The New York branch of the heavy hitting international gallery Hauser & Wirth is not, right now, very large. It occupies two floors in a bright, narrow townhouse on East 69th Street, the former home of the Martha Jackson Gallery and, after that, the offices of boxing promoter Don King.
Last Wednesday, the 33-year-old artist Rashid Johnson, a rising star in the New York art world, arrived at the crowded opening of his debut show with the gallery in a white shirt and with his dreads tied in a neat bow down his back, his 4-month-old son on his shoulder. The crowd parted as he handed off the baby and mingled. “You still own one of my favorite pieces,” he told Bed Bath & Beyond scion Marty Eisenberg, embracing him as he entered. Gallery vice president Marc Payot stood pinned against a wall near the bar by the heaving crowds and gestured to new arrivals as he held a glass of red wine from above, by the mouth, like a greeter in the receiving line of a particularly groovy wedding.
Both floors of the gallery were packed and the crowd was more downtown than usual—the collector-types, such as Don and Mera Rubell, who run a private museum in Miami, mingled with artists and Lower East Side dealers. At the drinks line, a guy in flannel praised the benefits of dating a rich woman (“I mean that’s my girl right there. I make 30 k. If it wasn’t for her I’d be following Occupy Wall Street right now”). Out on the street, collector and Observer columnist Adam Lindemann was overheard discussing Derrida’s Of Grammatology with Mr. Johnson’s Los Angeles dealer, David Kordansky, not far from the spot where, earlier in the night, a crowd of smokers had to clear the way for a pack of UES joggers.
“It is a major turning point for the gallery,” said LES dealer Steve Pulimood, outside. “In the past they had thought about expansion plans downtown. I have no idea what they’re thinking now, but I think that this is the ball that gets the whole thing rolling.”
This year, Hauser & Wirth plans to open a second exhibition space—over 15,000 square feet, compared to the 2,500 square feet of exhibition space they have now—downtown. No further details have been announced but the evening, with its hip visitors, felt a bit like peering into the future. Along with Gagosian, Pace and David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth ranks among the most powerful and highly capitalized art dealerships in the world, with three spaces in London, one in Zurich and the top artists and estates—like Paul McCarthy, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Pipilotti Rist and Jason Rhoades—to prove it. The only thing it lacks is a big New York footprint, and the news of the expansion has been met with excitement and, on the part of competitors, trepidation. Hauser & Wirth has never lost an artist to another gallery and has a reputation for signing them just as they’re on the cusp of superstardom, which seems to be the case for Mr. Johnson, who has a major exhibition coming up in April at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Soon, the gallery plans to announce its representation of yet another New York artist, not yet named.
“They have the money of Larry Gagosian and the taste of Paula Cooper,” said someone close to the gallery. On the evening following Mr. Johnson’s opening, Gagosian Gallery held openings, and a swanky party in a mansion, for its worldwide exhibition of Damien Hirst’s Spot paintings. Hauser & Wirth held a panel discussion, with curators from the MCA Chicago and the MIT List Visual Art Center.
“It’s funny,” said Martin Creed, one of the gallery’s artists, who is perhaps best known for his 2001 Turner Prize-winning piece The Lights Going On And Off, which consists of that happening in an empty room. ”Even though Hauser & Wirth is a very big gallery, one of the remarkable things about them is that they kind of behave like a small gallery. A lot of the exhibitions are like projects, so even a lot of their shows look like they’d be in a public space, not a private gallery.”
In December, during Art Basel Miami Beach, Iwan Wirth, co-owner of Hauser & Wirth and very much its public face, described his gallery as “an artist-centric organization.”
“Everything is built around that,” he told The Observer over mineral water at the Soho Beach House. “We have a culture where the artists immediately let me or Marc know if they feel neglected.”
At 41, Mr. Wirth is often described as “boyish.” He has a round face, ruddy-cheeks, falling curls and a “Let’s all do this thing!” demeanor, a contrast to the blasé, “this thing barely requires you” attitude embraced by other top dealers. In addition to art, he collects axes. He has around 15 of them. He’s also fond of tools and coins—Celtic or Roman Bronze Age objects, some of which his young son Elias, one of four children, finds in the fields surrounding the family’s farm in Somerset, England, where Mr. Wirth and his wife, Manuela, spend most of their time. Asked by an art magazine what he would be doing if he weren’t a dealer, he replied, “I would probably be a fisherman. I love fly-fishing.”
In Miami, Mr. Wirth manned his gallery’s sizable booth at the fair, where he reportedly sold three editions of Paul McCarthy’s sculpture White Snow Dwarf (Bashful) to European collectors for $900,000, and Rashid Johnson’s MM … Food (2011), for $75,000, among other pieces.
Despite his relative youth, he is already something of an old hand at art dealing. He opened his first gallery in 1986 when he was 16 years old. The space, in his hometown of St. Gallen, catered to the rich with brand names like Le Corbusier, Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia and Joan Miró, consignments he often hustled through Zurich galleries. His architect father handled his legal affairs, since he was still a minor. Though Mr. Wirth’s entry into the primary market—the term for sales of new works directly from artists—is usually dated later, he did host shows of new works with local artists. Wednesday afternoons are school-free for Swiss children, and Mr. Wirth used the time to visit studios with his friend Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who would go on to be a well-known independent curator of contemporary art, and who now is curator at London’s Serpentine Gallery.
It was through these studio visits that he met the artist Caro Niederer, who was 22 at the time and agreed to show with the young Mr. Wirth. She is still represented by Hauser & Wirth.
“He didn’t seem, to me, like he was 16,” she said.
In 1990 he moved to Zurich where he continued to work with the secondary market, and soon after met Ursula Hauser, his future mother-in-law and the founder of a Swiss retail empire. They went into business together and scouted for secondary market deals, either to sell or to build her own robust contemporary art collection.
Early in their partnership, one of the gallery’s artists said, the elder Ms. Hauser and Mr. Wirth had to take a transatlantic flight and Mr. Wirth made the arrangements. He bought them both first-class tickets. At the airport, the elder Ms. Hauser chastised Mr. Wirth for the extravagance, pointing out that they still didn’t know how successful their partnership was going to be. She proposed changing her seat, but Mr. Wirth stopped her. “Look,” he said. “Our clients, they’re not sitting in the economy class. And now we have eight hours to check out who’s in first.”
(Asked about the story for fact-checking purposes, Mr. Wirth laughed and said it never happened.)
Hauser & Wirth opened its doors in Zurich in 1992 as a partnership between Iwan Wirth, Ursula Hauser and her daughter Manuela. (Manuela and Iwan would marry in 1996.) Around this time Mr. Wirth also began doing business with dealer David Zwirner, who had recently opened a gallery in New York’s Soho. Though Mr. Wirth and the two Hausers had already signed a few artists to represent on the primary market, Mr. Wirth first approached Mr. Zwirner as a collector. The two men clicked over their taste in art, particularly that of Jason Rhoades, whose massive counterculture-infused installations Mr. Zwirner was showing at the time. Mr. Zwirner recalled that Mr. Wirth, five years his junior, was wearing a Panama hat when he strode into his office.
“He just seemed immensely curious and starry-eyed about art,” Mr. Zwirner said.
In 1998, the two opened Zwirner & Wirth, a secondary market business, in the 69th Street townhouse now home to Mr. Wirth’s current New York branch. They scored a major coup in 2008 when they wrangled a portion of the collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs from Sotheby’s. Art + Auction’s Judd Tully reported that the dealers’ portion was worth between $60 million and $80 million. Though “Zwirner & Wirth” was officially dissolved in 2009 because of what Mr. Zwirner called “brand confusion”—in September of that year, the 69th Street townhouse was rechristened as Hauser & Wirth—the two men have continued business as usual and their collaborative secondary market business has only grown in the years since then.
A few years after Zwirner & Wirth opened its doors, Mr. Wirth hired Mr. Payot, another Swiss, whom he first approached with a position at his gallery at an art fair in Chicago. Mr. Payot was then employed by a smaller gallery—so small that he had to vacuum the booth himself—but was loyal enough that he had to be wooed over three meetings. Mr. Payot came to work in London after the gallery opened on Piccadilly in 2003.
The gallery, hush-hush about its clients, came to be known for selling to the art world’s top collectors, among them Bernard Arnault, François Pinault and “Mick” Flick.
Mr. Wirth is in New York only occasionally, for the most part leaving things to Mr. Payot. When he’s in town, as he was in November for the opening of Paul McCarthy’s show of Snow White sculptures, he stays in an apartment above the gallery in the 69th Street townhouse, which he owns. At New York’s major biannual auctions that month, he watched as a giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, whose estate he represents, hammered down at Christie’s for $10.7 million, setting a new world auction record for a postwar work by a woman; at that same sale, he placed the winning bid on Tomato Head (Green), a whimsical 1994 sculpture by Mr. McCarthy, for a new artist record of $4.6 million.
With the addition of New York, Hauser & Wirth will run five gallery spaces in three cities. Most galleries demur about financials, but if you want a sense of the amount of money that goes into running a multinational operation, the German dealer Matthias Arndt gave a ballpark figure to The Art Newspaper a year ago, estimating “that a gallery would need a turnover of about $100 million a year to have five international spaces outside its headquarters.”
In that article, the paper detailed “the rise and rise of the mega-gallery”—brand-name dealerships with locations in multiple cities and, often, multiple sites in the same city. The race to open new spaces is due in part to the growth of contemporary art—both in popularity and in sheer size. Then there’s the ever-increasing competition from the auction houses, which, armed with global reach and enormous client bases, have been acting more and more like galleries, with selling exhibitions and aggressive private sales departments. And with the onset of online marketplaces and JPEG transactions, private secondary market dealers have never been more efficient in competing with galleries.
But there is one area in which these businesses can arguably never compete—the ability to nurture artists.
Hauser & Wirth’s vaunted artist support structure was initially devised to woo artists hesitant to join a gallery based in Zurich rather than in an art world nexus like New York, Mr. Payot said over morning coffee at the Neue Gallery’s wood-paneled Café Sabarsky.
Mr. Payot explained that the gallery is organized horizontally. Each artist is assigned a “project coordinator” who runs a team of three to eight people responsible for sales, production and everything in between. A project coordinator will work with multiple artists—the gallery represents 45 living artists, and has an international staff of some 70 people, with 10 of them currently in New York.
Most top galleries pay for production at some level, but Hauser & Wirth has developed a reputation for going above and beyond. In 1998, Dieter Roth, the Swiss artist who died later that year, insisted that Mr. Wirth open a rowdy pop-up bar in Zurich to coincide with an exhibit at the gallery, and the task of talking to angry police officers fell to Mr. Wirth. “I went through fire for that show,” the dealer said.