How a successful gallery becomes a lifestyle empire

Düsseldorf “We are a family,” says Iwan Wirth in a video interview in Hong Kong when he opened another branch in his global gallery network. In comfortable English, the father of four from Switzerland naturally counts the 55 artists he represents as part of the family. And his employees, at least almost 300.

The 50-year-old is one of the largest and most influential gallery owners in the world. The gallery has a number of popular artists under contract: Pipilotti Rist and Annie Leibovitz, Jorge Condo, Mark Bradford and Zeng Fanzhi. Iwan Wirth and his wife Manuela are always well ahead in relevant art rankings.

The turnover of a mega-gallery of this size should be in the nine-digit range and above in normal six months. Money does not only come in through the sold works by living artists. Good money can also be made with artists’ estates, if they are properly managed. The large gallery lists 35 estates on its homepage. “Today Hauser & Wirth is the market leader for representing artists’ estates,” emphasizes the company founder.

But even for such large entrepreneurs in the art business, times are currently anything but normal. Even if there were isolated sales during the corona-related lockdown, big business collapsed in the entire industry in 2020. Not least because the high-turnover trade fairs were only held digitally.

But Iwan Wirth is fighting, he doesn’t want to know anything about losses or even bank loans. In an interview with the Handelsblatt, he rather reports: “As a family company, Hauser & Wirth is solidly and conservatively financed and has coped with the situation well.” – to use quickly. “

Instead of laying off people, Wirth created jobs and invested in digitization. The result so far is 20 online exhibitions, more demanding than the uninspired viewing rooms of Art Baselsay connoisseurs. The result: “At the end of March we were able to double our website traffic and registered 80 percent new visitors. Around 25 percent of online sales go to new collectors. “Wirth’s drive:” Passion and enthusiasm for art, the artists – and my absolute desire to be an entrepreneur. ”

From a gallery, Wirth has created an empire in the art market, whose business goes far beyond the mere sale of art. Hauser & Wirth operates galleries at ten locations in the USA, Europe and Asia, rounded off by a publishing house and the Durslade Farm for art and organic vegetables.

Art dealer Iwan Wirth

“The connection to the local, social and cultural situation has become part of our DNA.”

(Photo: Hauser & Wirth / Amelia Troubridge)

In the English county of Somerset, on the one hand, the local public can find out about art. On the other hand, studios invite the gallery’s artists to productive stays. And wealthy visitors can buy art there and spend the night in the ambience of a lovingly restored old farm and an artfully landscaped garden by park designer Piet Oudolf.

Create relationships with collectors

Anyone who wants to sell art on a large scale to the most potent collectors of our time must cultivate a close personal relationship with them. Manuela and Iwan Wirth have long been cultivating their collector relationships not only with their legendary Art Basel dinner at the Hotel Trois Rois. They open up one extraordinary place after another: the five-star hotel The Fife Arms in Scotland or the restaurants at their showrooms in Somerset and Los Angeles.

For Wirth, these ventures are an important addition to the business: “They do not replace the traditional role of the gallery. But in a certain context they are important catalysts. ”With these special places, he not only inspires his collectors and artists. The general public also benefits, this is important to him to emphasize.

With their art farm in Somerset, Hauser & Wirth know how to combine art and landscape in such a way that irresistible added value is created. “Since 2015, 750,000 visitors have visited our contemporary exhibitions there. That is more than in our galleries in Zurich and London with twice as many exhibitions combined, ”reports the Swiss, who has lived in Great Britain since 2005.

Island as a hotspot

The latest expansion of the concept of the artfully beautiful life is currently emerging in Menorca. In the Unesco biosphere reserve of Isla del Rey directly in front of the island’s capital Mahon, the huge historical military hospital is being restored. Due to the corona, the work had to be suspended for months.

But the opening is still planned for 2021. Wealthy collectors will then land in motor or sailing yachts on the island in the port entrance. Full of passion for art and his projects, Wirth tries big words: “The Isla del Rey is a special place where the essential things of life, ‘utopian’, combine – especially in these times: hope and inspiration.”

Wirth is an exceptional talent as an art dealer, as he already demonstrated on his debut. At the age of 16 he founded his first gallery in Oberuzwil, his home village near St. Gallen. And presented dignified Swiss artists who could have been his parents or grandparents. The gallery was only open twice a week, the boss was still a student. Insiders called the tall boy “de Chlii”, the little one.

Family Sunday at Durslade Farm

Painting in front of Bharti Kher’s picture “A Wonderful Anarchy”.

(Photo: VG-Bildkunst / Bonn 2020 / Bharti Kher / Hauser & Wirth)

And the little one is lucky too. Because not far from Oberuzwil, a business woman has the pleasure of running a gallery as a hobby. Ursula Hauser is a generation older and ran the electrical wholesaler „Dipl. Ing. Fust“ with her husband Albert Hauser and her brother Walter Fust.

When her husband died in 1973 at the age of 37, the widow stayed in the business. As the main shareholder of the company, which was sold to the Coop Group in 2007 for around $ 800 million, it has had considerable assets since the late 1980s. Michael Shnayerson writes this in his book „Boom“.

In the late 1980s, Ursula Hauser made the young Iwan Wirth a consultant for her private collection. The art lover abandons older Swiss artists who are not very well known outside of the Alpine republic and follows Wirth’s sure instinct.

The collector acts as a bank

In 1992, the son of an architect convinced his best customer to found a gallery in Zurich with her daughter Manuela and himself. “In his age [da war er 22] he couldn’t show anything and didn’t have a bank. I supported the joint project financially, ”writes Ursula Hauser in the interview “The Inner Mirror”. The wealthy business partner “was always careful that something came in and not just went out” with Wirth’s lofty plans.

For example, he flew first class. When she complained, he replied: “Our customers are not in economy.” He is said to have actually met one of his collectors in First Class.
Wirth has always been a dealer in the Secondary Market, where he sells and then resells established artists to collectors, and at the same time is a gallery owner in the Primery Market, where he sells contemporary art fresh from the studio for the first time. This mix was not uncommon in the United States. In the nineties that encountered competitors in Europe.

Fly fishing killer instinct

The gift of recognizing opportunities and seizing them should guide him himself in fly fishing. He has a killer instinct, says a childhood friend.

Galerie Hauser & Wirth began to develop a profile as a gallery for contemporary art in 1996. Then she moved to the “Löwenbräu” area in Zurich, which was to develop into a vibrant center for contemporary art. In 1996 Wirth married Manuela Hauser. She is not only financially involved in the family business – she pulls the strings in the background.

“The excellent cooperation with his wife and mother-in-law formed a secure background for the first few years,” says Konrad O. Bernheimer the Handelsblatt. The old master dealer knows Wirth from his active days when Bernheimer ran galleries in London and Munich. “Wirth is not only capable. He has a very good eye and thinks big. “

Wirth explains his rise from the self-made gallery owner, initially suspected by the competition, with a wealthy collector behind him to the president of a standard-setting mega-gallery: “I never felt the need to separate the“ private ”from the“ business ”.” The man, who always leaves the big appearance to the artists, adds professionally modestly: “That I can combine my enthusiasm for art with my intuitive interest in entrepreneurship in the most ideal way – since 1992 together with my wife Manuela – is perhaps the greatest privilege.”

Hauser & Wirth’s galleries and aesthetically sophisticated excursion destinations are now spread across three continents. “We have subsidiaries in all countries where we are active with galleries or showrooms,” explains Iwan Wirth. His wife, himself and his companion Marc Payot take the presidential posts. Eight partners manage day-to-day business around the globe.

But despite all the professionalism, Hauser & Wirth should remain a big family. Just as life and work intermingle with Iwan and Manuela Wirth, so do the employees in the family company. “Every year we celebrate numerous 10, 15 and 20 year anniversaries of individual loyal employees,” says Iwan Wirth happily. “Many of the colleagues even got married within the gallery and started a family.”

More: Iwan Wirth: “I don’t separate the private from the business”

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