Art meets luxury in a sunny new gallery location

MAHÓN, Spain — As the total wealth held by billionaires peaks at more than $10 trillion, this is also an epic time for luxury tourism.

Just days after Virgin Galactic launched Richard Branson into interstellar travel, an unlikely art center opened on the Spanish islet of Isla del Rey off Menorca on Saturday – bringing contemporary art lovers together to celebrate the latest project from Swiss art dealer Hauser & Wirth.

While the tiny island, abandoned in the 1960s after serving as the site of a military hospital, isn’t the sort of place that traditionally attracts wealthy collectors, Hauser & Wirth is determined to change that. The international mega-gallery quickly expanded its core business by also offering its clientele the kind of life experience that comes from visiting a remote and unique place.

Dominated by its 18th century hospital, the islet stands in the middle of the largest natural harbor in the Mediterranean, 15 minutes by boat from Mahón, the capital of Menorca. Hauser & Wirth leased part of the land on the islet to a local voluntary foundation that has been working to restore the hospital for nearly two decades.

While seeking approval from local Spanish authorities, the Swiss gallery — founded in 1992 by Iwan Wirth; his wife, Manuela Wirth; and her mother, Ursula Hauser, invited a delegation from Menorca to visit another of their projects, in Somerset, England. Together with Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the gallery has transformed the little-known village of Bruton into an artistic destination. Opened in 2014, the resort drew more than 110,000 visitors in the year before the pandemic, said Chloe Kinsman, a spokeswoman for Hauser & Wirth.

Developed along similar lines, Hauser & Wirth Menorca includes a 16,000 square foot art center surrounded by a landscaped garden by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, dotted with sculptures by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Eduardo Chillida and Joan Miró, as well as a boutique gallery and restaurant.

Luis Alejandre, a retired Spanish general who is the president of the Isla del Rey Volunteer Foundation, said Hauser & Wirth invested around 4 million euros, or about $4.7 million, in his project.

Hauser & Wirth Menorca was “just the kind of project we had been looking for for a long time”, said Héctor Pons, the mayor of Mahón. This would attract more high-end visitors to the area, he added, noting Menorca is already a popular destination for yachting.

But Pons also mentioned that Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset project had created local property pressure there and that the gallery’s arrival had already had an effect on the housing market in Menorca. “We have seen a noticeable increase in sales to foreigners looking for second homes,” he said.

However, the Swiss concessionaires have said they also want the center of Menorca to be embraced by local residents, so that visitors can reach it by a special ferry service and entry to the site itself is free. .

Menorca’s art center opens its doors a year late, and at a time when the pandemic continues to cast a shadow over tourism. On Monday, the same day Hauser & Wirth opened to the public, Britain reintroduced a quarantine for travelers returning from Menorca and Spain’s other Balearic Islands, following a recent spike in Covid cases.

For the private inauguration last weekend, Hauser & Wirth invited around 500 people. “We would have liked to celebrate more,” said Iwan Wirth in an interview. “But we don’t want this place to be an Ibiza either,” he added. “It will not be a party island.”

The “Big Four” mega-galleries – Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, White Cube and Pace – have, over the past decade, created branded branches in places where wealth is made or spent – be it Hong Kong or the Hamptons, Seoul or St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Of these mega-galleries, “Hauser & Wirth has taken the lead in aggressively expanding its program to include distinguished female and black artists,” said Clayton Press, a New Jersey-based collector who also teaches at the University. from New York.

The Menorca Center opened with an exhibition by Mark Bradford, a prominent black artist from Los Angeles who first exhibited at Zurich’s Hauser & Wirth Gallery in 2014. For the Menorca exhibition, “Masses and Movements”, Bradford produced a series of paintings and sculptures based on 16th century maps, addressing issues such as migration and the legacy of colonialism.

In an interview, Bradford said he initially turned down Hauser & Wirth’s offer to exhibit in Menorca, particularly when it seemed unlikely he would be able to travel from the United States to oversee the installation of the broadcast.

But he was glad he changed his mind, he said, after Spain allowed vaccinated Americans into the country. In June, he held a workshop with local art students on Isla del Rey, and the work produced from the session is included in the exhibit.

Bradford’s works had all been pre-sold to institutions before opening on Saturday, Wirth said in an interview.

“Hauser & Wirth are very good at getting institutions to buy their work, and that’s a big draw for artists,” said Wendy Goldsmith, a London-based arts adviser.

In May, the gallery also exhibited for the first time the Guyanese-born British painter Frank Bowling, who moved to the Swiss concession of the Hales Gallery in London in October. Christina Quarles, Cindy Sherman and Gary Simmons have also joined the Hauser & Wirth stable in the last 12 months, said gallery spokesperson Kinsman. Hauser & Wirth now represents 93 artists or their estates, she added.

Wirth said his family business stands out from other oversized galleries because of its decentralized business model. “After the war, American galleries dominated the art world in a New York-centric way, and their locations were outlets,” he said. “Our sites are not points of sale: they are managed and organized locally.”

The Wirths also own a separate hotel business called Artfarm, which is also expanding. In 2019, Artfarm opened the Fife Arms, a hotel in Braemar, Scotland, near the British Royal Family’s Balmoral Castle estate. Artfarm now plans to convert the Audley pub in central London, a protected heritage site, into a restaurant and private club. Press, the New Jersey-based collector, said boutique hospitality businesses like Artfarm “probably do more to build brand recognition for the gallery and its artists than contribute to its revenue.”

Wirth said Hauser & Wirth’s sales fell about 30% last year during the pandemic, but he and his wife still had other plans for expansion, with Paris and Asia as potential targets. They said they would rather research their own sites than respond to a myriad of investment proposals, he said.

“We are now approached monthly, or weekly sometimes, by a company or someone who has a building or a mountain hut, or whatever,” Wirth said. “Are we going to double in the next five years? I don’t think so, but there may be a few more strategic locations and some surprises.

Elisha A. Tilghman