MAHON, Spain – With billionaires totaling more than $ 10 trillion in total, it's an epic time for luxury lifestyle tourism too.
Just days after Virgin Galactic introduced Richard Branson to interstellar travel, an unusual art center opened on the Spanish island of Isla del Rey off Menorca on Saturday, bringing together contemporary art lovers to celebrate the latest project by Swiss art dealer Hauser & Wirth.
While the tiny island, abandoned in the 1960s after serving as the site of a military hospital, has traditionally not been a place that attracts wealthy collectors, Hauser & Wirth is determined to change that. The international mega-gallery has rapidly expanded its core business by also offering its customers the lifestyle experience that comes from visiting a remote, unique place.
Dominated by its 18th century hospital, the island is located in the middle of the largest natural harbor in the Mediterranean, 15 minutes by boat from Mahón, the capital of Menorca. Hauser & Wirth has leased part of the island property from a local volunteer foundation that has been restoring the hospital for nearly two decades.
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. With Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the gallery transformed the little-known village of Bruton into an art destination. Opened in 2014, the complex drew more than 110,000 visitors in the year before the pandemic broke out, said Chloe Kinsman, a spokeswoman for Hauser & Wirth.
Hauser & Wirth Menorca was developed in a similar way and has a 16,000-square-foot arts center surrounded by landscaped gardens by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf and dotted with sculptures by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Eduardo Chillida and Joan Miró, as well as a gallery store and shop a restaurant.
Luis Alejandre, a retired Spanish general and president of the Isla del Rey Volunteer Foundation, said Hauser & Wirth invested around € 4 million, or about $ 4.7 million, in its project.
Hauser & Wirth Menorca is "exactly the kind of project we have been looking for for a long time," said Héctor Pons, the mayor of Mahón. It would attract more upscale visitors to the area, he added, noting that Menorca was already a popular yachting destination.
But Pons also mentioned that the Somerset project by Hauser & Wirth had led to a local real estate shortage there and the arrival of the gallery had already had an impact 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 traders also wanted the Menorca center to be accepted by local residents so that visitors could reach it with a special ferry service and entry to the site itself would be free.
The Menorca Arts Center opens a year behind schedule and at a time when the pandemic continues to overshadow tourism. On Monday, the same day that Hauser & Wirth opened its doors to the public, the UK reintroduced quarantine for travelers returning from Menorca and Spain's other Balearic Islands following a recent surge in Covid cases.
Hauser & Wirth invited around 500 people to the private inauguration last weekend. "We would have liked to have celebrated more," said Iwan Wirth in an interview. “But we don't want this place to be an Ibiza either,” he added. "This is not going to be a party island."
The mega-galleries of the “Big Four” – Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, White Cube and Pace – have set up brand branches in the last ten years wherever wealth is made or spent – be it in Hong Kong or the Hamptons, Seoul or St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Among these mega-galleries, "Hauser & Wirth has taken a leading role by aggressively expanding its program to include major black artists," said Clayton Press, a New Jersey-based collector who also teaches at New York University .
The Menorca Center opened with an exhibition by Mark Bradford, a prominent black artist from Los Angeles who first exhibited at Hauser & Wirth's Zurich gallery in 2014. For the Menorca show “Masses and Movements” Bradford produced a series of paintings and sculptures based on maps from the 16th century, which thematize topics 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 that he could travel from the United States to oversee the installation of the exhibition.
But he was thrilled to have changed his mind, he said after Spain allowed vaccinated Americans to enter. In June he hosted a workshop with local art students on Isla del Rey, and work from the session is included in the exhibition.
Bradford's works were all pre-sold to institutions before the 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 art consultant.
In May, the gallery exhibited for the first time the British painter Frank Bowling from Guyana, who moved from the Hales Gallery in London to the Swiss dealer in October. Christina Quarles, Cindy Sherman and Gary Simmons have also joined Hauser & Wirth in the past 12 months, said Kinsman, the gallery's spokeswoman. Hauser & Wirth now represents 93 artists and their estates, she added.
Wirth said that 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 way and their locations were outlets,” he said. "Our locations are not outlets: they are managed and organized locally."
The Wirths also have their own hospitality 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. Artfarm is now planning 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 companies like Artfarm "are probably doing more to build brand awareness for the gallery and its artists than to contribute to their revenue."
Wirth said Hauser & Wirth's sales fell about 30 percent last year during the pandemic, but he and his wife have further expansion plans with Paris and Asia as potential destinations. They said they preferred to search for their own venues rather than responding to tons of investment proposals, he said.
"We are now approached monthly, sometimes weekly, by a company or someone who has a building or a mountain hut or whatever," said Wirth. “Are we going to double in the next five years? I don't think so, but there could be a few more strategic locations – and a few surprises. "