With his round glasses and curly dark hair, Iwan Wirth looks a bit like a grown-up Harry Potter. Highly focused and energetic, the Swiss art dealer, at just 39 years old, is one of the most influential and successful players in the market. His gallery, Hauser & Wirth, has outlets in Zurich, New York and London, with an artist roster that includes such established names as Roni Horn, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, the estates of Lee Lozano, Eva Hesse, Dieter Roth and the Henry Moore family collection, alongside emerging artists such as David Zink Yi or Zhang Enli. A recent coup has been the acquisition, with New York dealer David Zwirner, of a large part of the Lauffs collection of minimal and conceptual art, some of which will be exhibited at Hauser & Wirth’s stand at the Maastricht fair next month.
Wirth opened his first art gallery at 16, at a time when he was still using the school telephone to make calls. A significant moment was meeting Manuela, daughter of the wealthy collector Ursula Hauser, in his 20s; he married Manuela and the three founded Hauser & Wirth in Zurich in 1992. By 2000 Wirth was forging ahead – a joint partnership in New York with David Zwirner was followed by the opening of a London gallery in a Lutyens-designed former bank at 196 Piccadilly in 2003. He then expanded into Shoreditch in the east end of London with a project space, Coppermill, which hosted keynote shows by Paul McCarthy, Martin Creed and Christoph Büchel; he moved out of Coppermill in 2007. The joint gallery with David Zwirner has ended, although the two dealers continue to collaborate, and H&W has its own space in New York.
Now H&W is opening its biggest space yet, in the heart of London’s West End. The 15,000 square foot, column-free gallery with six metre ceilings, divided into two parts, will be inaugurated this autumn with a major show devoted to Louise Bourgeois, who celebrates her 100th birthday next year. It is currently being refitted by architect Annabelle Selldorf.
We meet in the upstairs floor in Old Bond Street above the famed Red Room of the Old Master dealer Colnaghi, which H&W uses for contemporary shows once or twice a year. Piled high on the table are artists’ books – supporting the gallery artists through publishing catalogues and books is an important but lesser-known aspect of the gallery’s work.
Does the decision to open another space in London say something about the position of the British capital at the heart of the art market? I ask. “London had expanded so rapidly in the previous few years, and it was specialised in younger material which was worst hit,” he answers. “But now the London market is back on track, and the Giacometti price is a sign of this. Also, my experience is that non-American collectors now hesitate travelling to the US, they just don’t want to go through that hassle, they prefer to come to London.”
“For us, London is close to Switzerland where we have a strong collector base, a strong artist base. And then we are European, in the sense of doing business in an old-fashioned way.” He laughs: “When we went to New York I said we were the Aga of galleries,” referring to his traditional, methodical Swiss approach, “but they totally failed to understand, they don’t have Agas [old-fashioned range-style cookers] there ... ”
We are speaking the day after Giacometti’s “L’Homme qui Marche I” (1961) achieved over £65m just up the road, at Sotheby’s. What does that price mean? I ask. “It is one of the rarest and most iconic trophies that you can have, I was never offered a Walking Man,” he says, “And at last sculpture has also found its rightful place – I always thought it was under-valued, but no more.” En passant, he gives credit to the auction houses for their managing of the art market downturn. “I’m quite impressed how they steered through the storm,” he says. “They did a very good job of re-instilling confidence. Of course they were also partly responsible for the excesses of the boom as well!”
During the downturn, art galleries were getting the upper hand as vendors became more hesitant to risk their works of art at auction and were more likely to sell them through dealers. I ask Wirth if the recent huge prices change this. “I’m afraid the Giacometti price will tip the balance back again in favour of the auction houses,” he says. “We had a buyer’s market, but it didn’t feel like a buyer’s market any more at Sotheby’s sale,” he says.
Whether or not the pendulum will swing back, Wirth is convinced that his position on both on the primary and secondary markets is the most successful business model for a gallery. “It is a balance, but operating on the secondary market makes very long-term investments in the careers of certain artists possible. The cycles are far more extreme if you just do primary,” he says.
We walk over to the new space in Saville Row, of which he is obviously proud. One side consists of a vast raw space, with no columns; Wirth stands obediently in the centre, admiring the bare breezeblock walls while being photographed. Is it true that he always shows a new space to his artists before making a final decision? “Absolutely! I see them very much as part of the family, I love building galleries!” he says. “It’s great to create these spaces for art, with artists. Sometimes an artist might show for 15 years in the same gallery, and a new space stimulates them.”
Wirth is known to be very close to his artists, who range in age from 30-year-old Polish artist Jakub Julian Ziolkowski to Louise Bourgeois at 98. I ask him if this is easy. “I started out so young, everyone was older than me!” he says. “30 or 60 were the same to me then, and actually it never occurs to me to think about the age of the artists, I just look at the art.”
“The art market is at its most interesting moment for a very long time because for the first time it is truly global,” he says. He has another appointment and with Swiss punctuality is anxious not to be late. In conclusion I ask if he has any more expansion plans. “No” he says, waving good-bye. “But then I always say that – until I find another space.”