If there is one thing that stood out for me at last week's Royal Wedding it was the celebration of charity. Over 200 charities supported by Harry and Meghan were invited to the wedding grounds. Charismatic bishop Michael Curry passionately asked us all to “Love thy neighbour”. Inspired by this as well as by Houston's reputation as a place for socially engaged art, this blog will have a new regular feature titled ACCESS ART, highlighting important art projects, galleries, artists or collections that care about their community and about access to art for all.
It caught my eye recently that Hauser & Wirth, one of the largest commercial galleries with offices in Zurich, London, Somerset, Hong Kong, New York and LA, has embraced a more open, charitable position.
It’s a sunny afternoon and the LA branch of Hauser & Wirth is buzzing with activity. Children are creating artworks on tables in the gallery’s sunny courtyard. Parents are talking to other parents. The gallery’s artist-educators are on standby to offer help. Such community programming has become a familiar scene in museums and public galleries, which heavily rely on these activities to obtain more funding. Hauser & Wirth, however, is a commercial gallery, operating a business model of achieving the highest possible sales for its artists (and seeing its rate of expansion, doing this very well).
Hauser & Wirth opened its LA office in 2014 in the late-nineteenth former Globe Grain & Milling Company in the middle of LA’s downtown Arts District. Already its preservation efforts have won the gallery the prestigious Conservancy’s Chair’s Award 2018. and the building is impressive. The complex includes a multi-disciplinary arts center, incorporating the first ARTBOOK store in Los Angeles, a gallery space for Hauser & Wirth Publishers’ Book & Printed Matter Lab, and the restaurant Manuela, featuring seasonal fare and locally sourced produce. There is a sunny courtyard open to the public, surrounded by flower beds and murals by two of their artists.
But it is Hauser & Wirth LA’s program of community events that truly stands out. ‘Sundays with the Gardener’ offer all-age demonstrations by resident gardener Jake Mumm, who is also a lifelong community educator raising awareness of urban regenerative food-production. In last month's ‘Family Studio Workshop’ art educator Matt MacFarland led children around the exhibition of gallery artist Mark Bradford (himself a great pioneer for social change) and let the children make artworks that use Bradford’s technique of building up and layering the surface. Music performances to activate the space have included a violinist from LA’s chamber orchestra under a Pipilotti Rist installation, and the gallery organizes regular ‘Noise Concerts’ pioneering the interplay of sound and art.
As far as I know, this is the only ‘blue-chip’ gallery that offers a public program aimed at its direct community. What drives them? I decided to approach the gallery's LA branch directly.
Senior Director of Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles Stacen Berg informs me that Hauser & Wirth’s outreach started in the UK, when the gallery opened its space in a 17th century farmhouse in rural Somerset in 2014. As Berg explains, the public programming was inspired by more than sales figures. “Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the partners of the gallery, brought together their passion for art with their enthusiasm for hospitality, gastronomy, and community when they opened the Somerset location. Pioneering a revolutionary model for the 21st century gallery, Hauser & Wirth is dedicated to exploring how art interplays with all aspects of life.”
Located in one of America’s largest cities, Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles serves as a counterpart to its rural Somerset gallery. According to Berg, "[t]he LA art scene is experiencing a renaissance. Art is now an integral part of the conversation around fostering community within the city.” The gallery tries to include everyone within a two-mile radius of the building, including families, local non-profit spaces, schools, and local artisans. The Arts District LA is branded as a ‘non-profit business improvement district (BID) where area property owners assess themselves additional fees to pay for maintenance and security services above those provided by the city. A for-profit art space reaching out to the community fits well within the district’s mission.
This begs the question whether more commercial galleries should start to build social responsibility into their business models. Cynics may say that Hauser & Wirth uses its expanded public program as a marketing tool and that its local audience is still relatively affluent. But Berg emphasizes that outreach is a natural and organic part of the Hauser & Wirth brand. “Hauser & Wirth is, at its core, a family business, which over the past 26 years has expanded internationally, however, each of its global outposts maintains a local feel and celebrates the history of its surroundings.” In other words: a global outlook with a local feel.
Is there a social responsibility for the giants of the gallery world, just like there is for other large companies? This is a complex field: many galleries struggle to cut even and adequately support their artists. But there is definitely an argument to be made for the larger, conglomerate galleries – where the average artwork price often exceeds the $100.000 mark – to start to dedicate some of their profit to building community. This is especially true if the gallery shows artists that are (or were) strong activists for social engagement, such as Mark Bradford - there is much to be said for the gallery extending the artist’s generous spirit to their own local community.
Time will tell if other galleries will follow suit. But if I had the right budget and was looking to buy art, it’s Hauser & Wirth I would go to first.