Big Think Interview with Arne Glimcher
Arne Glimcher is the founder and chairman of the PaceWildenstein art gallery. He is also a published author, a film producer and a director, whose pictures include The Mambo Kings, Gorillas in the Mist, and Picasso & Braque Go to the Movies.
Question: Why did you decide to open a gallery?
Arne Glimcher: My dad died sort of unexpectedly, and I was a kid and still in school. And one Saturday afternoon, for solace, my brother and my mother and I were walking down Newbury Street in Boston looking at art galleries, and the best gallery was a gallery called the Swetzoff Gallery. And we saw that show, and we came down the stairs -- it was a series of brownstones on Newbury Street, so there was a kind of street level and an upper level -- and there was an empty shop. And I just casually turned to my brother and said, great place for a gallery, next to the best gallery in town. He said, open a gallery. I said, don't be ridiculous. By then I had decided what my objective was to be the director of the Museum of Modern Art. I thought that was a pretty good job. He said, well, you know, there isn't as much money as you thought there was, and Mother is young, and my father died quite young. And he said, you have to go to work. You have to do something. And I had been lucky; I hadn't had to go to work except for summer jobs. And so I was actually married a month at that moment, and he lent me $2400, and we opened the gallery. And I had no idea what I was doing. And I think that my entire career is based on luck.
Question: Describe the first day that the gallery was open.
Arne Glimcher: The first exhibition was mostly artists I knew who were teaching at universities in Boston, at Harvard, at Mass Art, where I had gone to school. And so we had an audience immediately, because these people had friends. So we opened the gallery. There was a huge opening, and my family and my wife's family, quite well situated in Boston, brought people in. We had a terrific opening. And sold nothing. But it's sort of what we expected. It took about a month before something sold. But you know, at the beginning of your life, really, and the beginning of your career, it creates a kind of blueprint. And I still think every time a work of art sells, it's a miracle.
Question: What was the first piece of art you sold?
Arne Glimcher: It was a sculpture by an artist named Mirko. And he was teaching at the Carpenter Center at Harvard; he was the head of the Carpenter Center at Harvard. And it was $1500, which was a huge amount of money in those days. And it was sold to a guy named Dick Solomon, who is my partner now in Pace Prints. And I had no idea who he was. And I was out of the gallery at a class, and my mother was babysitting the gallery for me, and he came in, and he loved the sculpture. And I came back; I said, where's the sculpture? And my mother said, well, you know, there was this guy who seemed so sincere, and I let him take it home to try it. And I said, who is he? She said, he's a butcher at Stop & Shop. Well, his family owned Shop & Stop, and he was training as a butcher. His mother had a great collection. But it was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted till now. I mean, he's my best friend and my partner in our print gallery. But it was pretty amusing.
Question: At what moment did you feel like you made it?
Arne Glimcher: In 1966, one of my heroes -- and still is -- is Jean Dubuffet. And as a kid I grew up knowing the work, idolizing the work, and I wanted to show him more than any other artist. And my gallery was new, and it had one major figure in it, Louise Nevelson, and a group of young artists, including Lucas Samaras, and Jim Dine, people like that. And I went to Paris, and I had a meeting with Dubuffet, and it was put together by a friend. And I had tried to see him once, and he wouldn't see me. And I had heard that he was not very happy in the gallery that he was in in New York, which was a very important gallery. It was the Seidenberg Gallery; they represented Picasso. And finally he met with me. And my friend, who came along, said, don't mention any other artists; he hates artists. He's completely anti-cultural; a brilliant writer, Dubuffet, one of the great philosophers of the century, of the 20th century. And especially don't mention Nevelson, because if you want to get him in the gallery, the only way you're going to get him is that you're very young, and that would be a big change for him to be with someone that young. And he was already an old man.
So we sat down, and I was really terrified. And conversation began -- and this friend was an art dealer who showed him -- and we started talking, and he said to me, who do you like, and what artists do you like who are working today? It was already a tough question, and I sort of skirted the question. And then he finally said, well, who are the artists in your gallery? And I mentioned some of the younger artists, and then I said -- and my friend had cautioned against Nevelson because she was very famous, and he did not like any competition -- and I said, Louise Nevelson. He said, Nevelson, she's fantastic; I love her work! Tell me all about Nevelson. And there was this incredible click between us, and the other people just disappeared at the table. And I walked out of there, and I remember thinking to myself, he's mine; I've got him.
Question: What made you decide to make the move from Boston to New York?
Arne Glimcher: I felt I had no choice. I was losing my artists. Warhol was showing with the Stable Gallery. It was long before Castelli took on Warhol. Oldenburg was showing with the Green Gallery. And these artists began to be collected; the magazines picked them up. Pop art was so easy to reproduce because it was all about being reproductions to begin with. So it became fashion. It's the first time that we really saw art and fashion meet. And I couldn't get the work anymore. And I actually moved to New York too late. If I would have moved to New York when I opened the gallery, I would have had all of those artists exclusively. Years later they came back to me, but there was a great hiatus in between because there were associations that were made, and you know, you don't break those. So I felt that I had no choice but to move to New York. And I had a very dear friend who's lived in the city, father of a very dear friend. And I was staying with them one time when I was in New York, and he was the head of Federated Department Stores; his name is Sidney Solomon. I said to Sidney, I'm thinking of moving the gallery to New York. Scary, but I'm thinking of moving to New York. He said, well, you have to ask yourself: what is your objective? What do you want out of your gallery? And I said, I want to be the best gallery in the world. He said, move to New York. Get out of Boston.
And I got out of Boston. It was so hard in Boston convincing people that what I was doing was not insanity. A very conservative city.
Question: Why did you expand to Beijing?
Arne Glimcher: You've heard many times people say, the future's the East. China is the next power. The West's, specifically America's, power is diminishing. But when people say things like that, it's already happened. People only recognize things that are faits accomplis. And there was very interesting art happening in China. Interesting art happens after a cataclysm or a war. It took the destruction of Germany for a new generation of German artists to be able to build something new that was non referential to the past or not intimidated by the past. And in the same way, America had abstract expressionism, which was post-World War II. China was recovering from the Cultural Revolution. And a very interesting phenomenon I saw happening, and that was, they had an extraordinary narrative to tell. There is no excuse for a narrative in Western art any more. We've been through that and through a kind of formalism, and there is no story to tell in the same way.
China, on the other hand -- when the doors to China opened, they looked across this chasm of time at the achievement of Western art. And I've spoken with several Chinese artists, and I remember one of them saying to me, when we saw from the Renaissance to pop art, we saw it as one thing, as one holistic accomplishment. They didn't see it really in a time period or its historical context. I thought that was pretty interesting, because I thought of a parallel: when Picasso and Brock discovered African art, they didn't understand its ritualistic uses, or weren't interested in its ethnographical purposes. They purely, formally, saw an art that they could use, a kind of cubistic art that they could use in the development of their work. And the Chinese did the same thing: they looked across at all of these styles, and they took from the various styles of painting. But they're telling a very personal, unfamiliar narrative, but in a medium that we can all understand. And that's the success of Chinese art, is this poignancy. This kind of sense of loss and regeneration is being told in mediums that are familiar to the West.
Question: What was wrong with the American art market before the crash?
Arne Glimcher: The market crash is a cross-industrial, cross-cultural market crash; it's not an art market crash. It's just a world correction, is what we're seeing. What was wrong with it was really unscrupulous trading, and a new group of collectors coming onto the scene who actually were traders for the most part. And so it became like the Chinese, like in China, in Hong Kong; it became a commodity. And it was betting on the next artist. Who was the next Warhol? Who was the next Rauschenberg? Who was the next Jasper Johns? It doesn't work like that; art reveals itself slowly. But each -- it's not like there's a new model every year, like there used to be from Detroit. Art has to have a period of time to develop. But consider a young artist having an exhibition in a gallery in Chelsea, and it sells out, and there are 15 paintings. And now there are 40 people that want those paintings because they're betting on this artist. Can that artist then go back to the studio and say, this is an interesting group of pictures I made; it doesn't really satisfy me. I'm going to take it in a different direction? Or is the lure of $2 million for the next show too much for that artist to refuse? Now, I think great artists say, the hell with it, and I'm making what I want to make. But I think dealers were also really unscrupulous at that time, in that they would change their artists' prices weekly or monthly or by demand, so if you bought a painting for $20,000 and the artist got really hot, by the end of the year he was $250,000. That is not how it happens.
Or an artist -- to name names, like Richard Prince, who did extraordinary photographic work in the '80s, became very hot, and his nurse paintings became a collectible, very fashionable. And they went from about $250,000 to $8 million in a period of two years. Is there any logic? I'm not talking about the quality or the value of the work. I'm just talking about is there any logic? Can that be supported? We used to, and I still do, look at the career of an artist as an arc. What we do is manage artists, manage careers. And if you're bringing, in your fifties, $8 million a painting, and you have to keep going up, and you have a fertile life and you're 70, what? Are they $1 billion at 70? And who's there to buy them? How many people are there with $1 billion to buy them? And how many people are there with $8 million to buy them? So you have this whole insular thing happening, with groups of collectors deciding to support artists. I was at a dinner at the Guggenheim Museum, and a young trader, a hedge fund guy, was sitting next to me. And I was saying, what are you collecting? What are you interested in? He said, I’ve taken a position in these artists. I've taken a position in these artists? What does that mean? You're sitting down?
Art is not an investment. Art is something that is the grace by which we live. It is the flowering of the culture, and if you are lucky enough to be affluent enough to have these great things in your home, do it. And if you want to invest money in a commodity, go to the stock market.
Question: Which artists suffered most from the crash?
Arne Glimcher: I think it hurt the young artists more than anything else. And I don't want to really name artists. I mean, they're very obvious. I think that's cruel, and I'm not a cruel person. But there are certainly major figures whose works were millions of dollars that are right now in freefall and actually deserve to be. The overproduction of art has been just nauseating, and you know, like the government subsidizing farmers to plow under their crops to maintain the price of wheat, I think the government should subsidize a lot of artists to clean out their studios and not make art.
Question: What is the future of the art market?
Arne Glimcher: I think the art market is still very strong. It's strong for its important things. It's not strong for speculation. You can still achieve very high prices for great works of art, and there's quite a large audience out there. This past summer, Ezra Merkin had to sell his collection as part of fallout from the Madoff situation. It's been in all the papers, so I'm not revealing anything. And it's a collection that we put together largely ourselves, of Rothko and Giacometti. And we resold the collection for $310 million. So there was somebody there to write a check for $310 million for a group of works or art. So there are people who are taking advantage of the opportunities to get works that were previously not available. And a lot of masterpieces have been locked up in the hands of people who would ordinarily never have to sell them. They are slowly becoming available as people need more capital. So you know, there are opportunities like that. My illustration is just that there is a very healthy art market out there. What appeared to be a healthy art market during the boom was really a sick art market.
Question: How is the role of auction houses going to change in the next few years?
Arne Glimcher: Auction houses have been as much responsible for the crash as any other entity. I think they're incredibly irresponsible, overestimating to get things, then calling clients and saying, we haven't had so much interest in the work of yours we're going to auction. You should come down on the reserve price. They are very sneaky. That's a good word, sneaky. We should bring back sneaky. And they're having a lot of trouble getting work. I was talking to someone at Sotheby's, and they got a very nice but small estate from Akron, Ohio, and one of the guys at Sotheby's said to me, if we hadn't gotten that group of works, we would have had 22 works for the auction. So now people have trepidations about the auctions. The problem is, if you put a work into the auction that has a high value on it, and it hasn't sold and it doesn't sell, you have burned the work. A lot of collectors don't want that work then. There is a public confirmation that this work was not wanted. Why should I buy that? And that's a danger. So people are being very cautious now, and I think the auction houses' problems have been to our benefit. We've gotten a lot of things that ordinarily would have gone to auction because people want them sold quietly and privately and discreetly.
Question: There’s more art being created now than ever. Is this a good thing?
Arne Glimcher: No, I think it is just the opposite. I think it marks a kind of fallow period where art has become an elective rather than an imperative. I like to think that art chooses the artist, but in recent years the artist has chosen art as a vocation. You go to art school or -- and you can make a fortune out there. All you have to do is something that's interesting, and your shows are going to sell out, and people are going to be waiting in line. But you know, it's like a Magritte painting. There's a Magritte painting of men with bowler hats and umbrellas falling from the sky like rain. I think that's what's happening right now: all of those guys are falling from the sky like rain. And it’s bad. It's very negative. I think I got off the track, didn't I?
Topic: The up side
Arne Glimcher: For me the most exciting art is coming from China, and that's why I'm there. And I'm not saying that because we're there; that's why I'm there. It's fresh. I saw a 28-year-old artist's video piece that was just spectacular last week. Never seen her work before, and she did a series of videos that made an environment of three couples sitting on benches together, three very beautiful Chinese couples wearing white clothing, very sheer white clothing. And as they begin -- the men were absolutely stationary -- and as they began to twitch and move, the women started to become restless, and at one point the women stood up and ripped the clothing apart between the two of them. They were wearing the same clothes. But it was very poetic, it was very beautiful, it was very much about China. And I think that the most boring and the most important art being made today probably is video. There are so many marks that you can make on a canvas, and painting hasn't changed very much since somebody pulled bristles out of the back of a pig and tied them to a stick and dipped it in paint and made marks on a wall. It's been a way of working, and it's harder and harder and harder to say something in that medium. Now, I'm not saying it's getting harder and harder to say something. I think the dialog is always there. Artists will always be there. But the mediums that artists use, the media that artists use, will change.
I think video is really important, and I think the Internet is very important. Not that we've seen, or I've seen anything yet that means anything. But it's there, you know. It's out there right now in the ether. And it's not decorative -- it's not highly decorative. The works of art that we now consider, like cubist Picassos and Matisses, decorative enough to put on walls in sitting rooms, were once not. And video art is even more difficult to use. I have some. I have some wonderful things and I know I turn them on when I come into a room in my house, and I try to read a book, and I'm distracted by it because it's moving, you know. And so I have to watch it for a while and then read my book. But what's really interesting is, I don't watch the painting for as long as I'm watching the video. The painting might be there, and I'll glance at it, but the video demands to be seen, which makes it a lot harder to hang or decorate a room with. But decorating a room is not the objective of making art, or of great art. Great art is about being a tool that extends the perception of society.
Question: With whom would you like to have dinner?
Arne Glimcher: I'd like to have dinner with Stanley Kubrick. I'd like to have dinner with Einstein. I think that would be a nice dinner, the two of them. I I'd like to have dinner with the people that changed the 20th century. And they would all be the reductionist analytical thinkers of the time. So here's my dinner, you know, and I think that's much better. My dinner is Freud -- analytical thought dominates Freud; Picasso, analytical cubism; Marx, a new analysis of government; and Einstein, the idea of reductionism to subatomic particles. That would be the dinner I'd like to have. I think the conversation would be about the inevitability of reductionism and minimalist thinking.
Recorded on October 1, 2009
A conversation with the chairman of Pace Wildenstein Galleries.