Net Wirth

With a new uptown space, Swiss art dealer Iwan Wirth defies the downturn and makes a play for New York.

Culture » Art & Design » Net Wirth

Net Wirth
Iwan Wirth at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich.

Net Wirth

With a new uptown space, Swiss art dealer Iwan Wirth defies the downturn and makes a play for New York.

Every art dealer remembers his first sale, the moment he discovered what it feels like to exchange a precious artwork for a handful of hard cash. Iwan Wirth made that discovery early. He was seven, and he’d teamed up with a cousin in his small Swiss town to create miniature knockoffs of Henry Moore sculptures. After making the reproductions out of clay, they set up an exhibit in their grand­father’s workshop, inviting everyone they knew and ultimately selling about 20 pieces.

And although the total revenue ($30) wasn’t all that remarkable by today’s standards, it did help Wirth pay for a new tennis racquet—and it taught him an important lesson. “My cousin, who was a much better artist than I was, didn’t sell anything, because he was never there,” Wirth recalls. “So you learn. You realize that no matter what you sell, you’ve got to be there.”

It’s a strategy that has worked well for Wirth, who today, at 39, still occasionally sells odd-­looking clay sculptures, though now they’re likely to be by Paul McCarthy and worth $1 million or more. His gallery, Hauser & Wirth—with several large spaces in Zurich and London and a roster that includes Pipilotti Rist, Martin Creed, Louise Bourgeois, Guillermo Kuitca, Dan Graham and Roni Horn—recently opened an outpost on East 69th Street in New York. Some observers may doubt the wisdom of expanding at a time when so many galleries are scaling back or closing, but those who know Wirth see it as a typically forward-thinking move.

“For Iwan, it’s probably the perfect thing to do,” says Barry Rosen, who advises the estates of artists including Eva Hesse and Allan Kaprow, both also repped by Hauser & Wirth. “The gallery is spending money, but it can afford to.”

Wirth opened his first gallery in his hometown while still in his teens, selling Le Corbusier drawings and Miró prints, and in 1992 teamed with wealthy Swiss collector Ursula Hauser and her daughter Manuela (whom he married a few years later) to deal on the secondary market in Zurich. He soon signed Hauser & Wirth’s first contemporary artist, Rist, luring her away from Basel’s esteemed Stampa gallery by asking her what she needed most—a full-time assistant, she told him—and getting it for her. With frequent trips to L.A. and New York, he began to build an impressive list of international talent, recruiting such artists as McCarthy and Jason Rhoades despite the limitations of his Zurich base.

“No artist really needs to show in Switzerland,” Wirth admits. “So if we wanted to succeed on the periphery, we had to invent different schemes and use different tools to get attention.”

Along with a well-trained eye, those tools included deep pockets and plenty of patience. By betting early on artists whose commercial potential was far from obvious and by offering elaborate exhibitions and other support that the artists couldn’t have afforded without him, Wirth simultaneously raised their profiles and developed strong bonds with them that paid off later. (No artist has ever defected from the gallery.) In 2002, when he was on the verge of leasing his main London location, a historic bank building on Piccadilly, he flew McCarthy, Rist, Rhoades and others into town just to make sure they all approved of the space, since they’d be showing their art there.

Iwan Wirth

A Paul McCarthy exhibit at the Zurich gallery earlier this year.

“The funny thing is that it works,” says Wirth of his business model, adding that the gallery has turned a profit every year since the mid-Nineties. “You’re very close with the artists and you become a part of the creative process, and that gives you credibility with collectors.”

During this iffy era in the art market, a time when the long-foolproof Larry Gagosian approach to dealing—poaching newly hot artists and relentlessly focusing on sales—has lost much of its luster, Wirth’s subtler methods are looking especially savvy. Like Gagosian, he is adept at leveraging his connections for lucrative private sales on the secondary market, though instead of the New World moguls Gagosian often deals with, Wirth’s clients tend to be seasoned collectors, including many families that have been acquiring art for generations. It doesn’t hurt that one of Switzerland’s greatest private collections, which Ursula started in the Sixties and Wirth got involved with when he joined the family, is now partly his own.

Wirth, who lives in London’s Notting Hill with Manuela and their four children, is big and lumbering, with nerdy glasses and a perpetual half smile that adds to his air of childlike eagerness. “I’m an easy victim for artists because I get emotional about projects,” he says. “I can get carried away.” In 1998 Hauser & Wirth produced a Dieter Roth show in Zurich that included four separate installations plus an off-site bar; before Wirth knew it, he’d agreed to Roth’s demand that he lease a Zurich storefront in which to build and operate the bar, and also pay for its “staff” (a crew of Roth’s friends from Iceland) to fly in and stay at nice hotels for several weeks. “I don’t know how much more I could have taken,” Wirth says. Roth died during the show, but it was a major critical success, and a video installation from it is now in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Not surprisingly, Wirth’s artists have few complaints about his instinct for indulgence. “The thing about Iwan is he’s just totally behind you and he doesn’t waver,” says Horn. The gallery’s largesse does have its limits, however; when Rist recently asked Wirth to be a coproducer of this year’s Pepperminta, her debut as a feature film director, he declined because it wasn’t a fine-art piece. But he did invest in the film, and Rist, a close friend, says Wirth’s knack for balancing enthusiasm with practicality is one of his signature traits. “If I find myself in a conflict or a difficult situation and I tell him about it,” she says, “he’ll listen to me like a five-year-old kid, with an open mouth. And then he’ll suggest ideas with the wisdom of a 70-year-old man.”

To succeed in New York these days, Wirth may need to draw equally on his optimism and his sang-froid. “It’s absolutely a buyer’s market right now,” he says. Still, since Wirth himself is a buyer as well as a seller, he has been actively purchasing for clients and for the family collection; he shelled out a record $4.1 million for a Kippenberger at Sotheby’s in May. On the sales front he is gratified to see the balance of power shift away from auction houses and back to galleries, as rampant speculation falls further out of favor. During the flush years, Wirth says, “I think the auction houses thought they had some real clients, but now they’ve realized they don’t. And galleries thought they’d lost their clients, but they hadn’t.”

When it opened in September, Hauser & Wirth’s New York location was jammed with used car tires for William Pope.L’s reinvention of Yard, a work Allan Kaprow inaugurated in 1961 when the Martha Jackson Gallery occupied the space. The six-story building later housed Zwirner & Wirth, the secondary market partnership Wirth operated with New York dealer David Zwirner. (That affiliation has ended, though Wirth and Zwirner will continue to collaborate.) The Upper East Side is an odd area for a contemporary gallery, and Wirth admits he did look at spaces downtown, but after the economy imploded, he, Ursula and Manuela decided to adapt the town house, which they already owned. “It’s the perfect space for us at this time,” he says.

Iwan and Manuela have an apartment on the building’s upper floors, where, every night during their New York sojourns, they offer the ultimate tribute to art by actually sleeping in a sculpture. Their bed is a typically ribald work by Rhoades, who gave it to them before he died, three years ago; it’s a plywood platform on overturned buckets, with lamps symbolizing female genitalia and Nineties porn magazines stashed in a cabinet.

Wirth, who was a close friend of Rhoades’s, insists the piece is not for sale. But who knows? If the right person wants it, for the right price, maybe he’ll see what he can do.

See More Art & Design