MAHÓN, Spain — As the total wealth held by billionaires hits a high of more than $10 trillion, it is also an epic time for luxury lifestyle tourism.
Only days after Virgin Galactic launched Richard Branson into interstellar travel, an unlikely art center was inaugurated Saturday on the Spanish islet of Isla del Rey off Menorca — gathering contemporary art lovers to celebrate the latest project by the Swiss-owned art dealership Hauser & Wirth.
While the small island, abandoned in the 1960s after serving as the site of a military hospital, is not the kind of place that traditionally attracts wealthy collectors, Hauser & Wirth is determined to change this. The international mega-gallery has been fast expanding its core business by also offering its clientele the kind of lifestyle experience that comes from visiting a remote, unique location.
Dominated by its 18th-century hospital, the islet stands in the middle of the Mediterranean’s largest natural harbor, 15 minutes by boat from Mahón, Menorca’s capital. Hauser & Wirth has leased part of the islet’s land from a local volunteer foundation that has been working on restoring the hospital for nearly two decades.
While it was seeking approval from the 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. With Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the gallery turned 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 Hauser & Wirth spokeswoman.
Developed along similar lines, Hauser & Wirth Menorca features a 16,000-square-foot art center surrounded by a landscaped garden by the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, dotted with sculptures by artists including Louise Bourgeois, Eduardo Chillida and Joan Miró, as well as a gallery shop and a restaurant.
Luis Alejandre, a retired Spanish general who is the president of the Isla del Rey volunteer foundation, said that Hauser & Wirth invested approximately 4 million euros, or about $4.7 million, in its project.
Hauser & Wirth Menorca was “just the kind of project we have long been looking for,” said Héctor Pons, the mayor of Mahón. It would attract more upmarket visitors to the area, he added, noting that Menorca is already a popular destination for yachting.
But Pons also mentioned that Hauser & Wirth’s Somerset project had created a local property squeeze there, and that the gallery’s arrival had already had an effect on the housing market on Menorca. “We have seen a noticeable rise in sales to foreigners looking for secondary homes,” he said.
However, the Swiss dealers said they also wanted the Menorca center to be embraced by local residents, so visitors can reach it by a special ferry service and entrance to the site itself is free.
The Menorca art center is opening a year behind schedule, and at a time when the pandemic continues to cast a shadow over tourism. On Monday, the same day Hauser & Wirth opened its doors to the public, Britain reintroduced a quarantine for travelers returning from Menorca and Spain’s other Balearic Islands, following a recent uptick in Covid cases.
For last weekend’s private inauguration, Hauser & Wirth invited about 500 people. “We would have loved to celebrate more,” Iwan Wirth said in an interview. “But we also don’t want this place to be an Ibiza,” he added. “This is not going to be a party island.”
The “Big Four” mega-galleries — Hauser & Wirth, Gagosian, White Cube and Pace — have, over the last decade, been setting up branded branches in locations wherever wealth is made or spent — whether it be Hong Kong or the Hamptons, Seoul or St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Among these mega-galleries, “Hauser & Wirth has taken a lead by aggressively expanding its program to include distinguished female and Black artists,” said Clayton Press, a New Jersey-based collector who also teaches at New York University.
The Menorca center opened with a show by Mark Bradford, a prominent Black artist from Los Angeles who first exhibited in Hauser & Wirth’s Zurich gallery in 2014. For the Menorca show, “Masses and Movements,” Bradford produced a series of paintings and sculptures based on 16th-century maps, addressing issues like migration and the legacy of colonialism.
In an interview, Bradford said he initially refused Hauser & Wirth’s offer to exhibit in Menorca, particularly when it looked unlikely that he would be able to travel from the United States to supervise the show’s installation.
But he was thrilled to have changed his mind, he said, after Spain allowed vaccinated Americans to enter the country. In June, he held a workshop with local art students on Isla del Rey, and work produced from the session is included in the show.
Bradford’s works had all been presold to institutions before the Saturday opening, Wirth said in an interview.
“Hauser & Wirth are very good at getting institutions to buy their works, and that’s a big draw to artists,” said Wendy Goldsmith, a London-based art adviser.
In May, the gallery also exhibited for the first time the Guyana-born British painter Frank Bowling, who in October switched to the Swiss dealership from the Hales Gallery in London. Christina Quarles, Cindy Sherman and Gary Simmons have also joined the Hauser & Wirth stable in the last 12 months, said Kinsman, the gallery spokeswoman. Hauser & Wirth now represents 93 artists or their estates, she added.
Wirth said his family business stood out among other supersized galleries because of its decentralized business model. “After the war, American galleries have dominated the art world in a New York-centric way, and their locations were outlets,” he said. “Our locations are not outlets: They are locally run and organized.”
The Wirths also own a separate 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 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 revenues.”
Wirth said Hauser & Wirth’s sales fell about 30 percent last year during the pandemic, but he and his wife still had further plans for expansion, with Paris and Asia as potential targets. They said that they preferred to scout for their own venues rather than respond to myriad investment proposals, he said.
“We are now approached monthly, or weekly sometimes, by a company or someone that has a building or mountain hut, or whatever,” Wirth said. “Will we double in the next five years? I don’t think so, but there may be a few more strategic locations — and a few surprises.”