Adlard, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.