Anyone who has lived in New York knows that the search for an apartment is long, arduous, and anxiety inducing. Now, imagine looking for a several-thousand-foot exhibition space. (While you’re at it, you can also imagine you are a multi-million-dollar international business, which should take some of the edge off.) Still, it’s a daunting process, and one that preoccupied the Swiss- and London-based gallery Hauser & Wirth for more than three years. Earlier this month, after lots of speculation, the gallery announced it would open a 23,000-square-foot space in Chelsea this fall, occupying the former Roxy roller disco.
The gallery entered the New York scene back in 2009, when it opened a modest space in a townhouse on the Upper East Side. The subtlety of its arrival was part financial shrewdness, part diplomacy — Hauser & Wirth didn’t want to infringe too aggressively on the territory of other major galleries with whom it shared artists. Now, however, after three years, the gallery is finally ready to spread out. And with artists like the enfant terrible Christoph Buchel and Paul McCarthy, they’ll have no trouble filling the space. Recently, ARTINFO chatted with Marc Payot, who runs Hauser & Wirth’s New York branch, to find out how the gallery settled on the Roxy and what he has in store for the new space.
When Hauser & Wirth first arrived in New York, it was in negotiations to buy the Bari building across from the New Museum, but pulled out and opted for the UES townhouse instead. What's changed since then, and why did you decide now was the time to open up a larger space?
When we began considering the Bari building on the Bowery, the economic climate was different. Everything changed in 2008. And with the economic downturn, we reconsidered the wisdom of making such a huge commitment — not only in terms of dollars but also in terms of appearances. So many people were feeling the effects of changing fortunes and so much was uncertain, that we felt it would be insensitive and wrong to debut a huge facility. We already owned our beautiful townhouse on the Upper East Side. So it was quite natural for us to adapt that building as a more discreet and intimate space for starting in New York. Of course, it was always our intention eventually to have a large space in New York City that would physically accommodate the dreams of our artists. Today the timing is right for such an expansion, certainly better than it was three or four years ago. We are very happy we waited.
Tell me a bit about the search process. How long did it take you to find the right space? Were there any other places you were considering?
Because it was always our intention to open a large space in New York, we have been looking consistently but without hurry since the gallery opened on the Upper East Side in 2009. We were attracted to downtown and our only non-negotiable requirements were scale — open, uninterrupted space with adequate ceiling heights — and public access. We looked on the Lower East Side, in Chelsea, and elsewhere. And then the right space found us.
There's a lovely tradition of art galleries opening in former nightlife spots. (The Moving Image fair and several galleries have occupied the Tunnel, Paul Kasmin is now in Bungalow 8's old space, and Lisa Cooley is moving into Tonic on the Lower East Side.) How did you find the former Roxy location? How do you hope to adapt the existing space into a gallery?
Colleagues in the real estate world were aware of our long-range plans and stayed in touch with us whenever possible locations came to their attention. When this one on 18th Street did, we were less interested in its past as the Roxy than its great potential as a place for our artists to show the sort of ambitious work they want to make. Of course, it’s wonderful for us to be moving into a building that has a real place in New York’s cultural history. We consider it good karma. Our plan is to clean the space out, open it up, uncover the wall of windows and let natural light flood in. We will alter the basic structure very, very little. Definitely some of the site’s very unorthodox character will remain. In our spaces in London and Zurich, visitors can feel the personality of what has been there before. In Zurich, for example, the gallery is housed in a former brewery and the space is very special because you can feel that past. That’s something we love.
The new location makes Hauser & Wirth among the largest gallery spaces in New York, and many of your artists are known to produce pretty radical non-commercial environmental installations. Can we expect to see those kinds of things in the new location?
Yes, we will be able to house some of the very large, ambitious projects. The size and flexibility of the Roxy Space suggests there will be activities, events, and exhibitions we have not even imagined yet. The space is like an invitation — we will respond to it, our artists will respond to it. However, it is important to say that we will not just exhibit large works there. We intend to adapt the space depending on the project and the situation. To show small works in a large space is not a problem since we can play with the space in response to the works.
Do you have a sense yet of how you will divide the program between the uptown and downtown locations?
Not yet. But definitely both locations will be vital, active, and very fully programmed. They are equally important to us. Sometimes we might have both spaces devoted to the work of one artist. Other times the two spaces will be showing works that are quite different. The atmospheres are unique at these locations but the level of activity will be equally high at both.
What do you think the new space will bring to Chelsea and the larger New York art landscape that's currently missing?
New York is a remarkably diverse and active place culturally, so we at Hauser & Wirth are not inclined to think in terms of anything missing in the existing art landscape. Our program is challenging and many of the artists we represent are perhaps less known in the United States, some are less understood. So expanding in New York will give us added opportunities to present those artists and their work in more visible ways.