the Swiss gallery that went global

On a bright, chilly Saturday in January, a line of visitors snaked around the courtyard of an art gallery on a farm in Bruton, Somerset. They had come to view an exhibition of new work by young artists and, as a local jazz band called The New Academic Feetwarmers played old-time tunes and smoke billowed from a wood-fired grill, they were offered grilled sausages in buns, paper bowls of vegetable soup, and mulled cider.

The whole event was free, courtesy of the man who stood in the middle of the courtyard, chatting to all-comers and offering drinks from a bottle of Maid of Bruton sparkling rosé from the vineyard on his family’s 100-acre Durslade Farm. He was bespectacled, with a trim greying beard, wore a brown checked tweed jacket and cream silk scarf, and looked happily at ease. Once or twice, he stepped away from the crowd to take a private call.

He could have passed as an unusually stylish English farmer, but he was not. This was Iwan Wirth, the Swiss art dealer who, with his wife Manuela and mother-in-law Ursula Hauser, owns Hauser & Wirth, one of the largest and most powerful galleries in the world. It has 17 gallery spaces, from Los Angeles to London, Zurich and Monaco, represents 103 artists and artists’ estates, and trades paintings worth millions.

People gathered in a farm courtyard on a sunny day, next to a large white sculpture by Henry Moore
A launch party for the exhibition ‘Henry Moore — Sharing Form’ at Durslade Farm in 2022 © Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke

Some of the Durslade visitors browsed in its farm shop, part of a hospitality business called Artfarm that is owned by the couple and runs alongside Hauser & Wirth. There, they could buy meat from the farm, or a £225 bottle of whisky from the couple’s Fife Arms hotel in Braemar, Scotland (“sweet fruits and light spice, layered with a hint of old leather”). Chefs from Roth Bar & Grill, a restaurant attached to the Durslade gallery, prepared the food.

Hauser & Wirth is opening another space in Basel this summer and one more on South Audley Street in Mayfair, London, next year. That will place it level with the 19 currently run by Gagosian, best known of the world’s four “mega-galleries”. Nor is Artfarm’s growth slowing: it acquired the Groucho Club in Soho for £40mn in 2022, and runs the Audley pub in Mayfair and Mount Street restaurant upstairs. These properties are filled with artworks, including Picasso and Lucian Freud paintings at the Fife Arms.

This has turned Hauser & Wirth into a new phenomenon: a private art gallery that often carries itself like a public institution such as the Guggenheim and Tate museums. Gagosian, David Zwirner and Pace, the other three mega-galleries, also stage museum-quality exhibitions and publish books. But Hauser & Wirth attracts a much wider range of visitors than connoisseurs to its “art centres” in Somerset, Menorca and Los Angeles.

Iwan Wirth, in black shirt and glasses, sits smiling at a table. Manuela Wirth, in white jacket and also wearing glasses, stands behind him, resting an arm on his shoulder. Marc Payot stands next to her, also smiling
Iwan Wirth (seated) and Manuela Wirth with Hauser & Wirth co-president Marc Payot © Courtesy Hauser & Wirth/David Needleman/August

“It’s a public service, but they’re also creating a myth about themselves. You feel like this is the place to go, a whole world you can step right into,” says Barbara Guggenheim, founder of the US art consultancy Guggenheim, Asher Associates. Hauser & Wirth’s 116,000 sq ft gallery in a former Pillsbury flour mill in downtown Los Angeles has a restaurant called Manuela with a garden and live chickens. “Everyone was nice and friendly, not like some snooty gallery. The cornbread was beyond,” says one recent visitor.

This blend of elite culture and an engaging, unstuffy vision of the good life is clearly alluring. Soho House, the Groucho Club’s old competitor, has been accused of admitting too many members to its 41 clubs and losing its cachet. Hauser & Wirth has no problem of exclusivity: its most valuable clients are wealthy collectors and it runs sleek galleries in cities such as Hong Kong and Paris. But the Wirths also offer a taste of that world to many others.

It puzzles some art world insiders, who struggle to grasp why a gallery that represents artists such as Cindy Sherman, Mark Bradford, Rashid Johnson and the late Louise Bourgeois is linked to a business that runs a hotel and restaurants. “With Larry [Gagosian] it’s about his artists, and the revenues and profits from selling their work. Hauser & Wirth, I don’t understand. How do they count return on investment? What drives them?” asks a US financier and collector. 

Among the Durslade farm shop’s wares are £19.50 pots of lemon verbena and black pepper-scented Somerset bee balm. It is produced by Jody Myerscough-Walker, an interior designer whose father keeps bees nearby and who last year answered the farm shop’s callout for local products. Her Bon beeswax lip balm is co-branded with Artfarm’s Farm Shop brand at Durslade, and Manuela Wirth picked the distinctive scent.

“I grew up near Bruton and it was a small, quiet place, so a gallery coming here was amazing,” says Myerscough-Walker. Matthew Hooberman, another Bruton resident, compares the opening in 2014 to “a piece of London being transported by spaceship and landing on my lawn”. The Wirths, who have four children, moved to Bruton from London in 2007: both came from the Swiss canton of St Gallen and were drawn to Somerset’s landscape and culture.

“These places choose us. Opportunities find us,” Iwan Wirth observed to the FT at the opening of Hauser & Wirth’s art centre in Menorca in 2021 (he and Manuela declined to be interviewed for this article). It is more accurate to put it the other way around: they have a knack for finding opportunities in many places. “Why is the gallery here?” one visitor asked another as the train from London arrived in Bruton that morning. “Because Iwan bought a farm,” she replied.

People, seen from behind, queue to get on a yellow ferry boat that has the words Illa del Rei written on it
Visitors board a ferry to take them to the Hauser & Wirth gallery on Illa del Rei, Menorca © Bridgeman Images

Conceptual art was one impetus for Hauser & Wirth’s entry into hospitality. When the Wirths were trying to lure the artist Dieter Roth to exhibit at their Zurich gallery in 1997, he insisted on them turning his “Bar 2”, a piece of installation art, into a working bar nearby. Roth bars-cum-artworks have since become a Hauser & Wirth tradition: one sits in its 18th Street gallery in New York, and Roth’s grandson Oddur is remaking the one in Somerset. It will be unveiled at a 10th anniversary event in May, on which the architect Luis Laplace is working. 

An earlier impetus came when Wirth was 16 and ran a part-time gallery in Oberuzwil, St Gallen, while still at school. He made his first sale to Andy Jllien, a shoe designer who took him to the Kronenhalle, a restaurant in Zurich owned by the Zumsteg silk trading family. Its walls were lined with paintings, including a Chagall and a Bonnard, and it opened his eyes. “Food is part of what they do,” says Ruth Rogers, a friend of the Wirths and owner of the River Café in London. “They create spaces for art that are explorative and ambitious and they see food in the same way.”

The virtue of putting private collections on public display is inculcated in Switzerland’s merchant class, the heirs to textile and pharmaceutical fortunes. “[The Wirths] were always interested in performance art and the connections between art and life. The gallery sells to wealthy collectors but they are open to everyone. There does not need to be a contradiction,” says Donatien Grau, head of contemporary programmes at the Louvre museum in Paris.

Swiss wealth also underpins Hauser & Wirth itself. Ursula Hauser built a fortune with her brother Walter as partners in the Fust household appliances retail chain founded by their father August (she married Albert Hauser, its first employee, who died in 1973). Ursula collected the work of women artists, later including Louise Bourgeois, and first met Wirth when he asked her to co-fund the purchase of two paintings. They launched Hauser & Wirth in Zurich in 1992, with her daughter Manuela, who married Iwan in 1996.

A bar in New York decorated with objects, painting canvases and multi-coloured lights as well as bottled drinks
‘Roth Bar’, a Dieter Roth installation at Hauser & Wirth’s 18th Street gallery in New York © Dieter Roth Estate, courtesy Hauser & Wirth

The couple play different roles in their joint operation. “Iwan is like a puppy dog, very excitable, passionate and enthusiastic, while she is considered, quiet and smart,” says one art dealer. Manuela Wirth trained as a teacher before she joined the gallery and it runs a big educational programme, with many artists interacting with local schools. One of her grandmothers owned a bakery in St Gallen, at which she worked as a child in school holidays.

She maintains a personal touch. “If you buy a painting and ask for an invoice, they say, ‘Wait until next week, Manuela has to do it,’” says an art adviser. “It gives you the sense that they run the whole thing, not Swiss accountants.” Marc Payot oversees US galleries and shares global responsibility as co-president, while Ewan Venters, former CEO of Fortnum & Mason, became global chief executive in 2021. But the Wirths are paramount (Ursula Hauser, who is now 84, never played a management role).

Iwan Wirth himself has both a public and a private face, in keeping with Swiss tradition. Despite his bonhomie, he has a reputation for strictly observing secrecy when he brokers deals among collectors involving artworks that can be worth tens of millions. “They are very well-connected with global wealth and they do not mess around,” says one art dealer. “If we do a deal, no one ever hears about it. Others yack but Iwan never does. It is very Swiss.”

The feeling that anyone can walk in the front door but few can penetrate the inner sanctum is crucial to Hauser & Wirth’s business. Top galleries rigorously ration the supply of their artists’ works, forcing collectors to wait to buy them, and promise that they will not “flip” valuable pieces quickly for a higher price. “They may invite you to a dinner or an opening, but they ask you to prove your collection will be a good home,” says a London collector who has tried to acquire paintings from Hauser & Wirth.

So many are kept waiting that the entry price steadily increases. A painting by an artist that would have been priced by a top gallery at £50,000 in London a couple of years ago is more likely to be £100,000 now. This increases revenues per work, but limits access because few can afford to participate. Global art sales totalled $68bn in 2022, the same as in 2014, according to a report by Art Basel and UBS. Although wealthy new collectors from Asia and the Middle East get drawn in, the market as a whole is static.

Seen in this light, Hauser & Wirth’s effort to make its galleries more welcoming has a financial logic. The pool of collectors needs to be replenished because many will go through a burst of buying art, then stick with what they have. “There is no way to market art except by making the experience aspirational, and they are doing that. They may have stumbled into it, but it’s rather brilliant,” says Marion Maneker, editor of the Artelligence newsletter in New York.

A field blooming with orange, yellow and green flowers and plants in summer
A colourful mid-summer display of herbaceous planting by Piet Oudolf at the Oudolf Field in Bruton, Somerset © Alamy
Hauser & Wirth visitors drink coffee on a terrace
Visitors taking coffee in the Roth Bar & Grill at the Hauser & Wirth complex in Somerset © Alamy

Existing collectors are also kept engaged by the round of parties and dinners at fairs such as Art Basel Miami Beach. “Galleries are event organisers for rich and lonely people who fly from one fair to another,” says one professional. “The entry ticket is buying a painting every so often, so you will get invited to Gstaad.” Hauser & Wirth has an appointment-only Gstaad gallery in a chalet once owned by the German photographer Gunter Sachs.

But the cost is high. Artfarm has incurred losses of £22mn since its founding in 2018, including a loss of £11.6mn in 2020 during the pandemic. Its losses reduced to £3.3mn in 2022, which its annual report described as a successful year: “[Artfarm] is by its nature, coupled with ambitious expansion plans, currently capital-intensive.” The Wirths jointly own Artfarm: the gallery has done well enough in 32 years to give them deep pockets.   

Ursula Hauser’s wealth originally enabled Hauser & Wirth to take the long-term view. This seems to have paid off. The gallery’s UK business made profits of £5.2mn on sales of £167mn in 2022, having achieved profits of £13.2mn the year before. Hauser & Wirth does not disclose its full results but its global sales are larger: more than $1bn if they reflect the UK’s 18 per cent share of the art market globally. (The gallery says that calculating it in this way would be “a complete guess”.)

Although it is expensive to break into the super league of galleries, a growing share of profits is made there. “Small and middling galleries are struggling to make it work and behemoths control the market,” says an art adviser. As contemporary art has become the ultimate luxury, “billionaires have focused their buying on a thin segment at the top of the market”, says the Art Basel/UBS report. This is where Hauser & Wirth resides.

Shortly after the Durslade weekend, Hauser & Wirth opened another exhibition, this one at its gallery on Savile Row in Mayfair. It was for the work of Uman, an artist who grew up in east Africa and works in upstate New York. She was until recently mainly represented by Nicola Vassell, a gallery in New York City, but then Hauser & Wirth’s Marc Payot came calling.

A global gallery swooping on a young artist whose work is making a buzz is common. After paintings by Flora Yukhnovich, a British painter of colourful rococo works, began to fetch millions at auction, Hauser & Wirth last year announced it will represent her jointly with the Victoria Miro gallery. As in publishing and other industries, the early nurturing of talent is often left to smaller firms, with big companies waiting for winners to emerge.

But Payot had another suggestion, to represent Uman equally with Vassell, rather than luring her away. The standard deal is that galleries divide the sales margin 50/50 with artists; in this case, the two galleries take 25 per cent each. In one sense, this was an offer Vassell could not refuse, but it did not shut her out. “The opportunity to think not just big, but with the widest possible reach, did not feel as perilous as people sometimes paint it,” Vassell reflects.

A very large canvas hangs in a gallery, painting with black abstract shapes. In the centre is a sqaure of different abstract shapes in cream and brown
‘Untitled’ (2023) by Uman, who currently has an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s Mayfair gallery © Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

This experiment is not the only one Hauser & Wirth has made in collaborating with small galleries. In Somerset, it was showing the work of 23 UK artists it does not represent. As with the restaurants and pubs, it is extending its reach beyond the usual boundaries. This is a nod to the future, keeping it in touch with emerging talent, but it also reflects a wider reality. Successful artists have greater power and must be courted.

Galleries often pitch themselves to artists by offering to assume the expense of studios and assistants. “We send the paints, organise their lives, and make sure their kids are ready for school when the housekeeper comes,” says one gallerist of the most demanding artists. These close relationships do not always stick: Simone Leigh, a sculptor who represented the US at the 2022 Venice Biennale, left Hauser & Wirth two years after she joined, saying it was “not the best fit for me in the widest sense”.

When they work, it is powerful and lucrative. Hauser & Wirth can take its artists around the world and, by curating and exhibiting them well, deepen their pool of collectors and raise their prices. The Wirths have always had avant garde tastes and do not shy away from taking on artists they admire but whose work is more respected than commercially appealing. They transformed the market for Phyllida Barlow, the British sculptor who died last year, after recruiting her in 2011.

They were also quick to grasp the value of artists’ estates, taking on the estate of Eva Hesse in 2000 and then many others. Since galleries thrive on scarcity, the fact that an artist is no longer alive and producing more work has its advantages. Hauser & Wirth represents the estate of Philip Guston and put on a show of his work when a retrospective was delayed by the Tate and other museums amid controversy over his Ku Klux Klan paintings. A private gallery can afford to be braver than a public institution.

One Hauser & Wirth artist in the US says it is adept at helping artists to get their work into public museums: “If you’re most interested in fame and celebrity, you pick Larry [Gagosian] but if you want legacy and longevity, you go with them.” But galleries must still sell a lot of high-priced work to cover their costs. One rival gallerist says that another artist has not been given an exhibition by Hauser & Wirth in recent years after muted sales: “They keep him on board but they’re not doing much for him.” 

Twenty years ago, Melanie Clore, co-founder of the art advisory firm Clore Wyndham and former chair of Sotheby’s Europe, was invited to lunch by a young Swiss dealer called Iwan Wirth, who had opened a gallery in London. “I thought he was a force of nature: visionary, ambitious and totally fearless. He had a completely global perspective on the art market,” she recalls.

Two decades on, Sotheby’s is challenged for global reach by Hauser & Wirth, and the UK has reason to celebrate that the Wirths settled in Somerset. The London art market has faced challenges following Brexit, with its share of global art sales well below a peak of 34 per cent in 2008. Hauser & Wirth opened a gallery in Paris last year, but the Wirths have kept faith with their adopted home by expanding in Britain too.

Visitors to an art gallery look at a wall of paintings
The inaugural exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s Paris gallery featuring the work of Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor in October 2023 © WireImage

Moving from St Gallen to the UK is more natural than it sounds. The Swiss canton has a tradition of global commerce, going back to its 19th-century textile industry. “This region has always been open to engaging with the world, and it is full of hidden industrial champions,” says Thomas Zellweger, a professor of family business at the University of St Gallen.

This art industry champion is breaking cover, and is pushing the limits of what a private gallery can be. It is close to matching Gagosian in geographical reach, and already exceeds it in breadth. The Wirths’ balance of cultural exclusivity and inclusivity may carry on casting its spell, or the gallery could fall into a similar trap to Soho House and lose its cachet. The mega-gallery is a recent invention and no one knows how far it can stretch.

Hauser & Wirth quietly disclosed another shift two weeks ago. Ursula Hauser still holds a stake in the gallery but its only two controlling shareholders are now Iwan and Manuela Wirth. The precocious gallerist whom Ursula met more than 30 years ago is fully in charge, along with her daughter. One museum board director recounts asking a collector which artists he favoured. “I buy what Iwan tells me to buy,” he replied.

Main image: Visitors to the Hauser & Wirth stand at last October’s Paris+ par Art Basel chat with Iwan Wirth in front of US artist George Condo’s ‘Female Portrait Composition 2023’ © ARS, NY and DACS, London/Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images/Hauser & Wirth

John Gapper is business columnist of the FT Weekend

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