Prime Movers

In­ter­na­tional art supre­mos Iwan and Manuela Wirth ex­plain their win­ning strat­egy in Asia to Nione Meakin

Hong Kong Tatler - - Faces -

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

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