Island outpost Art empire brings touch of Bruton to Balearics

Balearic Islands

For all the lizards, the loquats and the lantana, Menorca’s newest art gallery, which lies amid the blue waters and lolling yachts of Mahуn harbour, carries the faintest whiff of a certain corner of Somerset.

Illa del Rei, a 40,000-sq – metre island a short boat ride from the Menorcan capital of Mahуn, has a long and unique history. As well as being the site of a 6th-century Christian basilica and a staging post for Alfonso III’s conquest of Menorca 700 years later, the island is home to a decommissioned naval hospital founded by the Royal Navy in 1711, when Menorca was in British hands.

Its latest incarnation, however, is as an unlikely outpost of Hauser & Wirth, the global art empire known for its galleries in Zurich, Monaco, Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles – and the Somerset town of Bruton.

On Monday, Hauser &Wirth Menorca will open the new site, which includes eight galleries, an education lab, an outdoor sculpture trail featuring works by Louise Bourgeois, Eduardo Chillida and Joan Mirу, landscaped gardens, a shop, and a restaurant. Its inaugural exhibition is Masses and Movements, a series of paintings and sculptures by the US artist Mark Bradford exploring maps, migration and marginalisation.

The five-year gallery project was not without its challenges, even in a pre – Covid world. Water and electricity had to be brought to the island, the hospital’s abandoned outbuildings repurposed, and painstaking negotiations entered with Mahуn’s city council and the Fundaciу Hospital de l’Illa del Rei, whose volunteers spent 17 years rescuing and protecting the island’s historical and architectural assets.

“The first time we arrived on the island, it was boiling hot and there were pigeons in the ruins, but as we walked up the ramp, we just immediately said: ‘Shit! We like it!’ ” says Iwan Wirth, one of the business’s co-founders.

“I t’s about trusting your ideas and instincts and also having a bit of enthusiasm and narrowmindedness, because if you really thought it through, you wouldn’t leave home. We had no idea it would take five years – we thought it would take two.”

Mahуn city council had been on the lookout for a similar project for the island, but local volunteers and councillors were properly persuaded only after a trip to the Hauser & Wirth gallery at Durslade Farm, near Bruton.

“There were some doubts,” says Mahуn’s mayor, Hector Pons. “But the visit to Somerset was very important for everyone when it came to helping us to understand that Hauser & Wirth’s proposal for Menorca was in line with finding a balance between recovering our heritage and converting Menorca into an art destination.”

Unwittingly or not, the Somerset gallery, which opened seven years ago, has helped turn Bruton into an expensive celebrity haunt known variously as the “next Chipping Norton” or “the new Notting Hill”.

Wirth and his business partner and wife, Manuela, said they never expected the town to become what it has. “We live there and some of it I like and some of it I don’t, but it’s beyond out control,” he says. “We put places on the map. What I hope will happen here is that the extraordinary cultural heritage of the island will be celebrated in the way it deserves.”

Both Wirth and the gallery’s director, Mar Rescalvo, point out that Menorca has long managed to avoid the tourist and developmental pressures to which its neighbours, Mallorca and Ibiza, have succumbed.

Rescalvo, who is from Menorca, shakes her head at suggestions the island could turn into another playground for the rich and famous. “I don’t think this is an elitist project,” she says. “Prices are democratic – it’s €5 to take the boat both ways and entry’s free.”

Pons says the gallery represents “a very important transformation for the whole city”, adding that the presence of Hauser & Wirth has already led to the opening of some high-end hotels and other galleries. He rejects comparisons with Bruton. “There’s a difference between Somerset, where the impact was far stronger, and Mahуn,” he says. “In Mahуn, we’re used to being a tourist destination.”

The mayor also bristles politely at suggestions the new gallery has somehow catapulted Menorca into the greater cultural consciousness. “This gallery hasn’t arrived in a desert,” says Pons. “We have the oldest opera house in Spain, a world-class opera season, and firstrate museums and musical and cultural organisations. The gallery is going to reinforce all that.”

But, for many Menorcans, the rebirth of Illa del Rei is about more than art and tourism: “For us, this is about reclaiming an abandoned heritage,” says Pons.

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