Last spring, in London, the gallery found the space, and the chef, for Matthew Day Jackson’s edible and then rotting installation Sweet & Sour Golem.
“We bought an airplane cut up into four parts and they knew exactly who to contact,” Mr. Day Jackson said, of another complicated piece he exhibited in London. “When my studio guy and I went to London to install, the gallery had every tool that was needed and nothing that wasn’t.”
The gallery involvement in production sometimes extends to the conceptual level, and many artists said they routinely have hours-long conversations with Mr. Payot or Mr. Wirth before a work is at its realization stage.
“I respect their intellect with regard to my work,” said Paul McCarthy, a sculptor who often works on an immense scale. “It goes from, you know, do we make this piece in bronze? Do we make it in wood? These are my fucking problems and they are supportive. And at the same time I don’t think they’ve ever said, ‘Do it this way because you’ll make more money.’ It’s always been about the work and I think Iwan and Marc believe that completely and the chips fall where they fall.”
There’s a parallel to any risky long-term investment where there’s an increased payoff for your fidelity, but Mr. Wirth saw an analogy to his garden in Somerset.
“You rotate the beds in the garden, and there’s this one and then you rest it and that’s how you do it with an artist’s career,” he said. Before his recent blockbuster exhibition at the gallery, Mr. McCarthy required an extended period of quiet studio work. “Artists have different cycles. Some have no cycles, some have extreme cycles. It’s very individual, and the gallery is working as a business because you have all these artists working at the same time. When you look at your exhibition schedule for next year, you want to make sure that you rest this bed and this artist has time for one year, two years, three years —this one’s pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, and you wait another year and it gets better. Somehow it works.”
Hauser & Wirth’s expansion plans in New York are an open secret, though not many know how close it came to opening its major outpost in the city three years ago. In 2008, the gallery signed papers to occupy five lots directly across from the New Museum on the Bowery and began discussions with the architect Annabelle Seldorf, a longtime gallery collaborator, to design a building with apartments above and a gallery below boasting over 20,000 square feet — roughly equivalent to New York’s largest commercial exhibition space, Gagosian Gallery’s 24th Street location. Lehmann Brothers collapsed and, with an option to pull out, Mr. Wirth did, deciding instead to expand to a second London space, in exclusive Saville Row.
“I felt optimistic,” Mr. Wirth said of London. “Cautiously optimistic.”
When it opened, in October 2010, journalists immediately compared the Saville Row space to a museum. In fact, it opened with a museum exhibition, “Louise Bourgeois: The Fabric Works,” from the Vedova Foundation in Venice, which borrowed pieces from the Hauser family. The space clocked in at 15,000 square feet. With an additional 7,000 square feet upstairs, devoted to offices, archives and a library, it surpassed Gagosian’s Britannia Street operation in size, becoming the largest commercial gallery space in London.
“Hauser & Wirth may appear to some as an emerging gallery,” then-director Gregor Muir, who has since become director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, told GQ magazine at the time, “but in fact it is one of the largest operations in the world.” GQ reported that the agent for the Mayfair space, David Rosen at Pilcher Hershman, had recommended it based on its “New York factory” appeal.
Like New York, London is home to a gallery-size arms race. This past fall, Jay Jopling’s homegrown White Cube trumped both Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth and solidified his presence on his home turf, with his own third London space, a 58,000-square-foot behemoth.
Today a handful of other major galleries, Pace and David Zwirner among them, are known to be actively seeking gallery space in London to be nearer to a new class of collectors based in the Middle East and Russia, not to mention the European market. Tate Modern director Nicholas Serota attributed this, at least partially, to Mr. Wirth.
“The way in which Iwan has run the gallery in London has raised the bar for other galleries,” Mr. Serota said. “And it’s one of the reasons, I think, that new galleries are being opened here.”
Hauser & Wirth was prepared to have a similar impact on the Lower East Side in 2008. Mr. Wirth said the pull-out was a matter of financial common sense. Mr. Payot said it was also a matter of appearances—the gallery didn’t want to make its proper New York debut during a recession with a tony gallery on the Bowery.
Mr. Payot, who moved to the city to help with the expansion, said the plan then (as it is now) was motivated by a desire to better show the gallery’s artists. It was around then that they started recruiting New York artists like Mr. Day Jackson and, eventually, Mr. Johnson. It’s a strategy they also employed as they expanded in London.
“We are very strong in London, but when we started in London we didn’t have one British artist,” Mr. Payot said. “But you realize it’s good to have that kind of rooting in the city.” In that city the gallery added Phyllida Barlow and Martin Creed.
The question, when a major gallery enters a new market, is what happens with its artists’ existing relationships in that market. So far, it seems that Hauser & Wirth plans to collaborate. Mr. Creed already has a New York dealer, Gavin Brown, and while his next show has not yet scheduled, there is talk of a two-venue exhibition, at both Hauser & Wirth and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.
“Sometimes if you work with different galleries, it can feel like you’re stuck in the middle between them,” Mr. Creed said, “but Hauser & Wirth has been talking with Gavin a lot about that stuff, and basically they’ve agreed to coordinate with each other to the extent that would be helpful. I think that there isn’t really a conflict because in reality, the art world is so international that it’s less and less the case that the local gallery is selling to local people. Every one is selling to collectors all over the world, so that takes away the local protectionism in a way.”
Though they share some artists, Mr. Zwirner said he’s had similar discussions with Mr. Wirth and wouldn’t be concerned about competition, either in New York or in London. “I think the whole notion of competition in the art world is a …” he stopped himself. “I think we’ll be collaborating a lot more than we’ll be competing.”
In some ways, being a mega-gallery isn’t about what you sell—though you do sell, a lot—but rather about the extent to which you can afford to support artwork so challenging or unwieldy as to seem unsellable. Hauser & Wirth has a reputation for supporting pieces for which there may not be ready buyers, which was one of the draws for Mr. Johnson.
“They have shown a strong willingness to support works that are outside of the commercial or saleable range,” he said. “There are no limitations to what you can do and still receive support from the gallery.”
And if a collector buys a piece from the gallery and decides that he doesn’t like it a year and a half later, Mr. Wirth has been known to buy it back himself.
“If people want to sell,” he said, “a lot of them come to us, and we do a lot of secondary market for our own artists.” Mr. Wirth said.
If Mr. Johnson has become a more supported artist with his new gallery, he has also become a more expensive one. New York collector Michael Hort paid a visit to David Kordansky’s gallery on the eve of Mr. Johnson’s signing with Hauser & Wirth. A few days later, Mr. Johnson’s prices had, at least in one case, doubled: a piece that had been $30,000 was up to around $60,000.
“It’s part of the direction of some of the larger galleries,” Mr. Serota, the Tate director said of the Hauser & Wirth production method. “They have a team that is primarily engaged in sales, another team helping the artists realize projects within the gallery, and they also have someone who is more of a curator. It’s something that you can do if you have the resources but a really small commercial gallery can’t do that. They’re living hand-to-mouth trying to sell works.”
Depending on whom you ask, Hauser & Wirth’s imminent New York expansion is either a boon to the art-loving public—collectors or really anyone interested in seeing challenging and ambitious art—or it’s yet another mega-gallery, moving in on the more modest shops. Mr. Wirth’s business represents a double-threat to midcareer galleries. He has them outgunned financially, and he also comes with curatorial street cred. With the resources of a big-box retailer, Hauser & Wirth retains the artist-center aura, and some of the freewheeling nature, of a smaller space. For nearly a decade it has worked with Christoph Büchel, an artist so notoriously difficult that he once sued the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art because it could not obtain the fuselage of a 727, though they had already obtained and installed an entire prefabricated house. At London’s Frieze Art Fair in 2006, Mr. Wirth allowed Mr. Büchel to fill Hauser & Wirth’s booth with a thousand copies of Mein Kampf in Arabic.
Asked what he would identify as a turning point in a still young career, Mr. Wirth pointed to the death of Jason Rhoades, who passed away in 2006 from heart failure at age 41. Two years ago, Hauser & Wirth in London showed, on a vastly reduced scale, Perfect World, a piece Rhoades made in 1999 that occupied the entire Deichtorhallen museum in Hamburg. The very top level of that artwork, accessible by only two people in a hydraulic elevator, was a 1:1 photographic reproduction of Rhoades’s father’s vegetable garden.
“He was always talking about that garden, and patience,” Mr. Wirth recalled. “I’m by nature a completely impatient person. So, for me, managing careers is therapy. What I do is very simple: I calm the artists down. They tend to think it’s all over, tomorrow, and that keeps them going. They work like that—it’s why they’re so good. My job is to give them the confidence to look ahead.
“We’re taking an extremely long view,” he said.
With additional reporting by Sarah Douglas.