In talks with Ewan Venters, Hauser & Wirth’s first global CEO

Words by
Claire Wrathall
Photography by
Sim Canetty-Clarke [Portrait only]

13th October 2021

Previously chief executive of Fortnum & Mason, Venters has brought both business leadership and a genuine passion for art to the renowned international gallery group

As 2018 turned to 2019, Ewan Venters spent a few days post-Christmas at The Fife Arms, near Braemar in Scotland. Somewhere between a grand hotel and a museum – its walls hung with works by, among others, Francis Bacon, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Lucian Freud, Pablo Picasso and Queen Victoria – it had reopened just the week before, having undergone a wholesale transformation by its new owners, Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the Swiss co-founders of the global super-gallery Hauser & Wirth. Sitting in its drawing room one afternoon, Venters found himself captivated by its psychedelically painted ceiling – “Just the most incredible work,” he recalls – the creation of Zhang Enli, one of the 75-plus artists represented by the gallery. 

Then chief executive of Fortnum & Mason, Venters has a longstanding interest in art and had been hosting exhibitions in Fortnum’s Piccadilly flagship, collaborations with the eminent collector Frank Cohen. Timed to coincide with Frieze Week, when the art world descends on London en masse, these shows would draw “many extra tens of thousands of people” to the store, says Venters. He wondered if Zhang might be prepared to show there. “So I said to Iwan, what do you think?” And that September, Fortnum’s put 22 of Zhang’s paintings, most of them new abstractions of landscapes, on display – up the staircases, behind the tills – in its London HQ. 

In talks with Ewan Venters, Hauser & Wirth’s first global CEO
‘Spider’ (1994) by Louise Bourgeois on Hauser & Wirth Menorca © The Easton Foundation/DACS

Two months later, the venerable retailer opened its first store in Hong Kong in K11 Musea, on Victoria Dockside, Kowloon, the creation of another billionaire art collector, Adrian Cheng. In its restaurant hangs a series of specially commissioned works on paper by Zhang. If Venters’ first encounter with the artist’s work was serendipitous, however, this one “was very strategic. We’d been wanting to work with a Chinese contemporary artist,” he says. “Enli is one of the greatest.”  

Everyone was happy, so much so that within a year, Venters had stepped down from Fortnum’s to join Hauser & Wirth as its first ever global CEO. Quite a leap for a boy from Dunfermline who had “started my first business at 11, making Scottish tablet, which is like fudge, and buying bread rolls from a baker and selling them on to a client base at weekends.” 

That, he says, taught him “about cashflow: money in and money out and the importance of having a bit in between”, and perhaps as importantly that his future lay in retail. So on leaving school he joined the supermarket giant Sainsbury’s, rising to become its buyer of citrus fruits (£1 million-worth of which can be shifted each day in the run up to Christmas). Later he joined the department store Selfridges, initially to oversee its food and restaurant divisions and subsequently heading its e-commerce operation, before moving to Fortnum’s in 2012, where under his leadership profits grew from less than £1m to £12m in 2019.  

“The luxury retail world and the art world may seem entirely different,” he says, “but there is a common thread of excellence in both industries, and in the business sense, it’s about running a professional sustainable business.” Fortnum’s was founded in 1707. Hauser & Wirth celebrates its 30th anniversary next year. His challenge is to ensure the brand endures. 

In talks with Ewan Venters, Hauser & Wirth’s first global CEO

Photo: David Bebber

Cloister Courtyard, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

Even so, “There was no headhunter involved in my recruitment.” Rather he and the Wirths were already friends, having “met a few years ago through mutual friends. We’re very kindred spirits, Iwan and I,” he says. “I guess my deep love of art had shown itself through the collaborations we’d worked on.”  

Indeed, in his youth it had occurred to Venters to open a gallery himself. “Iwan thinks this is hysterical, but I was very tempted.” Northeast Fife, where he grew up, had been home to generations of artists. In her youth, his mother had been portrayed by the “great painter” John McGhie, “coming off one of the fishing boats with a basket of fish,” he recalls. Venters had even found a site. “I distinctly remember going to visit the old courthouse in Dunfermline and thinking it would be a perfect space. Maybe I could have been in competition with Hauser & Wirth,” he laughs. “Though let’s just be clear,” he adds. “Iwan did it, and I didn’t.” 

He had, however, grown up with an appreciation of the arts. My parents – one was in the medical service, the other was in the merchant navy – were, and still are, cultured people, and twice a year they would bring my brother and me to London to go to museums and the theatre.” And, now 49, he has been collecting since his thirties, by which time “I had a little bit more money. British art mostly: Terry Frost, Tracey Emin, Barbara Rae, a great Scottish artist and another Royal Academician. But now I’m really getting the bug,” he adds. Behind the desk in his office hangs the US artist Roni Horn’s Clown and Cloud series of photographs. 

Horn was one of those featured in Hauser & Wirth’s booth at this year’s Art Basel, the world’s biggest and most important contemporary art fair, from which Venters has just returned when we speak. “It’s been a marathon,” he says, clearly exhilarated. “We sold 27 works from the booth on day one alone,” among them a Philip Guston painting for $6.5 million and a David Smith sculpture for $5.5m. But this year, for the first time, the gallery has been selling online concurrently too, though an interactive digital “viewing room” that enables visitors to examine each work in minute detail and chat – using voice technology as well as messaging – to gallery staff and curators. Art fairs may be here to stay, he believes, but there are tremendous “opportunities around e-commerce. That’s what the future is absolutely about.” 

In talks with Ewan Venters, Hauser & Wirth’s first global CEO

Photo: Jason Ingram

Oudolf Field, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

For as Hauser proved at last year’s online-only edition of Frieze New York, when it sold 16 works in a day including a George Condo painting for $2m, collectors are now prepared to spend serious money online. 

“The physical will still be important,” he says. “My goodness, Art Basel demonstrated that.” (Even with onerous travel restrictions, it drew 60,000 visitors this year.) “The question now is how you combine the physical with the digital.” To which end, Hauser & Wirth have been prescient in the way they have diversified beyond its bricks-and-mortar art galleries, which can be found both in major cities such as London, Zurich, New York, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and places likely to draw concentrations of collectors, notably Monaco, Southampton on Long Island, St Moritz and Gstaad. 

Last summer, for example, saw the opening of Hauser & Wirth Menorca, on the Illa dei Rei, 15 minutes by catamaran from Mahon. Here you’ll find not just a gallery converted from the 18th-century outbuildings of a former naval hospital, but a sculpture trail through its Piet Oudolf-designed gardens, a shop and a restaurant, where “All the food in that restaurant is local to the Ballearic islands and all the wine is Spanish,” he says. “It’s all about the community and keeping it local, and it seems to work.” Just look at the visitor numbers. “The peak day has been 1,200, but day in, day out we’ve been getting between 600 and 1,000, seven days a week, even in the midst of a global pandemic.” 

The luxury retail world and the art world may seem entirely different, but there is a common thread of excellence in both industries

It advances the model pioneered in the Somerset village of Bruton, where the Wirths bought a farm in 2009. Having renovated it, they added a gallery, a restaurant, a shop selling books and beautiful objects and, last November, a farm shop, offering produce from its own as well as neighbouring farms. “Like me, Iwan and Manuela have a deep passion for art, but we also have a deep passion for good food that’s grown in communities in a sustainable way. I think that the relationship between that and how people consume art is an interesting one. And Bruton is a tremendously powerful example of how having a hospitality experience as part of the destination just works. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. We’re over 100,000 visitors a year.” Not all of them necessarily aficionados of Eduardo Chillida and Thomas J Price, the artists whose work is currently on view.  

The gallery’s expansion into retail – an area “I’m sure we’ll start to evolve where we see opportunities” – has certainly widened the range of what it sells. “The product isn’t actually being bought by collectors per se,” he says. Rather it sells to “people who perhaps can’t afford to buy into the art programme but want to be included”. A Philip Guston painting will set you back millions, but a cashmere blanket, woven by the small Scottish enterprise Studio ROAM, bearing one of the artist’s distinctive images, can be yours for less than a grand. 

There are items at lower price points too: tea towels by Subodh Gupta, Fabio Mauri and Mira Schendel (£30 apiece), by way of jewellery and jigsaw puzzles, face coverings and pocket squares – £75 may sound steep for a handkerchief, but it is by Zhang Enli – and even skateboards. 

In talks with Ewan Venters, Hauser & Wirth’s first global CEO

Photo: Daniel Schäfer

Hauser & Wirth Menorca on Isla del Rey

“Very often the artists are keen to use their skills to produce a product that’s available to a wider number of people,” he says. “It’s very much a partnership. And I would emphasise the importance we place on integrity of supply chain. It’s crucial that whoever the artist is working with, the production values of the item can stand up to scrutiny. Don’t expect to see a shop full of mass-produced pens and water bottles.” 

Because for all its diversification into hospitality and retail, “Everything we do,” he stresses, “is about the artists. Without the artists, there is nothing. And staying true to that is so, so important. But as long as that remains our true north star, then I think a lot of other good things, of great innovations, will just emerge.”

Further reading: Hauser & Wirth's growing hospitality business expands with Mount St. Restaurant & Rooms