Open for business

Simon Stephens, 16.07.2014
Why is a commercial gallery developing a venue in rural Somerset?
Hauser & Wirth has galleries in the places you would expect from a commercial art operation – London, New York and Zürich – and is also planning a site in Los Angeles.

But this week it opened an arts space at Durslade Farm in the village of Bruton in Somerset. Why on earth would a commercial gallery do this?

I visited Hauser & Wirth Somerset last week and it’s an interesting development for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there has been a blurring of the line between public and private galleries in recent years as commercial operators open up spaces that are more public-facing. Commercial galleries can benefit from the credibility that comes from being, well, less commercial.

The most obvious example is White Cube, which opened a vast gallery in 2011 in Bermondsey, London, with ambitions to develop an education programme alongside its exhibition and events. Hauser & Wirth says that education is an important part of its offer in Somerset.

There is a dedicated learning and events co-ordinator who is developing a programme for the education space, which has room for 100 people.

The gallery also has relationships with other arts organisations in the region, including the Holburne Museum in Bath and the Arnolfini in Bristol.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset, which has free admission and is open six days a week, is also unusual in that it is bringing international contemporary art to a rural location, something that is only usually offered by sculpture parks.

The gallery's first offering is a solo show by Phyllida Barlow, the British sculptor whose work can also be seen in London in the Tate Britain Commission 2014.

Works by other artists including Subodh Gupta, Paul McCarthy and Martin Creed can also be seen in the outside spaces at the gallery in Bruton.

Hauser & Wirth is hoping to attract about 40,000 visitors a year to Somerset, which compares with the 54,000 who visit a rural arts venue such as Compton Verney in Warwickshire, which shows contemporary and more traditional art.

Swiss art dealer Iwan Wirth founded Hauser & Wirth with his wife, Manuela Wirth, and his mother-in-law, Ursula Hauser.

He says his family fell in love with the English countryside and bought Durslade Farm without knowing what they wanted to do with it. A desire to offer residencies to some of the artists he represents led to the development of the gallery and arts centre.

Opinion is apparently divided in Bruton about whether Hauser & Wirth Somerset is a good thing, although Wirth and his team have worked hard to keep the local community on board, including throwing a huge opening party to which all were invited.

But while some can see how the village will benefit economically and culturally from the new venture, others are worried about rising costs and an influx of well-to-do outsiders.

It would be interesting to return to the Hauser & Wirth Somerset in a year or two to see if the village is full of affluent art lovers, while long-standing locals grumble at a jump in house prices. And will the gallery maintain its commitment to education and learning?

For now, in a county that cut all its direct grants to arts organisations a few years ago, Hauser & Wirth Somerset has much to offer.