The commercial megalith art gallery is a 21st century phenomenon. With their multiple locations around the world, they sometimes look as much like real estate empires as places for selling art. Representing dozens of living artists and the estates of others, their size and value are unprecedented. Yet, although the model is new, one thinks of old-fashioned commercial empires: these huge galleries often have a charismatic figurehead; inherited arrangements are kept in the family.
They can, to some extent, invent their business model as they go – for example, a sudden swerve in NFTs or accepting payment in crypto. All offer a range of goodies: films, books, events. Some – David Zwirner and Gagosian, for example – have become major publishers of art books. In the case of Hauser & Wirth, whose new Parisian gallery brings the number of its sites to 18, on the heels of Gagosian’s 19, the model is more diversified, with restaurants and cafes, a hotel, merchandise. It specializes in the conversion of historic buildings; in Bruton in Somerset and Menorca in the Balearic Islands, opening in 2021, they have created remarkable gardens.
At both of these locations, as well as the gallery’s New York and Los Angeles branches, there is also an emphasis on community engagement and learning. It’s the passion project of Manuela Wirth, co-director with her husband Iwan and Marc Peyot, explains the gallery’s educational director, Debbie Hillyerd, when we meet in a café in the capital of Menorca, Mahon.
“Our thinking is based on three pillars: community, access to education and career – which means that the gap between when you leave school and [enter] the world of work,” she says. Community projects involve local groups of all kinds, as well as harder-to-reach demographics. The academic component revolves around schools and students, while access to careers brings young people into the orbit of the gallery so they can gain experience for employment in the arts.
Hillyerd and the gallery’s teams have imagined cross-programs encompassing several of their sites. Chillida Leku, an unusual museum and foundation dedicated to Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida, is now part of the Hauser & Wirth stable: a Chillida sculpture is prominently displayed in the Menorca garden and the Somerset gallery organized a Chillida exhibition last year . It was perfect for a cross-gallery learning program, as Hillyerd puts it, “to educate, inform, provide opportunity, and let people know what we’re doing – joining the dots and making sense of things.”
In Somerset, an ambitious collaboration with Bournemouth University of the Arts has created a research and practice project embedded in the chosen students’ degree, all based on the gallery’s current Henry Moore exhibition. And his education work even travels: Last year’s inaugural artist in Menorca, Los Angeleno Mark Bradford, launched a model of interaction with local students that he took home as a program for 15-18 years old in a high school in South Los Angeles. school.
All aspects of Hauser’s community thinking are engaged this year in the Menorcan space, open from May to October. For its second season, Spanish Masters students were offered residencies to design the education lab, design activities for school children, and curate the education space – a generous part of the gallery’s converted buildings. Hillyerd says she wanted a new program “driven by the place itself, not someone like me in the UK”.
Hauser & Wirth has launched a call for Spanish universities for Masters students to apply for residencies. Among the winners was Carlos López, a student of contemporary art history and visual culture in Madrid, who was chosen by the director of Hillyerd and Hauser in Menorca, Mar Rescalvo Pons, to work with the small team on the island. The behind-the-scenes experience of a large gallery and a daily allowance were balanced by researching, designing and running a two-month program for schoolchildren on the island.
The results are delightful – hundreds of vibrant, expressive designs displayed on looped wires from the ceiling, like huge sails. When the gallery opens to the public next week, with an exhibition by American artist Rashid Johnson, the space will also offer visitors selected books and texts by Johnson, including poetry he grew up with – and an opportunity for more drawing.
So, will this residency model become an annual event? “Each year we should explore what we want and be flexible,” says Hillyerd. “We never wanted a didactic program, we are not an institution, we want to listen to the community. And what our artists want: the artist is always at the center of what we do.
“Rashid is a fantastic artist, he really supports learning and different forms of charity work. Our challenge is how to bring that to our audience in Menorca, to use it as a hook to attract people.