Contemporary Art

Arne Glimcher: For the Love of Art

By Isabelle de Wavrin

Art dealer, film-maker, collector and author, Arne Glimcher, 78, set up the Pace Gallery in 1960. The empire represents 84 artists, living and dead, it employs 120 people and encompasses seven galleries – three in New York, one in Palo Alto, two in London, another, with an area of 2,300, M2 in China – and three spaces in Hong Kong, Paris and Menlo Park in California. Three of his films have been nominated for Oscars, including Gorillas in the Mist with Sigourney Weaver. During his free time, this Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur is also a gardener...

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Isabelle de Wavrin: Why did you choose to be an art dealer rather than an artist as you had originally planned? Was making money more important to you than making art?

Arne Glimcher: What a mean question! It's true that I went to art school in Boston, and that I used to paint. But since I judged that my paintings weren’t good enough, even though everybody thought they were, I branched off into art history. I thought it might be a way of becoming director of MoMA.

IDW: Modest!

AG: I was very young. In 1960, at the age of 21, I was married and I’d just lost my father. The day after his funeral, my mother took my brother Herb and me around the galleries on Newbury Street. Just beside one of them there was an empty shop. I said to my brother: "What a fantastic place for a gallery!" He said: "‘Open a gallery!" I had no plans to do that, but... That was a Saturday. By Monday we were in there, thanks to $2,800 lent to me my brother. As stupid and reckless as that. Just instinct. Nothing to do with money. No one at the time thought you got rich by having a gallery. In 1960 there were barely ten modern art collectors in Boston and twenty-five in New York. It was another world. For me it was a lifestyle choice. If I wasn't going to be a painter, I'd be as close to artists as possible with a gallery to support them, and fulfil my own needs. A normal life!

IDW: Things must have been difficult at first.

AG: They were, for twenty years! Until the late 1970s we often wondered if the gallery would survive. We spent our time begging and borrowing money to fund projects. I had trouble attracting works by Nevelson, Oldenburg, Warhol and other pop artists that I liked so much to Boston. And even more finding art lovers on the ground. That's why, with the help of Fred Mueller, theatre producer and collector, who was my associate until 1975 – we transferred the gallery to New York. It started to take off thanks to Dubuffet and Nevelson. Leaving their gallery for Pace in the 1960s, they brought the credibility that then prompted other artists to join them.


IDW: Why Dubuffet? A sixty-year-old Frenchman. Had his career stalled?

AG: Not at all. Dubuffet was the most famous artist in the world, and the most in demand. His rough, wild side, more American than French, was better liked in America than in Europe. I was very lucky to have him. develop the fame of our protégés. The Europeans tended to buy the whole of an artist's studio, while we represented him. We were more agents than investors. With Dubuffet, the gallery finally started making some money. Having come to the gallery in 1975, Nevelson was very well known, but almost unsellable with his big walls of massive sculptures, which were hard to move and place. But with a bit of work we managed to find an audience for him.

IDW: The market took off in the end as well. Partly thanks to you...

AG: I admit I'm a bit embarrassed to have contributed to that. It was in 1980. The dealer Ben Heller had just caused a scandal by selling Pollock's Blue Poles to the National Gallery of Australia for 2 million dollars. Furious, the Australians had demanded their money back. It was then that I learned that the collectors Emily and Burt Tremaine were preparing to sell Jasper Johns' Three Flags to the German collector Peter Ludwig, for $500,000. I immediately called Emily, an old friend, to tell her that I thought I could get a million dollars for it. "OK, try," she said, although she didn't really believe it. The American painting par excellence, for me that Johns was meant for the American museum par excellence, the Whitney. Ronald Lauder, who was very involved in the museum, brought the first $250,000. Then we found three other people each of whom put in $250,000. A million dollars was the highest price ever offered for a living artist. I should add that I got nothing out of the transaction.

IDW: To what do you owe that rosette on your jacket?

AG: The Légion d'Honneur? The paintings I gave to the Centre Pompidou. One of my great pleasures is collecting, another is giving. So I gave the Beaubourg, which didn't have one, a huge Chuck Close, but also some works by Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Louise Nevelson...I also gave to other museums. All the Agnes Martins in the Dia Foundation, about twenty-eight of them, for example, come from my collection.


IDW: You're very discreet. Your name never features in a cartel.

AG: I don't like to stick my name on a painting. I simply appear as 'American art foundation'. But there is no foundation. I have a deal with my wife. She's an intellectual, she likes seeing paintings in museums and has no need to possess one. I’m exactly the opposite. I want to own everything. We agreed that I could only go on buying as long as I went on giving. That way everyone's happy.

IDW: Agnes Martin, who you mentioned a moment ago, was very important for you.

AG: Very important and very dear to me. We worked together for thirty years. Until she died in 2004. I met her in 1963 at a party given by Jack Youngerman in his loft. Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana and Agnes Martin each occupied a floor in the same building. On Saturday evening they met up for a beer. There was a great feeling of camaraderie between artists and dealers. We talked art, not money. It was a wonderful world. Innocent, because it was disinterested, and intellectually sophisticated. Agnes had just started her first big paintings. A revolution! I was fascinated and we became friends.

IDW: Not her dealer?

AG: No, much later. In 1967 she told me she was stopping painting and that she was going to send me all her virgin canvases, brushes and paints so that I could give them to needy artists. She bought herself a little caravan and went off to New Mexico where she lived for six years without painting, without seeing anyone or nearly. In the winter she lived on tinned tomatoes and nuts. One day in 1975 she came to my office announcing: "I've started painting again, do you want to show my paintings?" "Yes, of course!" – it was the start of our collaboration. But she warned me: "If you ever try to sell my paintings I'll leave you. If you let people buy them because they like them, I'll stay."

IDW: Is Agnes Martin the artist you were most impressed by?

AG: No, even though she was unique. It's Robert Irwin. We shared fifty years of our lives. But there were others: Lucas Samaras, fifty years of shared life too, Chuck Close, thirty years, Louise Nevelson, also thirty. In reality none of them is dominant. My life is the one I've lived with my artists. It’s unusual these days to be connected to artists for fifty years. My close friends aren’t bankers. They are artists and their children. You have to chose the way you want to live

IDW: Which involves the creation of a garden, completely invented from marshes turned into a luxuriant jungle.

AG: How do you know that? In fact it's my greatest accomplishment and the fruit of 35 years of efforts. It's my art. Everything looks natural but none of it is. It's all planted. Not like Giverny, perfect for Monet but too domesticated for my taste. I wanted something exotic and wild, close to the jungles of Douanier Rousseau. I put in some sculptures, including a folly designed by Dubuffet, Chambre au lit sous l'arbre.



IDW: And how did cinema come into your life?

AG: Quite naturally. As a child I was an artist and an actor. I did theatre and I always loved films. As an adult, I became a film producer. One day my friend Robert Brenton, who made Kramer vs. Kramer, offered me a small part. I had to raise my hand in an auction. It took two minutes, but I went crazy. Later it was Michael Ovitz – another friend and the most powerful man in Hollywood, I established the basis of his collection – who encouraged me to make my own films: Gorillas in the Mist with Sigourney Weaver, The Mango Kings with Antonio Banderas, then Just Cause with Sean Connery.

IDW: How did you manage to reconcile your two careers?

AG: Every two or three years I used to take a break to shoot, always in the summer when the gallery slowed down. Back in New York I did the editing. When my son Marc joined the gallery – twenty-five years ago! – that freed me up a lot and helped me to combine my two passions.

IDW: Of all the many exhibitions in Pace, which is the one you are most proud of?

AG: I organized 650, along with about 500 books and catalogues. The most radical of them was Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism in 2007. It shows that the influence of cinema was probably as crucial on the development of Braque and Picasso's Cubism as it was on Cézanne. It gave rise to a documentary produced by Martin Scorsese, Picasso and Braque go to the Movies. Since then, people have looked at Cubsim differently. But for me the most important exhibition is always the one I'm preparing.

IDW: When did you decide to develop the gallery outside the United States, why did you opt for China before Europe?

AG: Because China is a new country. Freed by Mao, who made a clean sweep of ancient China, this new society had the chance to create something fantastic. It's far ahead of the west in terms of installations and video. In 2008, we joined forces with the most brilliant Chinese gallery owner, Ling Lin, to open a 2,300 m2 gallery in Beijing. We've also just opened a gallery in Seoul with him. In June our Hong Kong office is going to turn into a real gallery.

IDW: More than fifty years after you started, what drives you?

AG: Passion. I'm still in love with art and artists, as I say in my memoirs, which will be published shortly. They kick off in 1960 with the gallery and deal with my ideas and my passions. Not my life.

IDW: When did you decide to develop the gallery outside the United States, why did you opt for China before Europe?

AG: Because China is a new country. Freed by Mao, who made a clean sweep of ancient China, this new society had the chance to create something fantastic. It’s far ahead of the west in terms of installations and video. In 2008, we joined forces with the most brilliant Chinese gallery owner, Ling Lin, to open a 2,300 m2 gallery in Beijing. We've also just opened a gallery in Seoul with him. In June our Hong Kong office is going to turn into a real gallery.

Isabelle de Wavrin is a specialist in the art market, and a former deputy editor in chief Beaux Arts magazine.

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