“Collecting is like a disease—you can only stop when you die”
As he prepares to open a new gallery in London, dealer Iwan Wirth tells us how the recession has affected his business
By Charlotte Burns. Market, Issue 210, February 2010
Published online: 27 January 2010
Iwan Wirth, 39, is one of the three founders of Hauser & Wirth which has galleries in London, Zürich and New York and represents artists such as Paul McCarthy, Louise Bourgeois, Roni Horn and Wilhelm Sasnal. He is opening a new space in London’s Mayfair this autumn.
The Art Newspaper: Tell us about your new gallery.
Iwan Wirth: It’s a 20-year lease for the entire ground floor—12,500 sq. ft space—at 23 Savile Row, the former English Heritage headquarters. We will open with a major Louise Bourgeois show this autumn.
TAN: When did you begin looking for a new space?
IW: Since Coppermill closed . We wanted to expand, and to consolidate.
TAN: Coppermill was an East End project space. Why did you look west?
IW: I’d always wanted a high-ceiling, 10,000 sq. ft, column-free Mayfair space, but it didn’t exist. Everything was turned into offices last century, so it is amazing to find this building which has an industrial quality, right in the heart of Mayfair. We feel very comfortable in the West End, and there’s a huge advantage in being here.
There are two separate spaces—a north gallery, which is quite raw, and the south gallery, which will be more intimate. It will bring everything together: staff, archives, project co-ordination. Sara Harrison will be made our second London director.
TAN: What will happen to the Piccadilly gallery?
IW: We’ll keep it as a project space. It’s what it started as, with Paul McCarthy’s Piccadilly Circus, 2003, and what the space works best as. We will open a major Jason Rhoades show there in October—it was always his favourite space.
TAN: Why choose London as your hub, and why now?
IW: Because we live here. London is a great hub. We try to combine the best of America, Europe and Asia, and feel comfortable doing that here. It’s close to Switzerland, where we have a very strong base.
TAN: Why did you open in New York last year?
IW: It was the best possible time to go. We had enormous success with the Allan Kaprow show, Paul McCarthy sold out. The situation there generally is like the weather—beautiful but cold. It’s recovering. America was hit hard, but interesting things happen at times like this. Why do you think we were able to open in New York, and now in Mayfair? Because of the recession, and the shift in the market.
TAN: Zwirner & Wirth closed last year—do you still work with David Zwirner?
IW: Yes—David and I have been working together on the secondary market for 20 years. It just didn’t make sense to share space now we’ve opened there.
TAN: What is your arrangement with Colnaghi?
IW: It’s an agreement. We have three floors there, and do two or three shows a year.
The two constants of our business are the primary and secondary markets. They balance each other, and allow us to shift focus. The secondary market can level out the unpredictability of the primary market, but we can have a more intimate dialogue with collectors about artists we represent. It’s an old-fashioned business model—it’s how it’s been done for 100 years.
TAN: Is supply a major problem on the secondary market?
IW: Yes. People are less willing to let go at the moment.
TAN: Will that ease soon?
IW: No, that pressure is still on. Absolutely. It’s one of the great problems—amazing things pop up but a lot of people are chasing them. If I were only a secondary market dealer, I’d be having a hard time, but you have an automatic supply with the primary market. The recession hit London’s auction market hard.
TAN: Have galleries picked up business lost by the auctions??
IW: Absolutely—the business we’d lost to the auction houses in 2006 to 2008. Because of their aggressive guaranteeing, they were achieving the highest possible prices. It’s the nature of the beast. Now it’s a different business model. People have started to respect the work galleries do again.
TAN: Are older collectors back? Were they put off by boom prices?
IW: Yes. It wasn’t only price, but also a mental thing. They just didn’t feel comfortable. The market had a bad taste for a while, and was out of control. It was a parallel world to what they were doing, but now they’re coming back. Collecting is like a disease—you can only stop when you die.
TAN: Did you have to work harder as a Swiss gallery?
IW: Absolutely. Nobody just goes to Switzerland. You need to have a story to tell, and we’re good at that. We create reasons for people to be excited, so they want to come.
TAN: Was that your strategy?
IW: It’s just a way of surviving. We do what we do, and that’s when we’re good. If we tried to do something else it wouldn’t work. We work with museums, with artists on projects, and with great collectors. We build collections. We represent artists from 30 to 99 years old, at different stages in their careers. That’s the programme and it is uncompromised, and it is safe.
TAN: What about expansion into new markets like Abu Dhabi and Hong Kong?
IW: Asia is increasingly important. Lots of people have their eye on Hong Kong, it is the best-performing market and China’s bonded warehouse. China will become more international. The Chinese will start buying western art and building interesting museums. It will happen—it’s irreversible. London is in pole position of the more established markets. We’re showing Zhang Enli in Piccadilly now (until 27 February), and there are Chinese collectors in London for the first time. The market’s still small, but it’s interesting.
TAN: What about Abu Dhabi?
IW: It is a totally different way of doing business. We feel well-equipped for new forms of communicating and selling. We’re having discussions about artists’ projects in the desert.
TAN: Will art fairs survive?
IW: I was surprised more fairs and galleries didn’t close. It’s been a strange crisis—quite a mild recession for the art world. We’ll do fairs in places like Abu Dhabi or Hong Kong, and continue to do fairs like Maastricht because we find that the same people in Asia are now coming to Maastricht. In two years, they will be at Basel. It’s about trust, and about building relationships.
TAN: None of your artists have ever defected. How do you manage that?
IW: You’d have to ask them. We really are a family business. It’s an enormous challenge to look after so many artists. You worry you’re not doing enough for them, spending enough time with them, but we try our best. We try to merge oil and water.
TAN: Do you have any plans to take on new artists?
IW: We are about to represent the Dieter Roth estate, exclusively and worldwide. Dieter Roth is very important to me—he’s one of the backbones of the gallery. We have the capacity for new artists in the US, too, and are happy to announce our representation of Monika Sosnowska in the States.
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