MAHÓN, Spain — When the total wealth held by billionaires reaches a high of more than $10 trillion, this is also a great time for luxury lifestyle tourism.
Just days after Virgin Galactic launched Richard Branson into an interstellar journey, the unlikely art center opened on Saturday on the Spanish island of Isla del Rey in Menorca — gathering contemporary art lovers to celebrate a recent project by Swiss-owned art dealer Hauser & Wirth.
While the tiny island, abandoned in the 1960s after being used as the site of a military hospital, isn’t the kind of place that traditionally attracts wealthy collectors, Hauser & Wirth is determined to change that. Mega-gallery international has rapidly expanded its core business by also offering lifestyle experiences to its clients who come from visiting remote and unique locations.
Dominated by an 18th-century hospital, this small island stands in the middle of the largest natural harbor in the Mediterranean, 15 minutes by boat from Mahón, the capital city of Menorca. Hauser & Wirth has leased some of the island’s land from a local volunteer foundation that has worked 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 their other project, in Somerset, England. With Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the gallery turns the little-known village of Bruton into an art destination. Opened in 2014, the complex attracted more than 110,000 visitors in the year before the pandemic hit, said Chloe Kinsman, a spokeswoman for Hauser & Wirth.
Developed along the same lines, Hauser & Wirth Menorca has a 16,000-square-foot art center surrounded by landscaped gardens by Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, decorated with sculptures by artists including Louise Bourgeois, Eduardo Chillida and Joan Miró, as well as a gallery of shops and restaurants.
Luis Alejandre, a retired Spanish general who is president of the Isla del Rey Volunteer Foundation, said that Hauser & Wirth invested about 4 million euros, or about $4.7 million, in the project.
Hauser & Wirth Menorca is “the kind of project we have been looking for for a long time,” says Héctor Pons, mayor of Mahón. This will attract more upscale visitors to the area, he added, noting that Menorca is already a popular destination for yachting.
But Pons also mentions that the Somerset Hauser & Wirth project has created local property pressure there, and that the gallery’s arrival has had an impact on the housing market in Menorca. “We’ve seen a marked increase in sales to foreigners looking for secondary homes,” he said.
However, Swiss dealers say they also want the Menorca center to be embraced by locals, so visitors can reach it on a dedicated ferry service and enter the site itself free of charge.
The Menorca arts center opened a year behind schedule, and at times the pandemic continues to overshadow tourism. On Monday, the same day Hauser & Wirth opened its doors to the public, the UK reintroduced quarantine for travelers returning from Menorca and the rest of Spain’s Balearic Islands, following the recent increase in Covid cases.
For last weekend’s private inauguration, Hauser & Wirth invited about 500 people. “We would love to celebrate even more,” Iwan Wirth said in an interview. “But we also don’t want this place to be Ibiza,” he added. “It’s not going to be a party island.”
Mega-gallery “Big Four” — Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, White Cube, and Pace—have, over the past decade, established branded branches in locations wherever wealth is made or spent—whether it’s Hong Kong or the Hamptons, Seoul or St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Among these mega-galleries, “Hauser & Wirth has taken the lead by aggressively expanding its program to include leading black and female artists,” said Press Clayton, a New Jersey-based collector who also teaches at New York University.
The Menorca Center opened with a performance by Mark Bradford, a prominent black artist from Los Angeles who first exhibited at Hauser & Zurich Wirth Gallery in 2014. For Menorca’s show, “Mass and Movement,” Bradford produced a series of paintings and sculptures based on 16th-century maps, which address issues such as migration and the legacy of colonialism.
In an interview, Bradford said he initially turned down Hauser & Wirth’s offer to exhibit at Menorca, especially when it seemed unlikely he would be able to travel from the United States to oversee the show’s installation.
But he was glad he had 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 resulting from the session was included in the show.
Bradford’s work had all been sold to institutions prior to Saturday’s opening, Wirth said in an interview.
“Hauser & Wirth are very good at getting institutions to buy their work, and that is a huge draw for artists,” said Wendy the Goldsmith, a London-based art advisor.
In May, the gallery also exhibited for the first time the Guiana-born British painter Frank Bowling, who in October switched to a Swiss dealership from the Hales Gallery in London. Christina Quarles, Cindy Sherman and Gary Simmons have also joined the Hauser & Wirth stables in the past 12 months, said Kinsman, a spokesperson for the gallery. Hauser & Wirth now represents 93 artists or their estates, he added.
Wirth says his family business stands out among other big galleries because of its decentralized business model. “After the war, American galleries have dominated the art world in a New York-centered way, and their location is an outlet,” he said. “Our locations are not outlets: They are run and managed locally.”
The Wirth family also has a separate hospitality business called Artfarm, which is also growing. In 2019, Artfarm opened the Fife arm of 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 private restaurant and club. Press, a New Jersey-based collector, said a boutique hospitality business like Artfarm might “do more to build brand recognition for its galleries and artists than to contribute to its revenue.”
Wirth said sales of Hauser & Wirth fell about 30 percent last year during the pandemic, but he and his wife still have further plans for expansion, with Paris and Asia as potential targets. They said they would rather find their own place than respond to various investment proposals, he said.
“We’re now being approached monthly, or sometimes weekly, by the company or someone who owns the building or the mountain hut, or whatever,” Wirth said. “Are we going to double in the next five years? I don’t think so, but there might be some more strategic locations — and some surprises.”