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A Healing Island

Menorca’s historic ‘Hospital Island’ is being rejuvenated with an outpost of contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth.

Hauser & Wirth Menorca on Isla del Rey, courtesy Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Be Creative, Menorca 

Isla del Rey (King’s Island) is a tiny island of some 40,000 square metres, situated in the port of Mahon in Menorca. It is characterised by rich flora and fauna and historic buildings, including a Paleochristian basilica from the 6th century AD.

It gained its name as the place where King Alfonso III landed in 1287 when he arrived to conquer the island of Menorca. But the main landmark of the island is a decommissioned hospital, founded by the English navy in 1711. The island returned to Spanish control following the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 and is now part of the Municipality of Mahon.

Iwan and Manuela Wirth at Hauser & Wirth Somerset.  Photo Sim Canetty-Clarke, courtesy Hauser & Wirth  

Come July 2021, it will also be home to a new outpost of contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth.

Through a two-year conservation project, Hauser & Wirth has carefully repurposed some of the historic buildings on the island into a 1,500-square-metre art centre. A sculpture trail will feature the work of Louise Bourgeois, Eduardo Chillida, Franz West and others. A dedicated education programme has been developed to engage both the local community and visitors in contemporary art through screenings, talks and workshops.

The relationship with the island came about quite organically. Iwan and Manuela Wirth, founders of Hauser & Wirth, had been visiting Menorca for several years and fell in love with the island’s wild beauty, the hospitable nature of the people who live there and their tenacious efforts to protect the natural environment and cultural heritage of the island.

The Isla del Rey is an outstanding location that combines great natural beauty, fascinating historical buildings and a strong sense of community. These factors fit with Iwan and Manuela Wirth’s vision of redefining the gallery experience by bringing together a diverse range of activities that engage with art, education, conservation and sustainability.

The conservation works were carried out with a view to protecting unique island species like the lizard podarcis lilfordi balearica 

“Isla del Rey is an extraordinary place of wild nature, beautiful light and sea, with a fascinating history,” says Manuela Wirth. “Our vision to create a cultural hub for Menorca has been realised over a five-year journey, and the enthusiasm shown to us by the Menorcan community has encouraged us at every step of the way. We look forward to welcoming our first visitors this year when we can travel again.”

Menorca is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and, in the interest of protecting the unique natural environment of its location, Hauser & Wirth Menorca is partnering with the Menorca Preservation Fund. Environmental sustainability measures included in the art centre include rain-water collection protocols; the creation of a water plant to reuse water for ground irrigation; and energy-efficient climate control for the buildings.

Hauser & Wirth is also in partnership with the Foundation Hospital de la Isla del Rey, a local organisation, set up in 2005, that has spearheaded the restoration of the island’s historic hospital buildings and creation of a museum celebrating their history. Isla del Rey is home to an architecturally imposing decommissioned naval hospital, a group of outbuildings constructed in the 18th century, and the archaeological remains of a basilica dating from the 6th century AD. Hauser & Wirth’s conservation initiative has restored the hospital’s Langara outbuildings to create an exhibition space with eight galleries, a gallery shop, and the restaurant Cantina.

Mark Bradford, 2019  Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke, courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth 

The new gallery space has been restored by Paris-based Argentinean architect Luis Laplace, a long-standing collaborator with the gallery. The conservation project has used traditional building materials, such as a typical tiled roof and terrazzo flooring made on site with local stone, and the interior architecture features the restored original wood beams.

The landscape designer Piet Oudolf (behind New York’s High Line) has created gardens in and around the art centre incorporating native species and planting suited to the Menorcan climate. Laplace and Oudolf were both instrumental in the development of Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Hauser & Wirth has invited a local Menorcan vineyard and restaurant, Binifadet, to run the restaurant, sourcing seasonal produce.

Conservation is of utmost importance and the construction works were carried out sensitively and in consultation with local authorities to guarantee the protection of local wildlife, like Isla del Rey’s unique species of lizard, the podarcis lilfordi balearica.  Another example of indigenous species is the ‘dead horse arum lily’ plant which grows naturally on the island and serves the lizards as food.

The inaugural show will be a solo exhibition from Mark Bradford, an LA-based contemporary artist known for his large-scale abstract paintings created out of paper. Characterised by its layered formal, material, and conceptual complexity, Bradford’s work explores social and political structures that objectify marginalised communities and the bodies of vulnerable populations.

Hector Pons, mayor of Mahon, said: “Hauser & Wirth’s art centre will have a positive impact for the economy and is an example of the sustainable model we believe in.”