International art supremos Iwan and Manuela Wirth explain their winning strategy in Asia to Nione Meakin
wan and Manuela Wirth, the premier power couple of the global art world, have been priming the Asian market for years with a drip feed of artists little known locally, showing their work at Art Basel in Hong Kong and its predecessor. It’s a technique that pays off handsomely. One of the artists they represent, French-american Louise Bourgeois, was relatively unknown here when the Wirths introduced her work at the Hong Kong International Art Fair in 2011, but by October last year the dedicated duo had helped develop Bourgeois’ reputation to the point that one of her bronzes, Quarantania, went to auction in Seoul and sold for HK$36 million, the sale’s top price.
The Asian “discovery” of Bourgeois is a neat illustration of not only the Wirths’ influence in the global art market, but also of Hong Kong’s increasing importance to it. As co-presidents of the Hauser & Wirth empire—five international galleries (and a sixth to open this month in downtown Los Angeles) and a dizzying roster of world-class artists—the Swiss husband and wife occupy a revered position among artists and dealers, highlighted by their rise last year to the number one spot in Art Review magazine’s Power 100.
Iwan, a boyish 46-year-old, is a shrewd businessman renowned for creating markets for Hauser & Wirth artists, and Manuela grew up surrounded by great art owned by her mother, one of Switzerland’s finest private collectors. Paul Mccarthy is another of their success stories. The American political provocateur’s main income came from his job as a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles before his first Hauser & Wirth show. At last year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong, Mccarthy’s sculpture White Snow, Bambi sold for US$2.8 million.
“If an artist is great but there’s no market for them, we feel something is wrong,” says Iwan. Adds Manuela, “For me, it’s always a question of, is it truly great art? Is it important? Is it relevant? Do we love the person and do we love the work?” At which Iwan laughs, “I want to know if there’s a market.” Not every gamble pays off. Iwan maintains they were “too early” when they staged the Japanese post-war installation artist Tetsumi Kudo in London last year. “Is it over? Absolutely not. In two years we’ll do it again.”
The couple’s commitment to the artists they represent, who also include Turner Prizewinner Martin Creed, hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck, Swiss video artist Pipilotti Rist and the late American installation artist Jason Rhoades, inspires fierce loyalty. In 24 years they have lost not one to another gallery.
Iwan launched Hauser & Wirth in 1992, partnering with his now mother-in-law Ursula Hauser; he would go on to marry her daughter four years later. At that time, major artists were only presented in London, Paris and New York. “We had to find a different way to compete,” says Iwan. “It’s not so much that we chose to work with emerging artists—i’d love to have worked with Gerhard Richter— but those who were interested in us were the more complex, less commercial artists.”
Their inaugural signing was Rist, the first of many female artists the gallery has championed. While Iwan describes himself as a feminist, he admits the decision was also a practical one. “We ended up with great women artists because there were opportunities—people weren’t representing them.” Bourgeois joined the gallery in its first year and was with it until her death in 2010 aged 98. “She was always one of our favourite artists,” says Manuela. “She’s the mother of all the female artists in our gallery—and the male ones.” Supported both financially and emotionally, the artists grew up with the