Global art dealers Hauser & Wirth opening a gallery in sleepy West Country town

But will it win over the locals? And will international buyers bother to make the trip?

“What about the hedgehogs?” demanded one of the local inhabitants of Bruton (population 2,945) assembled to hear the multi-million-pound plans of the international art dealers Hauser & Wirth (galleries in London, New York, Zurich and Los Angeles) to develop a rural art idyll in deepest Somerset. It was a question which clearly surprised Hauser & Wirth as it paraded the top international talent of decorators, architects and garden designers commissioned to make a redundant farmyard into a showcase for its galaxy of international artists, few of whose works sell for less than a hundred thousand if not a million pounds each. Hedgehogs didn’t figure.

Not that the plan’s proposers were fazed by the question. If it had come to it, Iwan Wirth, whose project this is, would cheerfully have created a hedgehog park to keep people happy. Ever energetic, he has bought a local pub and half-a-dozen buildings in the town to house his staff. He’s asked, and may well get, Great Western rail to stop the London train at Bruton’s tiny station at the weekends. When his surroundings were threatened by a solar panel farm he found ready support in local opposition and finally settled the question by, it is rumoured, buying up the farm.

It’s the personal nature of the project which makes it so intriguing. ‘Hauser & Wirth Somerset’, as the new art centre is called, doesn’t come from ambitions for gallery expansion or even long-held dreams but from local accident. Wirth and his family were local to the area several years before the project was planned, having bought a farmhouse in this part of Somerset in 2006 as a weekend place and deciding to send their children to schools nearby. Durslade, a model farm built in the mid-eighteenth century at the height of the agricultural revolution in England and fallen into sad disrepair, had come up for sale on land adjoining his and he was persuaded – with some hesitation, one senses – to buy it basically to preserve it before it collapsed altogether and was sold for development.

Ideas to make use of the listed farmhouse, piggery and barns have followed thick and fast. The complex is a particularly warm agglomeration of local stone buildings designed with neo-Gothic and Georgian dignity and Hausers have gone to great lengths to preserve their texture. Bits of wallpaper have been kept, old stone and timber used to patch up the doors. The house has been restored as a rural retreat for Hauser & Wirth’s artists and a guest house for visitors. The splendid threshing barn has been made the centrepiece of the display galleries. A new gallery has been constructed for contemporary sculptures and the piggeries preserved for smaller displays.

A meadow garden, designed by the Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf is now being planted alongside to open this autumn. An archive centre is being constructed in the courtyard and Catherine Butler and Ahmed Sidki, who have done so much to put Bruton on the map with their At the Chapel restaurant in town, will operate a second cafe at Durslade. Despite the grumbles about traffic, parking and land prices, the plans themselves have aroused remarkably little opposition from local residents or outside art bodies largely because the designers have been so careful to keep to scale and to texture.

Enormous efforts, positively frenetic indeed, are also being made to make the centre a focus of local activity. As well as the exhibitions planned for Hauser’s own artists, the gallery has arranged Bristol Old Vic to hold a summer school. There are to be family Saturdays, local teachers’ networks, a video collaboration with Bath Spa University and summer courses.

Whether it’s going to work as an art centre is another question. Hastening from church at Easter, a local parishioner looked at the construction and remarked, “it’s going to be wonderful; I only hope it doesn’t go bankrupt”. It’s a good question but the wrong one. This is a personal, and brave, art venture, not a commercial development. And there is method in the madness. The art world over the last decade, even more so in the years after the 2008/9 financial meltdown, has become skewed and over-strained. Buying art has become the preserve of the super-rich.

The result is that perhaps half-a-dozen galleries, of which Hauser & Wirth is one, have a client list of the super-rich and a stable of names have come to dominate the international scene. Their problem is that there aren’t the number of known artists or the volume of work to supply this exclusive clientele. Galleries need to keep their stable of artists loyal and rural residencies can be seen as one way of doing it.

At the same time the concentration of galleries now in Mayfair – one of the more pronounced features of the art scene in the last five years – has deprived galleries of the big spaces for large-scale sculpture installations. A country venue may have more attraction than the once fashionable converted warehouses and industrial buildings of the East End and outer London.

The challenge will be to get enough people to make the two-hour journey from London and Heathrow down to Bruton. Hauser & Wirth certainly has a good roster of artists to display, from Louise Bourgeois to Paul McCarthy and Ron Mueck. It’s kicking off with an opening show of recent work by Phyllida Barlow, whose dock installation is currently on display at the Tate. Her fascination and experimentation with materials and rich textures makes her suitable to the place (she has spent time there), but whether a succession of work by in-house sculptors will be enough to keep the punters coming down without something more special is open to doubt. There are a number of small contemporary galleries in rural locations across Europe and the US as well as Japan, but most have a permanent collection to give a regular attraction.

More intriguing will be the ripple effect the centre may have on the wider community around it. Wirth, with his Swiss background, talks quite genuinely and enthusiastically about the way nearly every community in his home country has an art society and people of all incomes buy works. He sees no reason why the same shouldn’t happen here. But then his project in Bruton, it has to be said, is still very much a top-down exercise.

That may change. It would be quite wrong to present Bruton, as some have, as a sort of sleepy backwater. True, like so many small towns, it has been in decline for nearly a century, its inns closed, the specialist shops shut and the church but sparsely attended. But, even before Wirth moved here, money was beginning to spread down to this part– “South Gloucestershire comes to Somerset” as a local headline had it. The creative spirits are here but they tend to the literary – John Steinbeck spent a happy nine months sojourn in a cottage nearby working on his rendition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – rather than the painterly.

Hauser & Wirth represents not just a huge leap in wealth but also in taste for this part of the West Country. Its conceptual artists produce works which are exactly the kind of art that puts off many ordinary gallery-goers. If Hauser & Wirth Somerset can break out of the select circle of the super-rich buyers and the favoured few artists and make contemporary art seem a natural part of living then it really will have contributed something to the artistic life of this country.

Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, Somerset ( opens 15 July

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain