What Do You Put in the Largest Art Gallery in America?
“We could have made it bigger,” said art dealer Iwan Wirth, reclining in a midcentury chair on the second floor of his new new, 116,000-square-foot gallery. “But we don’t want to be [bigger]. These are manageable spaces.”
Manageable, of course, is relative.
The new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel takes up an entire city block. The complex—seven buildings that include a former bank, three warehouses, and a five-story building originally used for milling flour—is easily the largest destination in L.A.’s Downtown Arts District, an area that’s rapidly becoming a destination for powerful New York galleries’ grand satellite exhibition halls.
This is Hauser & Wirth’s sixth location. Iwan Wirth, who co-founded the gallery's original Zurich location with his wife and mother-in-law in 1996, before expanding to London, New York, and Somerset, U.K., has partnered with Paul Schimmel to run the new location. (Schimmel is formerly the chief curator of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.) Together they’ve hired a staff of around 25 people to operate the space and filled its galleries with more than 100 artworks for the inaugural exhibition, "Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women," a show devoted to a dizzying melange of striking, often very large, sculptures and installations spread across four of the complex’s ground-floor galleries. There's a series of giant canvas and welded steel wall sculptures by Lee Bontecou, a 12-foot-tall timber installation of Phyllida Barlow's signature multicolored fabric balls, and a giant aluminum floor sculpture by Lynda Benglis.
There's also, it should be added, a bookstore and a 6,000-square-foot interior courtyard. A restaurant, Manuela, is set to open up this summer.
Making a Splash
The inaugural show was designed to make a splash, with works on loan from private collectors and foundations, museums that include the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and MOCA in L.A., and such galleries as Paula Cooper and Michael Rosenfeld. (Although it may sound odd, it's standard procedure for a major gallery show to include, as this one does, many works that aren't for sale.) This being a commercial gallery, though, moneymakers include a bronze painted white-and-blue statue by Louise Bourgeois from 1949 (on sale for $2.4 million), one of Phyllida Barlow's trademark fabric balls from 2014 ($95,000), and a plaster wall sculpture by Anna Maria Maiolino ($180,000).
Celebrations for the opening are reminiscent of the lengthy rollout of New Coke: There are teaser previews, a series of dinners for friends, families, and collectors, a media preview, and then on Sunday, the public opening will feature a giant block party.
The party is easy enough to arrange (again, relatively speaking)—the colossal opening exhibition (that the party is celebrating) is an entirely different story.
Even the tiniest gallery show on the Upper East Side on Manhattan requires an intense amount of coordination. The organizer needs to find art to sell, art to borrow that accompanies (and ideally, augments) the art for sale, and then, after finding all this art, the organizer needs to negotiate its transport, presentation, and promotion. When you scale up to Hauser Wirth & Schimmel's size, the same logistics exist, but on a massive scale.
Economy of Scale
Wirth claims it’s a nonissue.
“To do a couple more shows a year isn’t that big of a challenge,” he said, shrugging. “We’re not reinventing the wheel.”
By that he means his gallery, which has between 10 and 15 registrars devoted exclusively to overseeing what he says are “thousands” of works of art, is capable of corralling the artworks, resources, and visitors to attend whatever type of exhibition he chooses. “We’ve built this up over the last 25 years,” he said. “Most gallery expansions fail because they run ahead [with programming], and the rest”—i.e. the infrastructure to support that programming—“fails to follow.”
But that’s only part of the story. Hauser Wirth & Schimmel is dramatically scaling down its number of yearly exhibitions, which makes programming easier.
Whereas in New York “five shows a year is the lowest we could possibly do,” said Marc Payot, a partner in the gallery, the L.A. space, he said, will do around two or three. “That New-York centric rhythm wouldn’t work here,” added Wirth. “It would just be a waste of resources.”
Hauser Wirth & Schimmel also benefits from the fact that many of its artists actually work in L.A. On a recent tour of the gallery’s private upstairs exhibition spaces, the superstar artist Paul McCarthy (the maker of the famous giant sex toys) was overseeing an installation of his paintings and sculpture in a back room.
“To have Paul install this is unbelievable,” said Wirth, shaking his head. “This would never happen outside of L.A.” McCarthy, for his part, said he loves the space. “The building’s pretty incredible,” he said, as a team of four assistants struggled to mount a giant abstract painting behind him. “It’s just a labyrinth of levels.”
So: the gallery has the artists to make the work, the staff to manage it, and the space to show it. And whom, in turn, does Wirth say it’s all for?
L.A. is “a completely different landscape than even five years ago,” he said. Many people didn't buy art, and those who did preferred to fly to New York galleries to make their selections. Now, Wirth says, “the city’s doing well, and there are more local collectors. They’re more mature, in a way, and there’s a growing interest in art from the entertainment industry.” The city's reputation as a money-losing showcase for galleries, in other words, is beginning to change.
“We’re actually here; this isn’t just a project space,” Wirth said. “When you come to L.A., you have to take it seriously.”