“And here is the space for 100 wellies,” Iwan Wirth announces, gesturing to the dusty concrete floor. We are standing in a doorway, our backs to an empty art gallery whose pitched roof references its farmyard origins. A corridor – reserved for wellington boots – leads to a reception area strewn with builders’ tools. Another door opens on to a vast landscaped meadow, still being sown.
Wirth’s English has a friendly lilt that betrays his Swiss origins. The art dealer, named the art world’s third most powerful figure in Art Review’s 2013 list, grew up in St Gallen in the foothills of the Alps, where he opened his first gallery aged 16. “I did a Le Corbusier show; I did Chagall,” he says, speaking quickly and gesturing as if to brush these achievements aside. “They were just lithographs and things because, you know, I was still in school.”
Tall and curly-haired, Wirth, now 44, has a straightforward, cheerful manner quite uncharacteristic of the art world. Yet Hauser & Wirth – which he established with his now wife, Manuela Hauser and her mother, Ursula, a retail magnate turned art collector – is one of the most successful commercial galleries of contemporary art. It represents the likes of Paul McCarthy, Louise Bourgeois and Martin Creed, and has branches in Zurich, London, New York and is set to expand to Los Angeles in 2015. I meet Wirth on the fringes of Bruton, a small town in Somerset, southwest England, where the gallery is about to open an unlikely rural outpost.
The couple came here from London in 2006 “looking for a weekend place”. They bought a farmhouse with land, enrolled their four children in local schools and began getting to know their new neighbours. “We really didn’t have a connection here – this was not a conscious decision,” says Wirth, indicating the converted farm buildings, fields and the family house up the hill. “It was in the price range we were looking, it was in the distance [from London] we were looking – and we loved what we saw. And then this project fell in our lap.”
“This project” is the Grade II-listed Durslade Farm – now five galleries, a farm shop and a restaurant managed by the popular Bruton hotel and brasserie At The Chapel. The striking 18th-century farmhouse with windows from Bruton Abbey, which was dissolved in 1539, will accommodate artists who are installing exhibitions at the gallery. The dilapidated buildings had lain unoccupied for five years when the couple bought them. They did not plan to open a gallery: they simply wanted to save the place from total ruination.
But Wirth has a history of putting art in unusual places. His Zurich gallery is a converted brewery and his New York space a vast former roller skating rink. “I like art that is less decorative and I like spaces that have some spikes,” he admits, leading me through the cluster of buildings set around two pretty courtyards. One gallery at Hauser & Wirth Somerset – as it is to be known – is “the perfect white cube”, but the others are most definitely not. The first gallery you come to, a former threshing barn, has brick walls and two huge windows in place of the original doors – “a historically overloaded situation”, Wirth calls it.
A feature is made of the reconstruction undertaken to make these buildings habitable again. An old door, for example, is neatly patched with different woods, and bricks uncovered from the original Victorian floors are reused in different places. “If you kiss this building, it hugs you back,” Wirth says. “But if you kick it – oh, you feel it!” The architectural history of Durslade is one of cobbling together, of borrowing and recycling. Bits of the original abbey pop up in unexpected places – like the stone cross on the roof of the barn.
Wirth grew up in the Swiss countryside and despite his jet-set schedule – when we meet, he has just returned from New York – he spends every Friday in Somerset with his farm manager. “I am learning about rotation principles and soil and cattle and hedges and, of course, the moths – elephant moths, hawk moths ...” He reels off the list with a breathless enthusiasm.
Farm produce will be sold in a former engine shed off the first gallery. “Alice [Workman, his gallery director] wanted it to be a video room!” he scoffs. Clearly, that was never going to happen.
Food is almost as important to this venture as art. Standing in what will be the restaurant courtyard, Wirth tells me he wants to “connect art with life again” – an ambition that might seem ironic considering his gallery deals in the kind of conceptual art that prompts the question, “Call that art?”. Yet my ready cynicism falters. As I stand in the sunshine watching Wirth weave around cables and hydraulic lifts, greet builders and nod happily as he surveys the scene, it’s hard to feel anything but excitement about the project.
Wirth has always had to do things a bit differently. “I was always too young for what I did. I had to convince people to trust me. I was in St Gallen when the art scene was in Zurich; I was in Zurich when that art scene was in New York. Only now I’m in New York!” he laughs. From the start, Wirth knew he needed to work harder to get the artists he wanted. When wooing Pipilotti Rist, who became his first artist in 1997, Wirth asked her what she most wanted: she replied, a full-time assistant, and Wirth found her one immediately. Rist has been with the gallery ever since, and has already spent a year at Durslade as artist in residence.
Wirth always consults his artists before opening a new gallery. “We showed the plans to Roni Horn. She removed the window from one of the spaces, which was a key change,” he tells me. “This is a joint effort.” Many of the gallery’s artists came to stay with Wirth’s family to survey the site. One of the first was Phyllida Barlow, whose sculptures inspired by the surroundings will form the inaugural exhibition. Barlow, who taught at London’s Slade School of Art for more than 40 years, will talk to local teachers as part of an ambitious education programme. And the Bristol Old Vic theatre will run a summer school at Durslade during which the children will devise a play responding to Barlow’s sculptures.
But although the local community will undoubtedly benefit from Hauser & Wirth Somerset – the nearest contemporary art gallery is almost 30 miles away, in Bristol – I can’t help but feel Wirth himself gets just as much out of the project. The pressures of running an international gallery are intense: keeping the artists, private collectors and museums happy, he calls “an impossible balance, an impossible task”. Wirth seems happiest strolling around the farm. “Honestly, I can imagine just doing it here and not travelling at all,” he says. His press manager, who has been trailing our tour, laughs nervously. Wirth continues, apparently unaware: “To live where you work, eat what you grow and share it with your friends. How better can it get?” As my train pulls out of Castle Cary bound for London, I think he might just have a point.
Hauser & Wirth Somerset opens July 15, hauserwirthsomerset.com