Insight: Experiencing art outside of the conventional gallery space
Art is increasingly being presented outside of the ‘white cube’ space and in different ways. But does the curation and setting alter our interaction and therefore the meaning of the artwork? And equally, do unorthodox modes of exhibiting impact on the artist and how they produce?
Hauser & Wirth should know. In 2014 the international gallery opened an unusual space at the intersection of art, architecture and nature, food and retail. Set on the site of an old farm, Hauser & Wirth Somerset commissioned Dutch landscape artist Piet Oudolf to design a garden and purchased the Serpentine Pavilion by Smiljan Radić to host events. The success of this adventurous outpost led to the opening of a space in the Arts District in downtown Los Angeles, and a gallery on the tiny Illa del Rei island off Mahon’s harbour in Minorca.
We asked Neil Wenman, Hauser & Wirth partner and global creative director, what has been his experience exploring away from the traditional gallery setting.
Why did the gallery venture into new ways of exhibiting in unexpected spaces?
Iwan and Manuela Wirth (gallery founders) were interested in how we could create a different gallery model to interact with the artist and visitors in new ways. Our first project in Somerset questioned how we present work and who we present to, which allowed us great freedom to rewrite the concept for ourselves.
We took the formula when we opened our space in Los Angeles. Here also offers a unique environment and a different culture and temperature. We realised quickly that these spaces help us think about what excites the artists in terms of space and what can challenge them. And it has generally excited the artists.
It’s interesting to hear that the artist was the starting point of the discussion, with these spaces almost organically growing from that conversation. You could sense this with the work of Rashid Johnson, “Sodade,” at Hauser & Wirth Menorca last summer, where his body of work responded to the space and the concept of islanders. On the one hand, the work would not have existed without this unique space and location, and on the other, it’s hard to imagine the work having such an impact if shown in a standard white cube urban gallery space.
Yes absolutely. The artist residency program in Somerset was set up at the same time as the gallery, and in the last nine years, artists have come to the studio and cottage, staying and working on location. This model became a barometer for what was possible in providing new ways of interacting with artists. These spaces are slightly off the track, and through the residency programs, artists can escape and focus on their work.
How have these spaces impacted the gallery and its programs?
They allow for a great sense of freedom, as you can see with the current Somerset exhibition. Another benefit is that visitors have mostly traveled here specifically, so they will spend more time and focus on the art. It has helped us think about the role of education as a gallery and concepts of learning and inclusivity.
What has been the response from the artists, and are there generational factors?
We’ve certainly found it’s a huge draw for our artists who want to be involved. I don’t think it’s necessarily generational but rather more about the artist’s own ambitions.
Do you feel as a commercial gallery, you have more freedom and the agility to try out new and experimental programs?
Yes, definitely. It gives us a certain freedom, allows us to be very flexible and make last-minute decisions if needed.
How far can this way of engaging with art be pushed without art becoming superficial entertainment and the gallery space an amusement park? In other words, how do you balance the act of being educational but entertaining?
It depends on the exhibition. Some are more academic; they look at a specific body of work and require much more curatorial expertise than others. Then these new approaches or environments can open up the possibility of engaging with the arts, giving a sense of how art can reflect on different core subject matters, whether sustainability or the human condition.
A group show will depend on the curatorship. A good example is our current show in Minorca (“After the Mediterranean”). It is more of a conceptual practice, with younger-generation artists looking at broader themes of what it means to be from the Mediterranean. These group shows can have a lot more humour, even satire, and they often involve artists we may not represent.
What has been the response to these new gallery spaces?
Last year we had our millionth visitor to Somerset. It is a whole new audience, which is very important to us and the artists. You know, these spaces are part of our philosophy. When breaking the rules, sometimes there are multiple interpretations at first. But once the concepts are at their visualisation stage, and one starts to see the possibilities, it becomes even more exciting.
There is room for play, and we should be able to create a space for this. And you can have an underlying conception and communicate big ideas through play and irreverence. The Somerset summer exhibition is about play. It is about experiencing art differently, ways in which we hope to open up the audience to relax and then walk away with a different perspective.
Interview by Nargess Banks.
Images from top: Hauser & Wirth Minorca, “GRUPPENAUSSTELLUNG”, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2023 (photo credit Ken Adlard), Oudolf Gardens and Radić Pavilion Somerset, and entrance to auser & Wirth Minorca.
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